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Poisonous and powerful: asbestos use in ancient Greece and Rome

Over “47,073 Americans have died from mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer or asbestosis” since 1979, and that figure continues to grow. (Environmental Working Group) Weitz & Luxenberg understands that asbestos exposure is an international tragedy, not uniquely American. And it has been an international problem for a long time.

Before the United States were formed, the societies that inspired American democracy used asbestos in their homes and in their work. The Ancient Romans, and the society that inspired them: the Ancient Greeks, both used asbestos and were aware of its uses and its dangers.

Ancient Greeks revered asbestos, despite the fact that it poisoned slaves

“Asbestos” is a word coined by the Ancient Greeks, meaning “indestructible,” “inextinguishable” or “unquenchable.” The unquenchable substance they named asbestos is actually a group of several minerals: actinolite, tremolite, chrysotile, anthophyllite, crocidolite, amosite and vermiculite.  These minerals contain iron, calcium and magnesium, among other elements, and all are naturally occurring.

The ancient Greeks used asbestos in their clothing and other fabric. 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 prominent members of Greek society.

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)

There is documentation that Greeks, at the time, knew about the dangers of asbestos. Greek geographer Strabo recorded the “sickness of the lungs” some slaves suffered (UNRV). Strabo also identified one of the first asbestos quarries in the ancient world, located on the island of Evvoia.

Like the Greeks, Romans loved asbestos, and knew that it sickened slaves

The ancient Romans called asbestos “amiantus”, which translates to “unpolluted” or “unspoiled.”

The Romans put asbestos to many uses after they “mined or quarried it from all over Europe and the Mediterranean” (UNRV History).  Like the ancient Greeks, the Romans had some idea of the dangers of asbestos, but because of its desirable physical properties—flexibility, insulation, resistance to fire—the Romans did nothing to limit its circulation and use.

An example of Roman awareness of asbestos danger is the advice of philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder discouraged purchasing of slaves who worked in the asbestos mines because of the likelihood of their premature death at early age. Pliny recommended placing transparent bladder skin over the nose and mouth to prevent the inhaling the asbestos fibers.

He wrote that not only was asbestos “quite indestructible by fire,” (The Roanoke Times), but that it afforded “protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi.”  Many homes and other types of architecture contained asbestos because some Romans “believed that asbestos based building materials offered protection from evil.” (Hub Pages)

After the age of the Roman Republic and well into the era of Christianity, the seemingly magical properties of the toxic substance continued to impress. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne “reportedly used his asbestos table cloth to convince some barbarian visitors that he had supernatural powers” by thrusting it into a fire “and pulling it out unsinged.” (UNRV History)

“Magical” properties, deadly consequences: what we know now

We have government regulations to thank for the outlawing of most uses for asbestos in America. But what really keeps the producers of asbestos-containing materials from risking people's lives as recklessly as the Greeks and Romans risked the lives of their slaves is the knowledge that companies are now being held accountable for their actions—by law firms like Weitz & Luxenberg.

According to Leonard Vance, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and expert witness at asbestos trials, "The tort system has been what has virtually driven asbestos off the market, not government regulators." (The Roanoke Times)

Weitz & Luxenberg will continue to help victims of asbestos exposure stand their ground and defend their rights to work and live in safe environments, free from cancer-causing asbestos. If you have been exposed to asbestos, are now suffering from an asbestos-related disease, and would like to know more about your legal options, contact Weitz & Luxenberg by phone or fill out a form today for a free legal consultation.


Environment Working Group:

UNRV History:

Hub Pages:

The Roanoke Times:

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