Many people associate asbestos with the modern age. Asbestos may trigger thoughts of mining, factories and construction. While these connections may not be wrong, they are also not the full picture.
Asbestos is not the invention of industry. It is a naturally occurring mineral that is fibrous and has insulative and fire-resistant properties. Because of its properties, humans have used asbestos for centuries.
Asbestos has been used longer than most people realize
Researchers know that humans used asbestos as early as 2500 B.C. During this period, people, living in what is now Finland, mixed asbestos with clay to form more durable ceramics. By about 1000 B.C, asbestos was being used in textiles in China and Greece.
Although asbestos is not human-made, its natural properties made it a valuable component in many industrial products. By the late 19th century, several countries significantly increased commercial asbestos mining. The first known use of asbestos as insulation occurred in the U.S. in 1882. It was used in clutches and brake linings for the first time in 1918. Spray-on asbestos wasn’t developed until 1931.
By the time asbestos production peaked in the 1970s, it was being used in a wide variety of products, including building materials, wicks, cigarette filters, textiles, decorations and more. However, the U.S. began regulating the use of asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2000, the U.S. was using 15,000 tons of asbestos compared to the 803,000 tons used in 1973.
An awareness of asbestos-related diseases didn’t come until later
You may wonder, if humans have been using asbestos for so long, why weren’t people getting sick from it until the modern era? The truth is that it probably was making them sick. However, asbestos doesn’t usually make people sick right away. It can take decades after the initial exposure before someone develops an asbestos-related condition, which suggests that it may have been challenging for early people to connect an illness to the asbestos.
In the decades following the initial boom of commercial asbestos mining, researchers began to understand the health problems asbestos could cause. In the 1920s and 1930s, lung fibrosis began being attributed to asbestos exposure, and the first scientific reports on asbestosis were published. By the late 1940s, researchers began connecting asbestos to increased rates of lung cancer. In 1955, this connection was confirmed. By 1960, researchers were starting to connect asbestos exposure to the development of mesothelioma.
Today, researchers continue to study asbestos-related conditions to create better ways to identify and treat them. Because of the latency period, many people who were exposed to asbestos during its peak use are now developing asbestos-related conditions.
Those who may be at risk may benefit from sharing their concerns with their doctor and scheduling regular cancer screenings. Properly identifying an asbestos-related condition early can lead to more options for potential treatment.