Heat Resistance Made Asbestos Popular Insulation Material
The word asbestos is derived from the Greek meaning inextinguishable or indestructible. Strong, flexible, and heat resistant, asbestos has been known since ancient times when the Romans used it in cremation cloths and lamp wicks. The Greeks also wove the material into cloth. In the Middle Ages, asbestos was used for insulating suits of armor.
It was not until the late 1800s, however, that asbestos was mined commercially. In Canada, the first mine was opened in 1879 at Thetford, in the Quebec province. It produced 300 tons of asbestos. Shortly thereafter, asbestos mining began in Russia.
Steam Locomotives Contained Asbestos
Meanwhile, in the United States, the age of the steam locomotive had arrived. Asbestos promised a solution to problems of heat buildup and temperature fluctuations in these trains. Once the United States started producing asbestos, it became a major component of insulation for boilers, fireboxes and pipes in steam locomotives. Boxcars and cabooses, refrigeration units, and steam water lines were all insulated with asbestos. When the railroad industry switched to diesels, many of these new trains still made use of asbestos insulation. Train brakes and clutches were also lined with the material.
The World War II Years Saw Heavy Asbestos Use
Asbestos use increased greatly during World War II, when it became common in ships. Longshoremen pipefitters, insulators and other shipyard workers were heavily exposed to the material. Almost 4.3 million Americans worked in shipyards during the war. Fourteen of every 1,000 of these shipyard employees died of asbestos-related cancer and an unknown number died of asbestosis, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch (May 12, 2001). Women who worked in the shipyards were among those at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases, as were those who were employed in the textile industry making asbestos cords, rope, and fireproof cloth.
Asbestos Played a Role in Many Industries
Over the years, other industries have been affected by asbestos. Not surprisingly, generations of asbestos miners developed debilitating and even fatal asbestos-related diseases. But asbestos has also been a factor in other types of mining. For example, it was a contaminant when workers mined for talc and vermiculite (a substance used in soil conditioners and insulation). See Mining for more details about asbestos-related diseases in miners and in the population living near the mines.
Asbestos has also been used in the automotive and construction industries. Many automobiles still contain asbestos in clutch and brake linings, and automotive mechanics are often exposed to asbestos. Asbestos-containing construction materials, including insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, siding, and cement pipes, may be found in many homes and buildings.
Over 3,000 Products May Have Included Asbestos
Scientists and historians have estimated that over 3,000 products may have contained asbestos. In addition to industrial, maritime, building, and automotive products, the list includes consumer items such as household appliances and handheld hair dryers. The peak years for asbestos use in the United States were the 1960s and early 1970s, when many of these asbestos-containing products were popular (Robert Virta, Some Facts About Asbestos, U.S. Geological Survey).
Unfortunately, because of the long time period between exposure to asbestos and the development of asbestos-related diseases (usually 10 to 40 years or more), the legacy of our heavy asbestos use lives on. And although knowledge about asbestos medical dangers has continually increased, we have not always taken the appropriate precautions to protect workers and the public.