An Introduction to Asbestos

You have probably heard about asbestos – that it causes malignant mesothelioma, that it can be found in old buildings, that removing it can be extremely expensive. But what actually is asbestos, and if it is so dangerous, why did it used to be so common?

What is Asbestos?

“Asbestos” is actually a category of six naturally occurring minerals: chrysotile, tremolite, anthophyllite, amosite, crocidolite, and actinolite. These six kinds of rocks are all made up of a similar chemical composition, which makes them crystallize into thin, fibrous crystals. Chemically these crystal strands are only loosely bound to each other, and can be easily separated into flexible strings.

The reason that its use was so prevalent in the 19th century was because it was a fantastic thermal and audio insulator, and because of the flexibility of the crystal “strands” it was easy to work into a wide variety of products. In modern times, asbestos-based products were used in everything from fireproofing spray and vermiculite insulation to linoleum and floor tiles to decorative texturing finishes for interior walls and ceilings.

The History of Asbestos Use

The earliest discovered examples of Asbestos use dates back to around 2400 B.C.E. around Lake Juojarvi, Finland where local groups used it for making cooking pots and other kitchen implements. The word “asbestos” itself is credited to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who wrote of the material’s fire resistant properties at some length in his Natural History. Somewhat later asbestos cloth became a sort of ancient party trick for the wealthy, with everyone from Persian nobility to the emperor Charlemagne being amused with it—various household objects such as napkins and tablecloths, and in some cases even garments, being produced, then simply thrown into the fire to clean them when they got dirty. Anything that had spilled on them would be incinerated, while the items themselves were left unscathed by the flames. Asbestos was also used in various places as wicks for oil lamps, since the wick itself would not burn and thus did not have to be periodically replaced.

Large-scale industrial mining of asbestos minerals began in the 1850s, with the Russian Empire being the largest commercial producer, and its widespread use in industry accelerated internationally with the Industrial Revolution. By the 1930s asbestos in various forms had become ubiquitous throughout the world, being used in both residential and commercial construction, manufacturing, friction products in the automotive industry such as brake pads and clutch disks, and particularly in shipping. Many Americans serving in the United States Navy were exposed to asbestos during World War II because of its use in ships as a thermal insulator and for soundproofing, and it was not uncommon for Navy veterans to develop malignant mesothelioma decades later because of it.

The Discovery of Health Dangers

Asbestos exposure was suspected of causing medical problems as far back as in the Roman world, but scientific studies were not conducted in any serious manner until the beginning of the 1900s, and the first diagnosis of asbestosis was not made until 1924. The diagnosis of mesothelioma first appeared in the medical literature in 1931, and ten years later the United States government began regulating conditions in mining and manufacturing facilities. It was not until several court cases in the late 1970s proved that the asbestos industry had known about the health hazards their products posed since the 1930s and actively concealed them from the public that any real public attention was brought to the matter. It was not until 2002 that domestic production of asbestos products was finally banned, and the United States is now one of the few first world countries that does not have a complete ban on asbestos in consumer products. Trace amounts of asbestos is still legal in American consumer products. In fact, on more than one occasion studies have found asbestos in children’s toys, most recently (2000 and mid-2005) in several brands of crayons. In the 2000 survey, the worst culprit was Crayola brand’s Orchid color, which had a content of 2.86% asbestos.

Seek Legal Help

Asbestos causes medical complications, from non-malignant pleural diseases to more serious asbestosis to malignant mesothelioma where patients have an average lifespan of 12 months past diagnosis. If you or a loved one has developed a medical condition from asbestos exposure, contact Colombo Law to discuss your potential legal remedies.

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by Colombo Law
Last updated on - Originally published on