A brief history of asbestos, the deadly mineral
As part of our ongoing commitment to providing you with reliable information on asbestos related issues, Weitz & Luxenberg updates these pages frequently. If you have any questions or concerns about asbestos, or any of the diseases it causes such as mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis, please do not hesitate to contact Weitz & Luxenberg.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a dangerous human carcinogen that wreaks havoc on the internal organs and can cause slow, agonizing death. Since 1979, over “47,073 Americans have died from mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis,” (Environmental Working Group) and that figure is steadily increasing.
Long before the United States even existed, many ancient civilizations utilized asbestos in their homes and in their work environments. Here is a brief history of asbestos, starting with the ancient Greeks, and concluding with asbestos use in modern day America.
The Ancient Greeks and Asbestos
The ancient Greeks were responsible for pioneering the name “asbestos” which translates to “indestructible,” “inextinguishable” or “unquenchable.” Asbestos refers to a group of several minerals: actinolite, tremolite, chrysotile, anthophyllite, crocidolite, amosite and vermiculite. All of these consist of iron, calcium and magnesium among other elements, and they are all naturally produced. Asbestos fibers tend to have the appearance and texture of silk.
The ancient Greeks are credited for not only giving Asbestos its name, but for also being the very first known civilization to recognize the devastating effects of asbestos fibers on the human body. Obviously, the Greeks did not have access to the advanced medical technology that would have enabled them to understand how asbestos specifically harms the human body, but the breadth of their knowledge in a number of areas (including medicine) matched or exceeded that of many of their contemporaries.
The ancient Greeks utilized asbestos in a number of areas from architecture to clothing production. Asbestos fibers “were woven into fabrics to make towels, napkins, nets and head coverings, as well as cremation robes” (UNRV) for deceased leaders and other individuals of high rank. Asbestos was also used in various religious practices. Its fibers were used to make “wicks for the eternal flames used in worship services for the vestal virgins as they honored the deities.” (Hub Pages)
Some ancient Greeks believed that asbestos had magical properties, owing to its resistance to fire. The perceived “magic” of asbestos, coupled with its durability, flexibility and versatility, appears to have outweighed any concerns regarding its potential health hazards. Many slaves, who were frequently exposed to asbestos through their labor, became sick. One Greek who recognized the health dangers of asbestos was Strabo, a geographer, who recorded the “sickness of the lungs” some slaves suffered. Additionally, Strabo is credited for having identified one of the first asbestos quarries in the ancient world, located on the Greek island of Evvoia.
The Ancient Romans and Asbestos
The ancient Romans had their own term for asbestos: “amiantus”, Latin for “unpolluted” or “unspoiled.”
The Romans had a myriad of uses for asbestos and they “mined or quarried it from all over Europe and the Mediterranean” (UNRV History). Much like the ancient Greeks, the Romans had some idea of the dangers of asbestos, but because of its desirable physical properties, the Romans did little to nothing to restrict its circulation and use.
One Roman philosopher, Gaius Plinius Secundus (also known as Pliny the Elder) lauded asbestos, but cautioned people to be wary of it. He “discouraged the purchasing of slaves who worked in the asbestos mines” because of the high likelihood of their premature death” (Mesothelioma Help Network) due to asbestos exposure. In order to minimize the inhalation of asbestos fibers, Secundus recommended placing transparent bladder skin over the nose and mouth to act as a primitive respirator system.
Like the Greeks, the Romans were awed by the “magical” qualities of asbestos. Indeed, Secundus wrote that not only was it “quite indestructible by fire,” (Roanoke), but that it afforded “protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi” (Roanoke). Many homes and other structures contained asbestos, because some Romans “believed that asbestos based building materials offered protection from evil.” (Hub Pages)
It is rumored that the Romans cleaned their asbestos based clothing, table cloths and napkins by tossing them into fires. The flames burned out any stains, but the cloth itself was left undamaged. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne “reportedly used his asbestos table cloth to convince some barbarian guests that he had supernatural powers” (UNRV History) by thrusting it into a fire “and pulling it out unsinged.” (UNRV History) In an age governed by superstition, the guests had little trouble believing him.
