What is the History of Asbestos in America?
The history of asbestos dates back to ancient Greece. The word “asbestos” is derived from a Greek term meaning “inextinguishable” and it has been used for centuries. Ancient Egyptians relied on the naturally occurring mineral to make cloths for wrapping the deceased before they were buried or entombed. Buildings dating back to the Holy Roman Empire included asbestos materials, and the so-called “magic mineral” also was commonly used in various textiles and clothing.
Even though asbestos was widely and commonly used, early civilizations began to link asbestos to rising pulmonary issues documented among workers in mines where asbestos was extracted or by those who handled asbestos while working with textiles. Historians have discovered notes from Ancient Rome that discuss early death and lung sickness among Roman slaves.
It was during the Industrial Revolution that newly opened factories expanded the use of asbestos and increased the demand for the “magical mineral”. Asbestos mines started to appear in the late 1800s because of the overwhelming demand. Additional uses sparked interest among the railroad, shipyard, and construction industries. As America expanded, so did the use of asbestos. This greater demand also garnered the attention of entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity to get rich off of asbestos.
In the 20th century, asbestos was widely used by the United States military, the automobile industry, and the building industry. The building industry considered asbestos to be a safe product because of its fire-resistant properties. Asbestos was used in wall insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, exterior siding, and roofing tar and shingles. Asbestos also could be found in stucco, drywall tape, gaskets, cement pipes, rain gutters, plaster, putty, caulk, and a host of other building products.
In 1924, a British woman named Nellie Kershaw became the first person whose death was recorded as being related to asbestos exposure after she developed asbestosis. In the 1930s, it was becoming increasingly evident that there was indeed a connection between deadly respiratory lung diseases and asbestos. Yet the use of asbestos remained unaffected by the chilling evidence.
The mineral’s use began to decline during the 1970s based on the rising number of asbestos lawsuits. However, many everyday products still have asbestos as an added ingredient. Though a U.S. ban in 1991 restricted the use of asbestos in some products, it was still permitted on a regulated basis. In 1994, the world-renowned and well-respected World Health Organization determined that mesothelioma is in fact an asbestos disease.