Millions of Americans across the U.S. have suffered exposure to the asbestos fibers that cause the fatal conditions mesothelioma, lung cancer, other cancers, and asbestosis. In addition, workers who came home from the shipyards, construction sites, and factories with the dust on their clothes, skin, and hair also exposed their spouses and children — many who have now been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease, themselves.
What is the history behind how this deadly material entered the American industrial scene and when was it first linked to cancers such as mesothelioma or lung cancer, or to asbestosis?
Earliest recorded use
First, it is important to remember that the raw material used to manufacture asbestos is naturally recurring, worldwide. Asbestos entered human history early because of its unique quality to withstand the extreme heat of direct fire. Trace fibers have been discovered dating back more than three-quarters of a million years. In human social history, strands were used as lamp wicks and used in the embalming process in ancient Egyptian times. In northern Europe, fibers were added to clay in Iron Age Finland to strengthen pottery.
So, asbestos is nothing new and neither are the medical problems associated with it. One Greek writer observed that slaves who handled the silky fibers on their looms regularly suffered serious respiratory conditions. By the late Roman period, slaves in the quarries were already wearing a rudimentary form of respiratory mask made from the membranes off goat or sheep bladders to prevent inhaling the dust while working the quarries.
Why did people continue to use it?
Even with a growing body of medical and scientific knowledge about the connection between asbestos and serious respiratory conditions, societies continued using the material because of its qualities. Throughout the middle ages it was regularly used as a means to prevent the spread of fires in palaces; a very common and dangerous occurrence within castle walls. By the Age of Enlightenment, when steam power prevailed in factories, the material was used in many products that came into direct contact with any heated material. Steam boilers and entire boiler rooms of steam ships were lined with large sheets of the material.
By the early 19th century, world economies were booming due in large part to feed the expanding British Empire. Large mining operations sprung up in Africa to mine blue asbestos (crocidolite) and the newly discovered white asbestos (chrysotile) near the end of the 1800s. By the turn of the century, asbestos mining and production facilities were in operation in several countries in Britain and on the continent, exporting much of their product to an expanding American economy. (In the U.S., full-scale mining and production was slower to take off, not peaking until 1970s.)
Documented medical evidence was late on the scene
In 1897 a doctor in Europe demonstrated a strong link between asbestos dust and a pulmonary condition in a patient. More medical professionals sat up and took notice and began documenting their diagnosis and suspected causes. The first death directly attributable by autopsy to asbestos dust occurred in 1906. By 1910, life insurance companies began acknowledging the connection between asbestos dust and fatal respiratory conditions and started reducing coverage benefits for workers in the industry.
In the 1920s the medical industry officially recognized asbestosis as a fatal condition directly attributable to inhaling and absorbing asbestos fiber dust, followed by lung cancer in the 1940s, and mesothelioma in 1960. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to ban the use of asbestos in the United States in 1989, a powerful asbestos industry had the ban overturned through the courts.
The product is still legal for use in manufacturing in the United States.
And the rest, as they say, is history.