The Ancient Egyptians and Asbestos
The ancient Egyptians utilized asbestos in the mummification of their dead, especially pharaohs. Of course, the asbestos would have no effect on the already deceased person, but those who were tasked with embalming and mummifying of the corpse, risked becoming ill by handling strips of linen woven with asbestos fibers.
The history of the use of asbestos in Egypt is particularly fascinating, because the effects of the carcinogen are still felt today. There are “high incidences of modern age women and young adults” (Lung Cancer Journal) contracting asbestos related diseases (mostly malignant mesothelioma) due to asbestos in the environment. In Cairo, Egypt’s capital city, “asbestos is a silent killer” (Lung Cancer Journal) and the “median survival is 14.3 months and the 1 and 2 year survival rates is 60% and 27%, respectively.” (Lung Cancer Journal)
Asbestos in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, asbestos tablecloths, napkins and clothing once used by bygone civilizations “became prized artifacts that were collected by royalty” (Mesothelioma Health Network) and other influential figures.
The people of this period predominately used asbestos to insulate armor, but it appears to have been instrumental in helping merchants deceive gullible customers. Some merchants traveled around with asbestos crosses which appeared to be very old and brittle. The merchants claimed that the crosses consisted of the wood of the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. To demonstrate, they set the crosses on fire, dazzling audiences, who were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the crosses were holy.
The History of Asbestos in the United States
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution started in the United Kingdom in the 1700s and arrived in the United States in the early 1800s. It was characterized by an increase in the use of complex machinery and a decrease in manual labor. The period ushered in a wealth of new occupations including “petroleum refining and steel manufacturing,” (Eastern Illinois University) and a number of new products were developed such as the telegraph, telephone, phonograph and the sewing machine, among others.
Although the proliferation of new businesses and products bolstered American commerce, there was a great deal of risk involved for the men, women and children who took part in their development. Most of them came from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and took up perilous factory jobs just to keep their heads above water. They were expected to handle dangerous machinery for long periods of time and received scant pay for their grueling labor. Moreover, the factory employees, some as young as five years old, were frequently exposed to high levels of toxic fumes, which “would almost certainly result in chronic conditions or disease.” (Eastern Illinois University)
The Industrial Revolution birthed the railroad industry, which enjoyed astronomical growth because it permitted those living in rural, isolated parts of the country to have access to the major metropolises. Railroad workers were susceptible to mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis because of the nature of their tasks, which entailed the handling of asbestos products such as brake pads and gaskets, which had to be cut, hammered and otherwise transformed before they could be installed. Workers involved in the automobile industry faced similar risks. They too handled asbestos equipment.
The risk of asbestos exposure was present in the home, too. Government legislation regulating asbestos use would not come till the 1970s, which meant that American homeowners in the 1800s were at risk of exposure by simply being in their living quarters. “The main areas of the house where asbestos could be found were basements, attics and roofs. As a heat insulator, asbestos was placed in, around or between steel beams, water and sewer pipes and boilers.” (City Web) It was also included in cement, paint, plaster and other mixtures.
It isn’t possible to know the the exact amount of people who died from asbestos exposure, because the diagnostics and other medical technology available today simply didn’t exist in the 1880s. What is certain is that we owe the development of many of our modern luxuries to the men, women and child who labored during the Industrial Revolution, in many cases, at their own peril.
Asbestos in the United States Navy
The United States Navy was first introduced to asbestos around the 1930s. The deadly material was used to insulate virtually every chamber in the navy vessels: the engine room, boiler room, navigation room, mess hall and even the sleeping quarters. Asbestos was also employed in the production of over 300 products necessary in the construction and preservation of navy vessels, such as valves, adhesives, cables and gaskets. In spite of the warnings distributed by the Navy’s Surgeon General in 1939, the Navy stubbornly continued to use asbestos for decades, indifferent to the grave danger it posed to hundreds, if not thousands of sailors.
