Contrary to popular belief, the history of asbestos goes back thousands of years. When it was discovered as a substance that was almost indestructible, it began to be used for insulation purposes and for wicks in oil lamps. Because asbestos material does not burn, individuals as ancient as those living in the Roman Empire era would use asbestos material as cleaning rags. The dirty rags would then be thrown into a fire and burned – but the rag itself would not catch fire. The dirt would burn off, however, and the rag would be taken out of the fire completely clean.
Asbestos was used for hundreds of years, but became the most popular in the mid-1900s when it was determined that asbestos materials could be used as an insulation material for all sorts of machines, buildings, pipes, roofs, floors, and in thousands of other places. Asbestos was recognized as a one of the most effective and useful insulation substances commercially available, even though it was also known to be dangerous to human health.
As early as the 1st century, it was noted that people – usually slaves – who were working in asbestos mines were in poor health and sickly. The miners were known to develop breathing problems and other respiratory ailments. As ancient and primitive as their medical development was, they were told to wear masks to avoid breathing in the dust generated from the mining process. Essentially, it was presumed that the dust from the asbestos mines was causing grave illnesses and deaths – but the mining and use of asbestos continued.
Since the advantages of asbestos seemed to outweigh the cost of miners’ health problems, the asbestos industry kept chugging along. Finally, in the early 1900s when the practice of medicine became more advanced than in previous centuries, medical professionals begin to determine that the cause of many respiratory illnesses was a specific type of tumor. However, it was not until the 1940s that a link was made between the inhalation of asbestos and the specific type of “mystery” tumor that had been discovered. The term “Mesothelioma” started to show up at this time. Unfortunately, leaders of the asbestos industry urged doctors and medical professionals to NOT publicly discuss connections between mesothelioma and asbestos.
Finally, in the 1960s, articles began appearing in medical journals that discussed the absolute connection between mesothelioma and asbestos inhalation. The asbestos industry was not happy, nor were the governments of many nations, but they were obligated to warn the public of the possible dangers, and enact several regulations on the asbestos mining industry, as well as the installation and use of asbestos materials.