A Quick History of Asbestos

When many people hear the word “asbestos” these days, feelings of dread, fear, and illness are common. While asbestos removal is a hazardous and frequently expensive task, there was a time when asbestos was not only considered a commonplace building material but was even considered a lifesaver against fire. In this piece, we’re going to run through a quick history of asbestos and it’s inevitable fall from grace.

Asbestos In The Ancient World

Though many think of asbestos as a new-fangled wonder material of the Industrial Era, the use of the material started thousands of years ago. Some of the first people to use asbestos were early Finnish inhabitants who would use asbestos to strengthen their earthenware vessels against damage upon discovering its fire-retardant properties. Some of the first documented instances of asbestos were from about 300 BC by ancient Greeks, though some scholars of history still question if the material was actually what was described. Later, Persians became fascinated by the substance as they noticed that, when it was incorporated into clothing, it made it largely immune to fire damage. While used, the origin of the material remained somewhat of a mystery with ancient Romans and Persians mistaking it for the fur of an animal. Because of its rough texture, the material was even used to attempt to treat skin conditions. The result of such treatment remains largely unknown.  

Asbestos In The Industrial Era

It wasn’t until around the mid 19th century when asbestos eventually found its way into industrial production. Attempting to produce a form of paper from the material was largely unsuccessful. Entities throughout Europe and Canada began using asbestos to create yarn products. The material was first patented by the Asbestos Manufacturing Company in Glasgow, Scotland with the Clydebank region becoming a hub for asbestos manufacturing. Mining operations for the material became to pop up all over Russia, Europe, and South Africa in the 1880s and 1890s. It wasn’t until almost the turn of that century that the United States began to take an interest in the commercial appeal of asbestos. The material was sold as a coating for industrial and commercial products as a fire-retardant. Industry leaders remained fairly obsessed with the benefits of asbestos up into the mid-1970s and the material was still being applied to products until the early 1990s.

The Fall of Asbestos

While the health hazards of exposure to asbestos were somewhat known to manufacturers, it seemed that the industrial benefits outweighed the drawbacks. The first official diagnosis of a disease known as “asbestosis” was first diagnosed in 1924 in Manchester, England and was ruled as a textile worker’s cause of death. Mesothelioma, the cancer associated with the exposure of the substance, was first diagnosed and known to the medial world in 1931. Despite the hazards of asbestos exposure, the impact of such exposure was largely concealed to the public up until nearly the early 1990s. A combination of the prevalent use of the substance for decades and it’s toxicity has had asbestos removal a dangerous and expensive process. In recent times, demolition professionals have devised ways of safely and efficiently removing asbestos from construction wherever it had been used.