New Discovery: Asbestos Used in Byzantine Art

Asbestos fiberWhen we think of asbestos today, we often think of shipyards, construction sites, the automotive industry, and many other places the material was used merely decades ago. However, asbestos has a much longer history. Recent findings reported by LiveScience are now linking asbestos use to Byzantine artwork.

A new discovery from UCLA researchers reveals that Byzantine monks used asbestos in the 12th century as a coating for plaster beneath wall paintings. They found chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, in Cyprus at Enkleistra of St. Neophytos, a Byzantine monastery. By using the white asbestos in the plaster coating, the artist achieved a desirable, smooth surface for painting on the wall.

Researchers were not looking for asbestos, but made this discovery while studying the painting. They now plan to conduct further research into other artwork at the monastery and revisit other sites in Cyprus to see if the asbestos use was consistent. They hope to understand why the asbestos was used in this fashion during the time period.

Asbestos use is actually quite ancient and can be dated back 4,500 years to a time when it was mixed with clay to reinforce pottery. It has also been found in textiles dated 2,000 years ago that were used to make fireproof napkins. Asbestos made a comeback as a popular material in late 19th century industrial products, and it was used in construction for decades.

Due to the historical use of asbestos and its natural occurrence in soil, a countless number of people have been exposed to these fibers. Asbestos is a known carcinogenic material, and exposure is linked to the development of diseases, including mesothelioma, one of the most aggressive and deadly cancers. The latency period between asbestos exposure and development of mesothelioma ranges between 20-50 years, meaning that patients today were exposed decades ago, and patients of tomorrow have likely already been exposed.

Approximately 3,500 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year, and there is currently no cure. The Meso Foundation is the only non-government funder of peer-reviewed scientific research focused on prevention, early detection, development of effective treatments, and, ultimately, a cure for mesothelioma. You can learn more about this cancer and the asbestos-mesothelioma link at curemeso.org.

Japan’s Asbestos Disaster

LKAby Laurie Kazan-Allen

Despite the knowledge that asbestos caused disabling and deadly diseases, the Japanese Government continued to allow the use of asbestos into the 21st century. The protracted process of banning asbestos in Japan was only brought to a successful conclusion on March 1, 2012 when the final exemption allowing asbestos use was terminated. Prior to this, it has been estimated that almost 10 million tonnes of asbestos were used nationwide for a wide range of purposes including construction, industrial processing, transport and consumer products.

The devastating aftermath of Japan’s asbestos legacy is visible in doctors’ waiting rooms, hospital wards, the offices of asbestos victim support groups and government epidemiological data. From 1995 to 2011, nearly 15,000 people died from mesothelioma and asbestosis with the number of annual fatalities more than doubling from 500 (1995) to 1,258 (2011). As in other countries, the asbestos epidemic has claimed the lives not only of people who worked with asbestos but also people exposed to asbestos-contaminated work clothes brought into homes; exposures to asbestos waste and asbestos products contained within the country’s infrastructure have also proved fatal as have exposures which occurred as a result of natural disasters such as the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. A year before the asbestos pollution created by Hurricane Sandy endangered U.S. citizens, hazardous levels of asbestos were recorded in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

It is encouraging that the future use of asbestos has been comprehensively prohibited in Japan; the same cannot be said for the United States where no ban asbestos legislation exists. Even though American asbestos consumption is low, there can be no excuse for the use of a carcinogenic substance. Maybe 2013 will be the year that political leaders in Washington take action. Isn’t it about time they did?

About Laurie Kazan-Allen

Ms. Laurie Kazan-Allen has been researching, writing and campaigning on asbestos issues for more than twenty years. The British Asbestos Newsletter, the quarterly publication she founded in 1990, is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative contemporary sources of information by the UK community of asbestos activists. In collaboration with international colleagues, in 1999 she established The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS). As the IBAS Coordinator she has organized and/or participated in asbestos events on six continents, amongst the most recent of which was an asbestos hearing at the European Parliament.

As an adviser to the UK All Party Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group, Ms. Kazan-Allen helps organize the annual Parliamentary asbestos seminar. Kazan-Allen has written prolifically about asbestos issues in 85+ issues of the British Asbestos Newsletter and in IBAS publications such as Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial, Report on the Asian Asbestos Conference 2009, India’s Asbestos Time Bomb and Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia. These and other texts can be accessed on the websites: www.britishasbestosnewsletter.org and www.ibasecretariat.org