Asbestos, its History, and its Dangerous Presence in Daily Life

Asbestos fiber

Asbestos fiberAsbestos is the name given to a naturally occurring group of minerals. Strong, flexible, thin, and easily separated, these microscopic asbestos fibers are poor conductors of heat and do not conduct electricity. These natural properties make the mineral a versatile material, used in a number of building, manufacturing, and commercial applications. Unfortunately, asbestos is also a dangerous and deadly material that has been linked to mesothelioma.

The history of asbestos dates back over 3,000 years to when it was used in pottery, utensils, and home building. The early Romans and Greeks had many uses for this fiber, such as in table coverings, fire retardant clothing, and building materials. Throughout history, asbestos was used across cultures for various reasons. In India, asbestos was used to wrap the deceased. During the medieval period, asbestos lined suits of armor. Romans used asbestos for towels and head dressings, and ancient uses were in wicks for lamp lighting.

It was at the dawn of the industrial age that machinery, steam, and fire became catalysts for the more widespread use of asbestos. By the 1860’s, asbestos began appearing as insulation in the United States and Canada. Thousands of different uses for asbestos appeared by the middle of the 20th century. These included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, drywall joint compound and on and on.

Unfortunately, the very elements that contribute to asbestos being such a good building material are also why it is so deadly. Once disturbed or separated, the thin, flexible asbestos fibers break easily, turning into microscopic dust particles. These fibers can hang in the air, and will stick to just about anything, including clothing and work tools. If these fibers are inhaled, the result can be a serious health problem, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.

Due to the widespread use of asbestos in the past and its regulated use that continues today, asbestos is still present in daily life. The EPA estimates that asbestos is still present in tens of millions of homes, government buildings, schools, and has also been found naturally-occurring in the soil in several locations in the United States, sometimes in very close proximity to inhabited areas. According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an estimated 1.3 million construction employees continue to be occupationally exposed to asbestos. When disturbed, asbestos particles become airborne and are easily inhaled. No amount of exposure is deemed safe.

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