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The History of Asbestos

Posted on by Asbestos Waste Solutions Limited

Asbestos holds a contentious place in history. On one side of the story, the mineral form of asbestos has been used to invent some of the most innovative man-made items throughout the ages, mainly due to its fire-retardant properties. On the other hand, it has led to innumerable health problems, premature deaths, and has been equally hazardous as it has been helpful. In modern times, asbestos is synonymous with ill health and toxic materials that can cause, among other ailments, asbestosis and mesothelioma. This week, let’s take a look at the big picture when it comes to asbestos.

the history of asbestos

The beginning of asbestos

Ancient civilisations knew that asbestos could be used to create wonderful new objects that would not have been possible before its discovery. Asbestos is an abundant mineral found on every continent of the globe, and fibres of the material have been found by archaeologists in artefacts dating back to the Stone Age. This means that the story of asbestos begins over 750,000 years ago, when it is believed to have been used for the wicks of candles.

Sometime between 2000-3000 BC, Egyptian pharaohs were embalmed, then wrapped in asbestos cloth, to delay the decay of the body. Similarly, the classical Greek historian Herodotus recorded the use of asbestos to wrap the dead before cremation. During a funeral ceremony, the body was placed on a bier which was set alight. The body was consumed by the fire and its ashes would remain inside the unburnt asbestos cloth, which acted as a barrier between the deceased’s remains and the ashes of the fire.

The Romans wove asbestos into a similar cloth to the Greeks, but not for cremation purposes. Roman asbestos cloths were used for sanitary reasons and were woven into tablecloths and napkins. After a feast, these items were cleansed by being thrown into a great fire, and the cloths would emerge from the fire whiter than ever.

The Greeks and Romans were the first to notice the adverse health effects caused by asbestos. The Greek geographer Strabo visited ancient stone quarries and noted a ‘sickness of the lungs’ in slaves who mined or wove the mineral fibres. Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, called the illness ‘the disease of slaves’. He also describes a primitive (but quite ingenious) method of air filtering, used by the slaves. The slaves in the mine would take the bladder of a butchered lamb or goat and extract the thin membrane that coated the organ. Breathing through this membrane would filter out the microscopic airborne fibres, and went some way to protecting them from the hazardous conditions of ancient asbestos mines.

The Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution

During the First Crusade of 1095, French, German and Italian knights used trebuchets (a kind of catapult) to barrage cities with tar flame, wrapped in asbestos cloth.

In 1280, Marco Polo set out to visit Chinese asbestos mines to disprove the myth that asbestos was shorn from the skin of wooly lizards. He also wrote of his experiences with the Mongolian warriors, who wore an armour that ‘would not burn’.

Shortly after the Middle Ages, Russia was the largest producer of asbestos products during the reign of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682-1725. As a young man, Benjamin Franklin bought a fireproof purse in Russia and brought it to England, where it now resides (tightly sealed) in London’s Natural History Museum.

The Italian government used asbestos fibres in its bank notes throughout the 1800s, and the Parisian Fire Brigade were uniformed in asbestos jackets and helmets from mid 1850.

Mechanisation and the Industrial Revolution

Before the late 1800s, processing rocks to extract asbestos fibres was completed manually. Horses and pit ponies transported the heavy wagons and trucks, then workers extracted fibres by hand; this all changed when the commercial opportunities of asbestos were realised.

Once the demand for products grew, the old methods quickly became industrialised. In particular, steam engines greatly improved the mining process that had not changed much for centuries.

By the 1900s, the global asbestos industry was producing more than 30,000 tonnes per year. This was due to the boom in inventions of asbestos products that were on offer. Fireproof roofing liners were popular throughout the late 1800s, and in 1896 the first asbestos brake linings were offered for sale. These linings were intended for the ultra modern ‘horseless carriages’ of the day, which were a precursor to the modern car.

In 1899, a German patent was issued for asbestos cement sheets, an important invention that would see asbestos production increase even further throughout the twentieth century.

Asbestos and health

The first modern documentation of asbestos-related illness was by an Austrian doctor in 1897, who attributed pulmonary ailments in his patient to the inhalation of asbestos dust.

It was not until 1906 that pulmonary failure caused by asbestos inhalation was officially noted as a cause of death by Dr Montague Murray of London Charing Cross Hospital. Murray carried out the first autopsy of an asbestos miner, who had been 33 years old at the time of death, and found asbestos fibres coating the lining of his lungs.

After Murray’s well-documented case, workers across the developed world were subsequently documented with the cause of death as ‘fibrosis’, later specified to ‘asbestosis’, or a severe inflammation of the lungs caused by asbestos fibres. Due to economic and industry pressures, it took another century for asbestos to be banned in many nations across the world, and for workable alternative materials to become popular.

Asbestos in contemporary history

After World War Two, the demand for asbestos increased as nations across the globe attempted to rebuild their cities and rehome their displaced citizens. The expansion of the American economy meant asbestos use grew exponentially, and with the continuation of developments in military hardware and infrastructure due to the Cold War, America became the world’s largest consumer of asbestos. In 1973, this peaked at 804,000 tons.

These were the most common uses for asbestos:

  • Asbestos cement
  • Asbestos insulation for wiring
  • Spray-on, fire-retardant coating for steel girders
  • Asbestos roofing and flooring tiles
  • Thermal insulation
  • Heat and acid-resistant packing materials
  • Fillers and reinforcement for plasters, caulking compounds and paints
  • Automotive and aeroplane clutches
  • Car, truck and aeroplane brake pads, linings, seals and gaskets

As the century continued, labour and trade unions demanded an improvement in working conditions, and there was a major focus on the health of workers in asbestos processing plants, as well as those who regularly handled asbestos products.

In 2003, environmental regulations and widespread public fear convinced many governments to ban, or partially ban, the use of asbestos. The seventeen countries of Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, were the first to enact bans on the material.

In 2005, the European Union banned asbestos production in all of its member states. In the developing world, asbestos continues to rise in popularity, despite the well-known health risks.

America is the only developed country not to ban asbestos

Pressures from the asbestos industry have prevented asbestos from being banned outright in America. There was a 1989 ruling issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, but this was overturned by the Fifth Court of Appeals in New Orleans in 1991.

The last asbestos mine in America closed in 2002, which would suggest a downturn in asbestos use. However, America has always been the biggest importer of refined asbestos, and not a major exporter.

Congress are reading several bills that suggest issuing a national mesothelioma registry, to help those adversely affected by asbestos production. There is also renewed interest in banning the substance outright.


Asbestos Waste Solutions carry out safe and reliable asbestos testing and disposal throughout the UK. Our highly trained and dedicated staff serve commercial and domestic customers, and offer alternative disposal options using a specialist transfer station. Whatever the job, our guarantee to you is to remove, contain, transport and dispose of the asbestos in your property to the highest standards possible.  To arrange for asbestos testing or disposal in your home or business, dont hesitate to get in touch with our team today.

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