Summary: For thousands of years, a group of minerals known as asbestos have been called a “miracle mineral,” prized for their amazing properties and resistance to the elements. But that durability makes asbestos a carcinogen and cause of various illnesses.
Mined and Maligned
Asbestos is, without any doubt, the world’s most maligned mineral—and for good reason. While humans have mined, harvested, and worked with asbestos materials since times immemorial, we only have recently begun to realize its many dangers. An ever-growing body of research suggests that people who have endured long-term, occupational exposure to asbestos are at increased risk for a litany of illnesses and disease.
Scientists now believe that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Despite wide-ranging asbestos bans in the United States, Australia, and the European Union, asbestos is still believed to cause anywhere between 90,000 and 260,000 deaths globally, each and every year.
However, our societal aversion to asbestos is a byproduct of surprisingly recent research. Before the mid-20th century, asbestos was a “miracle mineral,” used to create everything from fire-resistant clothing to cement sheets and roof shingles.
The Six Shapes of Asbestos
Asbestos is not a scientific name. It is an industrial name for a series of minerals that have similar useful properties and resistance to heat and other elements.
U.S. Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act
The U.S. Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, signed into law in October of 1986, established basic asbestos response and containment strategies for educational institutions across the United States.
All types of asbestos are dangerous
When drafting the Act, lawmakers identified six particularly dangerous forms of asbestos:
- Chrysotile asbestos, once used in “thousands” of commercial products. Sometimes called “white asbestos,” chrysotile accounts for the vast majority of contemporary asbestos production.
- Amosite asbestos, or “brown asbestos,” was widely used in the fabrication of different construction materials. While the continued used of amosite has ground to a halt, it can still be found in old cement sheets, pipe insulation, and ceiling tiles.
- Crocidolite asbestos, or “blue asbestos,” is perhaps the most hazardous member of the asbestos family. Since crocidolite asbestos is comprised of extremely fine—and extremely sharp—fibers, it is very easy to inhale. Crocidolite was mixed into cement, tiles, and insulation materials.
- Anthophyllite asbestos, which resembles needles under the microscope and can range in color from brown to yellow. Anthophyllite asbestos is rare and was not widely used in industry. However, it can sometimes be found in some cement and insulation materials.
- Tremolite asbestos, known for its heat-resistant properties, has such delicate fibers that they can be woven into clothing.
- Actinolite asbestos, which is comprised of several different minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and silicon. Actinolite is usually dark, and can be found in older paint, cement, sealants, and drywall.
“Magical” Properties of Asbestos
Asbestos has been compared to plagues and called a global disaster. But unlike some of humanity’s greatest scourges, asbestos is not man-made. In fact, “asbestos” is a sort of hypernym—an “umbrella term” that refers to an entire category of minerals.
While definitions of asbestos have varied across time, the term typically refers to minerals that can be easily separated into long, flexible fibers. Asbestos minerals have other common properties, too. Even after it is broken down into fibers, asbestos is strong, resilient, and heat-resistant.
Asbestos in the Ancient World
We know today that asbestos is an incredibly dangerous substance, capable of inflicting respiratory distress and severe illness, up to and including cancer.
However, asbestos has a history as old as humanity’s. For centuries, asbestos’ many uses were cherished by artisans and industry. Ancient people used asbestos for the same reasons as 20th century manufacturers: it was resilient, could fortify weaker materials, and did not easily burn or catch fire.
Mankind’s First Encounters with Asbestos
We do not know exactly when or why people first started to harvest asbestos. However, some of the first verifiable uses of asbestos date back thousands of years. In eastern Finland, archaeologists uncovered asbestos-laced ceramics from lakeside sites in Karelia, including combs, pottery, and earthenware.
Some of these artifacts have been dated to 3600 B.C., around the same time that the Egyptians began mummifying their dead. Interestingly, asbestos was also used by the Egyptians, who would weave precious asbestos fibers into the same linen used to wrap mummies.
Asbestos in Ancient Greece
Asbestos was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who actively sought out the “miracle mineral.” The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, observed that asbestos had seemingly spectacular properties: it could be woven into burial shrouds to stave off degradation, or added to candle wicks, thereby letting flames burn longer and brighter.
The ancient Greeks established the first documented asbestos quarry on Evvoia, a large island some 50 miles northeast of Athens, where they would collect asbestos fibers and spin them like wool, weaving them into fire-resistant garments. In other Greek kingdoms and city-states, asbestos was used to create fantastical napkins, which, “when soiled, are thrown into the fire and cleaned, as in the washing of linen.”
Around the same time, ordinary people began to recognize the benefits of asbestos for themselves: town-houses were built from “stone and asbestos.” In rural Greece, asbestos was broken down and mixed with paints and other minerals to create hardy white-washes and stuccos.
Asbestos and the Sacred Fire of Vesta
Ancient people had other uses for asbestos, too—uses that elevated asbestos to near-mythical dimensions.
