You’ve likely heard of asbestos in a negative context— it’s a toxin that you don’t want to get near in your home, another building, or a product. Breathing in this substance over time can indeed cause dangerous illnesses and a range of respiratory conditions, including mesothelioma.
What exactly is asbestos, though, and how was it used in the past? How did we come to know of its dangers? Let’s explore.
Ancient Uses of Asbestos
Asbestos has been used since prehistoric times as it is a naturally occurring mineral.
Some historians believe that the root of the word asbestos comes from a Latin idiom, amiantus. In Latin, this meant unpolluted or unsoiled. Ancient sources say that certain cloths, such as tablecloths and napkins, were woven with asbestos and could be cleaned by throwing them into a fire, where they would come out not only unharmed but bright white. Others say that the word hails from Greek roots—their word asbestos meant unquenchable or inextinguishable.
Archeologists discovered asbestos fibers from 750,000 years ago in debris from ancient peoples. Some historians even believe that the long fibers of this mineral were used as far back as 4000 B.C. as candle wicks or in lamps! About a century later, Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos to prevent deterioration. Farther north in the Netherlands, clay pots were made with asbestos to strengthen them and make them fire-resistant. Much later, around 450 B.C., Greeks wrapped bodies in this substance to prevent their ashes from mixing with the funeral fires.
As with many things in our world, history teaches us about the benefits and the risks associated with the natural products we use. Many cultures from all over the globe used asbestos for its strength and fire-retardant properties. However, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote that enslaved people who worked closely with asbestos—weaving tablecloths and napkins—developed lung conditions. Pliny the Elder documented a “disease of slaves” who mined asbestos in Rome. There is even evidence that these people used a light, thin membrane of animal bladders as a respirator to protect them from breathing in the harmful fibers.
These uses continued into medieval times, with paper and money becoming woven with asbestos to prevent them from being ruined in accidental fires. However, the mining of this substance didn’t flourish until the late 1800s, when the use of asbestos became essential to the industry's growth across the globe.
Today’s Use and Regulations
In today’s world, asbestos is found in fireproofed materials, brake pads, automotive clutches, clothing, cement, electrical wiring, and insulation in the walls of buildings and residences.
Once doctors worldwide continued to document the harmful effects seen in those who mined it, though, insurance companies began raising premiums and reducing coverage for those who worked closely with the substance.
Although the use of this product is regulated, it isn’t banned in the United States. Exposure must be limited, though, and if it is present in any products, that must be made clear to consumers. Its use has declined drastically, and the Environmental Protection Agency stated in 2019 that no new uses of asbestos would be permitted without review. However, past uses are still allowed with documentation.