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History of Asbestos

Asbestos Use Prior to 1900

Asbestos is not an invention of modern science. Asbestos is a mineral that is as soft and flexible as cotton or flax, yet it is fireproof.

The Ancient Greeks named the mineral asbestos, meaning inextinguishable. The harmful biological effects were also observed by the Greeks. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both mentioned a sickness of the lungs in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloth. Although they noticed this sickness in those who worked with asbestos, they were in such awe of asbestos's magical properties that they ignored this.

Asbestos was used for the wicks of the eternal flames of the vestal virgins, as the funeral dress for the cremation of kings, and as napkins. Supposedly the Romans would clean asbestos napkins by throwing them into a fire. They were particularly impressed that the asbestos cloth would come out of the fire whiter than when it went in; hence, their name for asbestos, amiantus, meaning unpolluted.

Asbestos use declined in the Middle Ages, but it was rumored that Charlemagne had asbestos tablecloths. Marco Polo was shown items made from asbestos cloth on his travels.

Asbestos use did not re-emerge until the 1700's, but it did not become popular until the late 1800's and during the Industrial Revolution. Asbestos then began to be used as insulation for boilers, steam pipes, turbines, ovens, kilns, and other high-temperature equipment. Apparently, the ancient observations of the health risks of asbestos were forgotten.

Asbestos Use Since 1900

In 1900, Dr. H. Montague Murray, a physician in London's Charing Cross Hospital, performed a postmortem exam on a 33-year-old man who worked for 14 years in an asbestos textile factory. The patient was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, and he was the last survivor of a group of 10 men who were working in the carding room of the factory in 1886. Dr. Murray found traces of asbestos in the man's lungs. He concluded that the man died because of his occupation.

In a 1906 study, a Frenchman determined that there was an uncommonly high mortality rate among asbestos workers. He concluded that this was probably due to the amount of dust that accumulated in the poor working conditions, much like the working conditions of stone cutters. They made recommendations that there be steps taken to increase ventilation and decrease exposure to dust.

In 1917 and 1918, it was observed by several studies in the United States that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.

In 1924, the first diagnosis of asbestosis was made. An English doctor determined the cause of death of a 33-year-old woman to be what he called "asbestosis." She had been working with asbestos since she was 13. Based on this, a study was done on asbestos workers in England. It was found that 25% of them showed evidence of asbestos-related lung disease. In 1931 laws were passed in England to increase ventilation and to make asbestosis a compensable work-related disease. The United States would take 10 more years to take these steps.

In 1927, the first workmen's compensation disability claim for asbestosis was filed. The man was a foreman in an asbestos textile plant in Massachusetts.

It took until 1930 for the first United States autopsy to establish the existence of asbestos lung disease on this side of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, due to the emergence of silicosis, asbestos-related diseases took a back seat for the next few years. Silicosis, which is lung disease brought about by silica dust inhalation, brought about $300 million in lawsuits against the employers of the affected workers. This served as early warning to the asbestos companies, and during this time they took steps to cover up the health effects of asbestos.

In 1933, in the midst of the silicosis-lawsuit frenzy, the Johns-Manville Corporation directed their president to make a deal with an attorney who represented 11 asbestosis sufferers. They paid $30,000 to settle the claims, and made the attorney put in writing that he would not "directly or indirectly participate in the bringing of new actions against the Corporation."

In the following year, there were laws passed, including asbestosis in the workmen's compensation system, but these laws often put a very short time period after leaving work that the employee had in which to file his claim. Unfortunately, in most cases of asbestos-related disease, the adverse health effects take years to manifest themselves.



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