Former employees of the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard faced serious health problems, years after they’d been exposed to asbestos in the 1950s. Not long after Weitz & Luxenberg was established, the firm helped these grievously sick people get compensation for their suffering. It was one of our landmark cases.
America at War: World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War
Many of the Veterans of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War were exposed to asbestos while aboard military aircraft and navy ships and developed mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis years after their service concluded.
World War I
World War I was regarded as the first modern war that involved America, because it utilized technology that had never been used before. Unfortunately, many of the apparatuses that were constructed contained asbestos, such as various sea vessels and aircrafts, as well as hundreds of other war devices and products. The hazards of asbestos were known, but most companies and manufacturers were more concerned about efficient production in wartime than public health.
One of the nation’s oldest shipyards, the Boston Naval Shipyard, played an essential role during World War I. It “employed a variety of workers including shipbuilders, plumbers, machinists, electricians, sail makers, blacksmiths and carpenters” (Ezine Articles) who all worked together to fortify American war efforts. “During the war, it took between ten and twelve months to build a single ship,” (Women’s Health), which meant ten to twelve months or more of daily exposure to asbestos and a host of other carcinogens.
With World War I came the advent of the submarine, which could “enter and operate effectively in waters that were inaccessible to surface ships.” (Sea Your History) The submarine revolutionized the way war was fought, but its lack of ventilation was perilous for the soldiers on board, because there was no escape from the carcinogenic materials inside. The same risk applied to the soldiers on the battlefield, who wore gas masks equipped with asbestos filters. These masks were intended to protect the wearer from dangerous chemicals, but of course, they did just the opposite.
World War II
During World War II, the United States controlled shipyards on both the East and the West Coast. One of the largest was the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, located on the Roosevelt Naval Base in California. This base was instrumental in America’s war effort, because of its state of the art facilities and its proximity to the ocean.
Across the duration of the war, workers at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard were expected to perform a number of potentially life threatening tasks. They were in charge of repairing damaged Navy vessels and constructing new ones. They were also skilled at electrical work, sandblasting, welding, pipe fitting and insulating. Most if not all of these activities involved asbestos in some capacity, which meant that the workers were in contact with the deadly fibers on a regular basis.
The Long Beach Naval Shipyard became inactive in 1950, shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Like most Americans, the shipyard employees celebrated the Allied victory, but as the decades passed, these men and women couldn’t perform the most basic tasks without tremendous effort. This was not merely a symptom of advanced age, but the result of their exposure to asbestos as young people during the war.
There was some hope for the workers afflicted by asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis, but medical professionals could offer few options for those with mesothelioma, a deadly, incurable cancer linked exclusively to asbestos exposure. Approximately 100,000 workers from the Long Beach Navy Shipyard perished from an asbestos related disease.
The Vietnam War
Throughout this infamous war, Vietnam soldiers contended with an enemy they didn’t even know they had: asbestos. They were “exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos in several ways,” (Vietnam Veterans Against The War) but most were in contact with asbestos while operating military aircraft and naval ships.
It was not until the 1970s that the United States government first introduced legislation that strictly regulated or banned asbestos use. Of course, by then, the asbestos fibers had already lodged themselves inside the lung tissue of countless people who had served in Vietnam.
Now in their mid-fifties and older, many Vietnam veterans are battling asbestos related diseases, especially mesothelioma. It is estimated that “the vast majority will lose their battle with the disease, and less than 1% will survive.” (Vietnam Veterans Against the War)
American asbestos use in subsequent decades
In 1971, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to regulate asbestos exposure. Throughout the 1970s, as the dangers of asbestos were better understood, OSHA continuously lowered the limit of asbestos exposure in work environments. They took other factors such as time of exposure and the amount of asbestos fibers present into account.
