Asbestos: Past,Present and Future

In the beginning there was Asbestos, it occurs naturally on every continent in the world. Archeologists uncovered asbestos fibers in debris dating back to the Stone Age, some 750,000 years ago. As early as 4000 B.C.,asbestos’ long hair-like fibers were used for wicks in lamps and candles.

Around 2,500 B.C., embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from deterioration. In Finland, clay pots dating back to 2500 B.C. contained asbestos fibers, which are believed to strengthen the pots and make them resistant to fire. Around 456 B.C., Herodotus, the classical Greek historian, referred to the use of asbestos shrouds wrapped around the dead before their bodies were tossed onto the funeral pyre to prevent their ashes from being mixed with those of the fire itself.

Other contribute the word Asbestos to the Latin idiom, amiantus, meaning unsoiled, or unpolluted, because the ancient Romans were said to have woven asbestos fibers into a cloth-like material that was then sewn into tablecloths and napkins. These cloths were purportedly cleaned by throwing them into a blistering fire, from which they came out miraculously unharmed and essentially whiter than when they went in.

While Greeks and Romans exploited the unique properties of asbestos, they also documented its harmful effects on those who mined the silken material from ancient stone quarries. Greek geographer Strabo noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of the “disease of slaves,” and actually described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb used by the slave miners as an early respirator in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful asbestos fibers in the pits.

Middling Through Asbestos

Around 1095, the French, German and Italian knights who fought in the First Crusade used a catapult, called a trebuchet, to fling flaming bags of pitch and tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls during their sieges. In 1280, Marco Polo wrote about clothing made by the Mongolians from a “fabric which would not burn.” Chrysotile asbestos was mined during the reign of Peter the Great, Russia’s tsar from 1682 to 1725.

A purse made of fireproof asbestos, now part of London’s Natural History Museum collection, was brought to England by Benjamin Franklin during his first visit there as a young man in 1725. Paper made from asbestos was discovered in Italy in the early 1700s. By the 1800s, the Italian government was utilizing asbestos fibers in its bank notes. The Parisian Fire Brigade in the mid-1850s wore jackets and helmets made from asbestos.

Commercialisation of Asbestos

Asbestos became a massive industry during the Industrial Age, around the globe, especially in the West. Asbestos morphed into the go to material for production of the new era of change. The middling class became a solid and demanding class, with more upward mobility than any era since. Asbestos was marketed in all forms: from carpets, coats as the basic material for finely crafted objet de’art.

Akin to the lead in paint or even the toxic copper arsenite interwoven into luxury wallpaper asbestos was simply another material that the Victorians exploited to craft their version of the world. However, like much of the past, there were consequences.

Next time we will explore the consequences of Asbestos being integrated into our consciousness and brought into our homes. How the Victorians missed a trick, and even with the knowledge of the dangers of Asbestos why it was used prolifically during the first and second world wars…


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