The philosopher Theophrastus provided a first-hand written account of asbestos, describing it as “a stone, in its external appearance somewhat resembling wood, on which, if oil is poured, it burns; but when the oil is burnt away, the burning of the stone ceases, as if it in itself is not liable to such accidents.”
The Romans seem to have used asbestos for similar purposes, even giving it an exalted place in their most holy of holy sites: the Temple of Vesta.
The Temple of Vesta served many purposes throughout Roman history; when Julius Caesar wrote a Will to appoint Octavius his heir and successor, he sent the original copy to the temple’s Vestal Virgins. While the Vestal Virgins were the care-takers of wills and other valuable documents, their most important task was tending to the “sacred fire” within the temple, which symbolized the eternal prosperity and safety of Rome.
At some point, the Vestal Virgins seem to have adopted asbestos in service of the sacred flame. Plutarch—a Greek philosopher who eventually became a Roman citizen—noted that the Virgins had “perpetual” lamps, which they used to serve the eternal flame.
The Medieval Myth of the Man-Eating Asbestos Salamander
The ancient Greeks and Romans clearly knew that asbestos had special properties—and, unlike their successors, understood where it came from.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, many historical European peoples seem to have forgotten the “miracle mineral.” When asbestos surfaced in books and records, it was often described as an exotic invention. Medieval bestiaries went so far as to attribute the rumored existence of flame-retardant linens to man-eating salamanders, the skin of which, they said, could be repurposed into fireproof clothing.
Eventually, the famed merchant and explorer Marco Polo offered a more rational—if overlooked—explanation. After being told about the “salamander skin” garments of the Mongolian Khanate, Marco Polo recounted a story told by a Turkish acquaintance.
In his journal, Polo wrote, “[The] real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but it is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it.”
“Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow,” Marco Polo wrote. “And this Turk related to [Polo] how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Khan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him. He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain ‘til they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry.”
“These were then spun, and made into napkins,” he said. “When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again, whenever they are dirty, they are bleached by being put in the fire.”
While Marco Polo appears to have uncovered the truth behind the long-standing “salamander” myth, the misconception persisted for centuries, with later authors describing salamanders as wool- or fur-covered beasts.
Asbestos and the Industrial Revolution
The story of asbestos is, in a great many ways, as old as the story of mankind.
However, even though people and civilizations across different times and spaces actively sought out this so-called “miracle mineral,” asbestos production remained limited and localized up until the early 18th century.
Russia and the Town of Asbest
After the Medieval Era, Russia became one of the world’s leading producers of asbestos. Peter the Great, coronated “sovereign emperor of the Russias” in 1682, was among the first modern leaders to invest heavily in the asbestos industry. Under Peter, Russia began fabricating asbestos papers from chrysolite fibers harvested in the Ural Mountains.
For years, Russia steadily strengthened its asbestos industry, going so far as to establish an entire town named after the mineral: Asbest, a settlement nestled in the hills east of Yekaterinburg, the latter city made infamous by the Bolshevik slaughter of the royal Romanov family after the Russian Revolution. While Asbest was not formally incorporated until the 1800s, its residents still tell tales of Peter the Great’s love for its namesake mineral. In one Asbest tale, a traveler who passed through the region procured a heat-resistant linen for Peter the Great. He “then set on fire his present […] a tablecloth,” shaking off the flames to the czar’s delight.
Russia and Asbest are still top producers of industrial asbestos worldwide
Today, both Russia and Asbest continue to process asbestos on an industrial scale.
While Peter the Great may have encouraged—or perhaps compelled—his countrymen to mine asbestos, the mineral assumed global importance in the waning days of the Industrial Revolution. Between the mid-1800s and the early 20th century, asbestos became integral to global economic growth and innovation. Researchers believe that the sudden “asbestos boom” can be attributed to the characteristics of the era: the Industrial Revolution allowed for products to be manufactured on a scale never seen before. At the same time, people were moving away from the countryside and into cities, creating an intense need for durable housing.
Asbestos—once used for pottery, paper, and tablecloths—was now being used to fabricate engine covers, strengthen bricks, and insulate buildings.
Despite asbestos’s widespread and varied uses, it did not take long for physicians to suspect that asbestos was making workers sick. The asbestos industry itself had concerns, going so far as to ask Dr. Anthony J. Lanza—a former federal health official—to investigate reports of asbestos-related disease in the early 1930s.
After engineering a first-of-its kind study, Dr. Lanza confirmed what we all know today: that asbestos is responsible for a wide variety of medical problems, up to and including cancer.
However, the asbestos industry never acted on Dr. Lanza’s research. Instead of warning the public of asbestos’s dangers, they commissioned more reports—and then locked away the results, preserving their profits by failing to protect public health.
Coming Next in Asbestos: The Miracle Mineral – Part II: Asbestos At Work
From the steam engine to the space race, the fireproofing, durability and resistance properties of asbestos are put to work, forming the backbone of the industrial revolution.
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