Asbestos: A Historical Overview

The term “asbestos” is derived from a Greek term, which signifies “unquenchable” or “indestructible.” The term is often used to refer to a group of mineral fibers that share properties of heat and chemical resistance, flexibility and high tensile strength. Because of its usefulness, asbestos has been referred to as the “magic mineral.” Asbestos has been incorporated into over 3,000 different household or commercial products.


Despite the fact that asbestos was so widely used in products during the Industrial Revolution (and continues to be used in products today!), modern industry was not the first to use this hazardous mineral. Asbestos usage can be traced back to at least 2500 B.C., when it was used in the manufacture of Finnish pottery. One of the earliest uses of asbestos was its inclusion into the wick of a golden lamp crafted for the goddess Athena in the fourth to fifth centuries B.C. During this same period, asbestos was made into cloth and used to retain the ashes of the dead during cremation. Pliny describes using asbestos cloth as the funeral dress of kings. In an act of showmanship, Emperor Charlemagne is also said to have displayed a tablecloth made from asbestos for use during great feasts. After the feast, the cloth as well as its contents would be thrown into a fire. The cloth would then be removed unharmed to the amazement of his guests! In addition, during his travels in 1250 Marco Polo noted a cloth used in the northern provinces of the Great Khan that remained unconsumed and purified by fire.

Industrial uses of asbestos began on a relatively limited scale shortly after the discovery of substantial asbestos deposits in the Ural Mountains in western Russia around 1720. The discovery led to the founding of the first factory for making asbestos products, including textiles, socks, gloves, and handbags. After that, discoveries of different types of asbestos were found on several continents, which set the stage for the widespread application of asbestos.

After chrysotile asbestos was discovered in Quebec, Canada in 1860, mining of chrysotile deposits started in 1878, with fifty tons being produced during this mine’s first year of operation. Crocidilite asbestos was discovered in South Africa in 1815, with mining of larger amounts of South African fibers beginning in about 1910. Amosite asbestos was first discovered in central Transvaal in 1907, and the mining operations commenced in approximately 1916. The institution of such mining operations, along with the inception of the Industrial Revolution, began the widespread use of asbestos and the public health crisis that resulted. Go here to find out more information.

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