Once considered an ancient marvel, asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with a recorded history that yields both fascination and concern. From ancient times, through the Middle Ages, and well into the 20th century — the “magic mineral” has proven to be a dangerous industrial resource. While the history of asbestos is spotty, particularly after the Middle Ages, its modern day story reads like epic drama with a bitter, climatic ending.
Asbestos Use Gets a Modern Makeover
Little was documented about asbestos immediately following the millennia in which Emperor Charlemagne and Marco Polo both had well-publicized encounters with asbestos. It wasn’t until much later — the 19th century, in fact — when the fibrous mineral was essentially “rediscovered” and used for a variety of modern applications.
In the early 1800’s, Italian physics professor Chevalier Jean Aldini took a sudden interest in fire protection. Using woven asbestos cloth and felt, Adlini built a suit to protect against heat and flames. The suit was exhibited across several European cities, including the Royal Institution in London in 1829. Though it drew a lot of attention, the fire-resistant suit was never commercialized.
Asbestos use became even more modernized in the latter half of the 1800’s, as evident in an article entitled “Asbestos and its Applications” in The Engineer. The article cites John Bell’s first initiative in 1879 to use asbestos in steam engine packing materials — an application that was later adopted by the British and German navies. The article also states asbestos was used with several other industrial products, like:
- Soapstone for trains
- Fireproof cement and putty
- Elements for gas fires
Alfred Fisher was particularly interested in showcasing asbestos’ practical properties. In an article appearing in Transactions of the Institute of Marine Engineers, Fisher wrote:
“I should like to see the valuable space of our technical papers, when devoted to the subject of asbestos, occupied with information brought down to a later date and of a more practical nature…”
Fisher also named many sources where asbestos was abundant, including North America. Fisher considered Canada to be one of best areas for asbestos mining. The credit for this discovery, however, goes to a French-Canadian farmer named Joseph Fecteau. As the story goes, Fecteau happened upon a rock with white filaments during a blueberry picking excursion with friends in 1876.“Come and see — I have found a gold mine,” Fecteau reportedly shouted as he scraped pieces of asbestos with his pocket knife. Twelve years later, asbestos mining operations began at that very spot — which became officially known as Or Blanc, or “white gold.”
Dangers of Asbestos Exposure are Revealed in the 20th Century
Just before the turn of the 20th century, the world got its first taste of asbestos’ adverse effects. As factory inspectors in the United Kingdom and France grew suspicious of the mineral’s harmful risks, a British doctor documented a case involving a factory worker with “unusual fibrosis” of the lungs. The patient described to the doctor how he was the only survivor of 10 men who were responsible for preparing fibers for spinning inside the factory. All other workers, the patient said, had died at ages close to 30.
Widespread maladies from asbestos exposure were just beginning to take shape in 1908 when the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) was enacted in the United States. The federal law protects and compensates railroad workers who are injured on the job. FELA’s protection was unprecedented at the time. Prior to its creation, there was no protection, assistance, or compensation offered to injured railroad workers. Today, FELA covers more than just bodily injuries sustained from working for the railroad. It also covers injuries and illness due to asbestos exposure, as well as other stress or trauma.
1927 was one of the more ominous turning points in the history of asbestos. In Great Britain, Dr. W.E. Cooke coined the term “asbestosis” — a lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. Cooke noted “curious bodies” that were inflicted with the disease; their lungs showing fibrosis, yet no signs of tuberculosis. Cooke’s findings and other subsequent cases inspired the launch of the U.K.’s first comprehensive study of the health effects of asbestos.
Despite the new light shed on the health risks associated with asbestos exposure, the mineral was still very much in use during the years leading up to and during World War II. During that time, asbestos was considered the primary protection against fire. In other words, the more asbestos was used — the better fighting fleets were protected. The United States Maritime Commission underwrote the contracts for the building of Liberty ships — which were insulated with asbestos. According to the Ulster Medical Journal, an estimated billion pounds of asbestos were used per year during World War II in the United States.
Asbestos as We Know it Today
Today, asbestos is still used in many household and industrial products here in the U.S. — although its use is strictly regulated by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Along with asbestosis, mesothelioma is another illness caused directly by asbestos exposure. Both are fatal. There are currently no treatments available, nor is there a cure. Overall, it is estimated that asbestos-related diseases have killed as many as a half-million people in the U.S. — and thousands more worldwide.