At OSHA’s inception in 1970, the organization “established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) in workplace air of 12 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.”
In December 1971, OSHA “established a PEL of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter as an 8 hour time weighted average (TWA) and a peak exposure level of 10 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.”
In June 1972, “OSHA promulgated a final standard that established an 8 hour TWA PEL of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter, and a ceiling limit of 10 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.”
In October 1975, as evidence of the ill effects of asbestos (irrespective of amount of exposure) proliferated, OSHA once again made modifications; reducing the “8 hour TWA to 0.5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter, with a ceiling limit of 5 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter for 15 minutes.” (Center for Asbestos Safety) This was applicable to all industries, except construction, even though construction workers stood the greatest risk of asbestos exposure.
In 1975, OSHA “reduced the 8 hour TWA limit to 2 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)
Note: OSHA continued to make modifications well into the 1980s, but the asbestos problem persisted. Other government organizations such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weighed in on the asbestos controversy.
In November 1983 “OSHA published an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETA) that further lowered the asbestos limit.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)
In April 1984, OSHA “published a notice of proposed rulemaking for a standard covering occupational exposure to asbestos in all workplaces” (Center for Asbestos Safety) under its authority.
In 1986, OSHA released two standards, “one governing occupational exposure to asbestos in general industry workplaces, while the other applied exclusively to construction workplaces.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)
In 1989 The EPA initiated “a series of policy dialogue meetings, in an attempt to reach agreement on issues concerning asbestos in public and commercial buildings. The rather diverse group of participants included various banks, real estate developers and asbestos companies. These parties didn’t reach a mutual consensus on everything discussed, but they did acknowledge “that the presence of asbestos should be known to building service workers.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)
Also in July 1989, EPA focused its attention on asbestos products, issuing a final rule banning most products containing asbestos. This rule would be overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
In January 1990, OSHA, having discovered the disastrous effects of asbestos exposure combined with tobacco smoke, “prohibited cigarette smoking in areas where occupational exposure to asbestos took place.” They also initiated training programs, intended to “specifically instruct employees about how to handle asbestos.” (Center for Asbestos Safety)
In November 1992, under pressure from the labor community to issue a building inspection rule, OSHA “announced that it would take action to protect building workers from inadvertent exposure to asbestos.” (Center for Asbestos Safety) This was done in response to a lawsuit brought against the EPA by the Service Employees International Union.
In spite of the thousands of people who have succumbed to an asbestos related disease, and the countless lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of those people, asbestos remains a formidable concern. “In fact, in 2001, over 29 million pounds were imported for use in products throughout the U.S.” (Environmental Working Group)
Weitz & Luxenberg is your source for asbestos related information and litigation. If you or someone you care about has been afflicted by mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Eastern Illinois University: http://www.eiu.edu/eiutps/childhood.php
Environment Working Group: http://www.ewg.org/sites/asbestos/documents/
Center for Asbestos Safety: http://www.mesothelioma-mesothelioma.org/standards.htm
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): http://www.epa.gov/earth1r6/6pd/asbestos/index.htm
City Web: http://www.ci.bloomington.mn.us/main_top/6_pubsafety/asbestos/asbestos.htm#location
Vietnam Veterans Against the War: http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=958
Lung Cancer Journal: http://www.lungcancerjournal.info/article/S0169-5002(05)00082-6/abstract
UNRV History: http://www.unrv.com/economy/asbestos.php
Hub Pages: http://hubpages.com/hub/The-History-of-Asbestos-and-Mesothelioma-Today
Sea Your History: http://www.seayourhistory.org.uk/component/option,com_rnm_themehomepage/Itemid,47/
Ezine Articles: http://ezinearticles.com/?cat=Cancer:Lung-Mesothelioma-Asbestos