A Brief History of Asbestos Use and Associated Health Risks

First in a series of articles on asbestos: Its history, chemical and physical properties, uses, health hazards and the legal implications of asbestosis & mesothelioma.

By Roberta C. Barbalace

[Oct. 2004]

The story of asbestos is an all to familiar one, "A miraculous, do anything chemical substance is identified as a serious health hazard" - except for one thing. Unlike many of its doomed chemical contemporaries, asbestos is not a product of modern technology. Its use predates history, and the recognition of health hazards associated with asbestos is recorded in writings from the first century.

The word asbestos comes from the Greek word meaning "inextinguishable" or "indestructible." However, asbestos has been known by many other names including: "mountain leather," "incombustible linen," and "rock floss." The name of chrysotile, one of the most common forms of asbestos, is derived from the Greek words "chrysos" (gold) and "tilos" (fiber) or "gold fiber."

It is possible to trace written documentation of the use of asbestos back to the days of the Roman Empire. However, evidence of the use of asbestos in pottery and chinking of log homes dating back 3000 BC has been found archeological digs in Scandinavia.

The geographer in the first century identified what was believed to be the first asbestos quarry on the Greek island of Evvoia. In early Greek and Roman times, it was used for flame retardant cloth, building materials and women's clothing. Roman restaurants used tablecloths made of asbestos. These tablecloths were flame retardant and could be thrown into the fire to remove food and other debris, and placed back on the table for the next customer. Romans also used asbestos in their building materials. Historian Pliny the Elder went so far as to note that asbestos "affords protection against all spells, particularly that of the Magi."

Asbestos was used by many different cultures for hundreds of purposes purposes. The Egyptians embalmed pharos with asbestos, and the Persians imported asbestos from India for wrapping their dead. They thought it was hair from a small animal that lived by fire and died by water.

In medieval times Asbestos was used extensively as insulation in suits of armor. And unscrupulous merchants made it into crosses that they advertised as having been made from "the true cross." Some forms of asbestos look like old wood, and merchants claimed that their resistance to fire was proof that these "wooden crosses" came from cross on which Christ was hung. .

Near the end of the 19th century, the use asbestos became even more widespread as a result of the industrial revolution. Asbestos was used in the manufacture of more than 3000 products including textiles, building materials, insulation and brake linings. Its use continued to increase through the 1970s. At that time the evidence against asbestos as a health hazard (it was found to cause asbestosis and mesothelioma) could no longer be denied, and its use fell into sudden decline.

Interestingly enough, the hazards of asbestos were recorded as early as Roman times. Both Pliny the Elder and the first century geographer Strabo noted that workers exposed to asbestos had many health problems. Pliny the Elder recommended that quarry slaves from asbestos mines not be purchased because "they die young." Lung ailments were common to anyone who worked with asbestos fibers. Pliny the Elder suggested the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin to protect workers from asbestos dust.

In 1897 a Viennese physician attributed emaciation and pulmonary problems to (asbestos) dust inhalation. The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis. As early as 1908 insurance companies began decreasing policies and benefits for asbestos workers. Metropolitan Life increased the premiums for such workers. In 1928 Cook identified the effects of asbestos in the lungs as asbestosis. He pointed out that this fibrotic scarring of lungs resulting from prolonged exposure to asbestos dust could have a latency period of 15 years. Others have suggested that the latency period can be much longer. In 1929 a coroner called for public enquiry after the death of an employee. By 1935 physicians were beginning to notice that some patients who had asbestosis also were victims of lung cancer.

By 1978 documented studies were beginning to demonstrate the extent to which asbestos workers had been affected. In one study asbestosis was detected in 10% of asbestos workers who had been employed in the industry for 10-19 years, in 73% of workers who had been employees 20-29 years and in 92% of workers who had been employed for more than 40 years.

It is interesting that despite the evidence of severe health risks related to exposure to asbestos dating as far back as the first century, the production of products containing asbestos continued to grow until the mid 1970s. Documents reveal that asbestos manufacturers were aware of the health risks related to exposure to asbestos from the 1940s and 1950s, but chose to conceal this information from their employees. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to regulate asbestos. Today workers are protected from exposure to asbestos as a result of very strict regulations and enforcement. Unfortunately, legislation cannot undo the damage that was done to those who worked in asbestos related jobs prior to 1980s.

Related Articles


  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Asbestos: Chemical-specific Health Consultation. Tremolite Asbestos and Other Related Types of Asbestos. September 2001.
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Asbestos Chemical and Physical Information. September 2001
  • Chun, Sam, MD. Asbestosis. Department of Radiology, University of Western Ontario. November 2003.
  • Hahn, Jason. Asbestos: Its Dangers and Management. December 1997.
  • Law Firm of Brayton Purcell, Asbestos Dangers Were Often Concealed. Asbestos Network.
  • Meeker, G.P. et al. The Chemical Composition and Physical Properties of Amphibole From Libby Montana: A Progress Report. US Geological Survey, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225 and US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8, Denver, CO 80204.
  • Rawalt, C. J. Asbestos: Optical Mineralogy. Earth Science Department, Emporia State University, Emporia, KS. 1998.

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