Asbestos isn’t a man-made material; it’s actually a group of naturally occurring minerals similar to garnet and other silicate stones. Asbestos has many useful physical properties such as being heat resistant, chemically innate, electrically resistant, strong, and sound absorptive. There are asbestos deposits occurring on each continent which means it’s also abundant and affordable.
Ancient World Asbestos Use. When people think back to the most primitive human tools and materials, they usually think of the stone age. Quite fittingly, as asbestos is a mineral and stones are made of minerals, asbestos has been found in stone age debris dating as far back as 750 000 years ago. Speed forward several hundred thousand years, and archeologists have discovered candles and lamps containing asbestos used as early as 4000 B.C.E. Asbestos was also used in the embalming process by Ancient Egyptians, found in clay pots (thought to make them more heat resistant) created by Ancient Finns, and spun into cloth by the Ancient Romans.
The ancient world was where the side effects of asbestos were first observed. Slaves who mined, sewed, and worked with asbestos were found to develop lung diseases. However, it would take until the modern age of the 2000s, for Canada to close their final asbestos mine for good.
Middle Age Asbestos Use. Many of the same uses found in the ancient world continued into the middle ages. Napkins and table runners were woven with asbestos, so they were resistant against fire. An important attribute when a castle is lit by candle light. The dead were wrapped in cloth made from asbestos, and it was used and mined across Asia by Russians, Mongolians, and the Chinese. As society approached the end of the renaissance and entered the modern age, asbestos fibers were also used in the clothing worn by firefighters.
Industrial Revolution Asbestos Use. The industrial revolution saw an explosion of asbestos use. No longer a novel material used in a few items, the industrial revolution fueled new inventions, and creators loved asbestos. Asbestos mining became mechanized, and by the early 1900s, more than 30 000 tons was produced annually. Everyone including women and children were involved in asbestos mining and product creation. During the height of its use some 4000 everyday household items like hair driers and toothpaste contained asbestos.
The Fall of Asbestos. With the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, asbestos use began to decline world wide. While privileged individuals had noticed the link between asbestos and lung diseases as early as the ancient world, it took until the 20th century for the general public to realize that working with asbestos had major repercussions. Trade unions were demanding safer working conditions, and by 2005 asbestos was banned throughout the European Union, Australia, Switzerland, and the UK. To the south, our American neighbours had also effectively banned asbestos through legal deterrents and consequences. In 2011, after a long political battle to protect its asbestos industry, Canada finally closed its last mine.
Few materials have such a long or complicated history of human use. Despite our knowledge now, asbestos still lingers in many older Canadian homes and products. It’s important to be aware of how asbestos can still sneak into the air of your home or workplace. If you have any questions about asbestos, contact Aztec Group today!