Asbestos has been used since prehistoric times, but its use—and the knowledge of its dangers—has evolved over the past centuries.
During the Industrial Revolution, the demand for asbestos increased dramatically as its uses for processing and factory production were realized. In the early 1900s, over 30,000 pounds were produced each year. Men, women, and children all worked to make this product available, with men doing the mining and women and children preparing and weaving it into an accessible fiber.
In the early days of the Industrial Revolution in the US, asbestos was used in roofing material to prevent fire destruction, as well as in brakes for the new, wondrous horseless carriages. Across the Atlantic in Europe, it was used for cement sheeting, gaskets, and pipes.
Even though the dangerous effects of asbestos were being documented throughout this rise in use and production, the demand for it couldn’t be stopped. America wanted inexpensive, mass-producible materials to construct buildings all over its newly settled land. Although demand and mining slowed during WWI and the Great Depression, WWII saw a revival. Many military veterans developed mesothelioma due to the armed forces’ heavy use.
Modern Products that Contain Asbestos
Although most people mainly associate asbestos with insulation in attics, basements, walls, and large buildings, it is also present in various items in our modern culture. These include:
Airplane and vehicle clutches
Brake pads, linings, and seals
Plaster filler and reinforcement
Millboard/paper used in electrical panels
Spray coating for fire-retardant materials
Today, asbestos isn’t banned in many products, although the Environmental Protection Agency has said that new uses must come under review before going forward. If a product contains asbestos, it must also be clearly labeled.
This isn’t just in the United States, either. The following counties also have regulations surrounding asbestos use:
The United Kingdom
Consistent with other products with proven danger, Europe has stricter regulations than the US. Asbestos has been banned throughout the European Union since 2005. However, other newly developing economies are using asbestos more heavily as they grow, despite the dangers known by the rest of the world.
Regulations in the United States
Asbestos dangers and links to mesothelioma have been documented in this country for almost 100 years. In the 1970s, the government passed legislation limiting exposure and required documentation of its presence in consumer products. Its use has declined, though, especially with the last United States mine closing in 2002. However, it is still legal for the US to import asbestos from other countries.
There is interest in Congress to ban asbestos use across the board, but nothing has passed into law. Instead, the EPA announced in 2019 that new uses must be reviewed before going into production. However, they said they would consider new uses even while knowing the dangers to the people who mine, produce, and use it.