When 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.