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Collectors beware: asbestos lurks in numerous artifacts

Asbestos is a very unusual substance. It is a nearly indestructible fiber that comes from a rock instead of a plant or animal. With qualities like these, there is no need to wonder why people have been drawn to it throughout history.

To ancient people, especially, asbestos must have seemed like magic. They could weave asbestos fibers into blankets, tablecloths, clothes and other textiles. When these fabrics became dirty, someone could throw them into the fire where they would be cleaned but not destroyed.

The seemingly magical qualities of asbestos also led to its use by con artists to create  false relics. However, ancient textiles and fake religious artifacts are not the only asbestos-containing items that could be hiding in museums or personal collections. Some sources estimate that more than 3,000 types of historical objects contain asbestos.

Examples of collectibles that could contain asbestos include:

  • Military helmets
  • Gas masks
  • Lamps
  • Tongs
  • Pianos
  • Classic automobiles
  • Fossils
  • Minerals
  • Rocks
  • Pottery

How can someone tell which items contain asbestos?

It can be challenging to tell if any specific item contains asbestos or not. Many collectibles do not come with warning labels. Usually, a professional test is the only reliable way to know if an item contains asbestos.

Artifacts that test positive for asbestos don't necessarily need to be disposed of. In many cases, it may be possible to keep an item in a collection if it is properly stored, labeled and managed to prevent asbestos particles from becoming airborne.

However, lack of identification and improper storage, labeling or management, can make the object a serious health risk. In museums, this health risk could impactstaff, visitors and those who transported the artifact. In private collections, the risk could affect the collection's owner and anyone else who comes near the object.

Those who could have inhaled or ingested asbestos particles may consider talking to a medical professional about their risks. Once in the body, asbestos particles can cause serious illnesses, like mesothelioma to develop. However, there can be ways to identify asbestos-related diseases early, which can improve someone's treatment options.

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