The 4,500 Year Journey Between Asbestos Discovery and Its Banishment: Part One

The dangers of asbestos have been visible for nearly 2000 years, so why did it take so long for it to be recognised as a toxic material. PAC Asbestos Surveys digs into the history of Asbestos from its discovery over 4,500 years ago to its eventual banishment in 1999. This is the first of a four-part blog series that we will be publishing over the next few weeks.

2400 BC – Asbestos is Discovered

Evidence has been found near Lake Juojärvi in Finland that suggests people over 4500 years ago would make pots and utensils from the material. There is also evidence from 300 BC from Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle, about the usage of the material. The name Asbestos has roots in the ancient Greek word ‘ἄσβεστος’ which means “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable”.

First Century AD – Asbestos’ Toxicity is Discovered

There was an ancient Roman scholar called Pliny the Younger who wrote about the slaves that would mine and work with asbestos becoming very ill. Of course, it took nearly 2000 years to discover what made the material so deadly to those who worked around it.

1858 – Asbestos Comes to US Industry

In 1858, The Johns Company began mining fibrous anthophyllite to be used in the production of asbestos installation from the Ward’s Hill quarry in Staten Island, New York. The forthcoming industrial revolution would see asbestos production skyrocket in North America and the first commercial mine opened in 1874 in Quebec.

1918 – Asbestos Risk is Recognised

In 1918, 50 years after the mining of Asbestos in the US began, The US Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report that revealed the discovery of the high risk of early death among those who had worked with asbestos.

1930 – Asbestosis is Discovered

Famous researcher, DR ERA Merewether, published a clinical examination of hundreds of workers in the asbestos industry in 1930. It was found that 25% of all workers examined suffered from Asbestosis.

He discovered that:

  • Asbestos is a delayed disease and those that had worked around it would not show symptoms for many years after their exposure.
  • The dust that comes off asbestos should be controlled via ventilation and all workers should use respirators for protection.
  • All workers that are exposed to asbestos should be made aware and warned of the risk in order to assure “sane appreciation”.
  • Any finished products that created dust should have it controlled and minimised to prevent further exposure.

His description reflects the exact same description as we use today. If the asbestos industry had listened and fully implemented all of his recommendations, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved.