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A brief history of asbestos

On Behalf of | Feb 12, 2021 | Mesothelioma/Asbestos-Related Illness

Doctors, lawyers, judges and others are all now well-aware that asbestos causes cancer. They know the materials that contain it can break down and cause asbestosis or mesothelioma. But that wasn’t always the case. The history of asbestos stretches back much farther than our awareness of its dangers.

As a pair of reviews show, humans have used asbestos for thousands of years, but we have only become more keenly aware of its dangers within the past couple centuries.

The earliest uses of asbestos

These days, most talk of asbestos focuses on its dangers. It is a carcinogen known to cause asbestosis and mesothelioma. This wouldn’t be so large a problem, except that manufacturers used it for decades in building materials and products of all sorts.

However, asbestos is nothing new. The Greeks named it “amiantus” in the first century A.D. The name means “untaintable” and served as praise for the mineral’s toughness and fire resistance. But its use predates the Greeks by centuries. One review revealed early uses across many cultures:

  • People in Finland used it in pottery as early as 2500 B.C.
  • First-century Greeks weaved asbestos into fire-resistant napkins
  • People in Norway hardened their pottery with crushed asbestos between 350 and 475 A.D.
  • The Chinese mined asbestos when Marco Polo visited between 1271 and 1295

We don’t hear much about the cancers caused by asbestos in those ages, but there are many reasons for that. People didn’t have the medical vocabulary or insight. They also didn’t live as long, in general. Mesothelioma often takes decades to develop. The American Cancer Society reports the average age for a mesothelioma diagnosis is 72, which is later than most people lived in those times.

Recognition of the dangers

It wasn’t until 1767 that people started to discover the dangers of asbestos. That was the year Joseph Lieutaud first described something we might now recognize as a pleural tumor. However, Lieutaud didn’t recognize the tumor as mesothelioma. Indeed, the term “mesothelioma” only first entered use in 1920.

This coincided with an industrial use of asbestos. With more people exposed to asbestos and a better starting point for diagnosis, the medical community started to make more rapid progress:

  • Studies published in 1942 argued against the idea the tumors began in the endothelium
  • By 1957, the medical community had set forth clear pathological guidelines
  • Throughout the early 1960s, scientists began to solidify the links between asbestos and mesothelioma
  • By 1972, researchers found that the diameter and length of fibers affected their ability to cause cancer

By the late 1970s and 1980s, these discoveries led to the reduced use of asbestos. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes, the United States started banning certain uses as early as 1973. However, the asbestos industry pushed back, and its allies overturned a large 1989 ban by 1991. The 1991 standards held mostly in place for the better part of two decades. In April 2019, the EPA introduced a Final Rule that controlled repurposed asbestos as well as new asbestos.

We are still learning about asbestos and mesothelioma

The link between asbestos and mesothelioma is solid. There’s no longer any doubt of that. However, there’s still much we don’t know about the disease. Scientists don’t yet know exactly how it starts, nor do they know how dangerous certain non-asbestos mineral fragments may be when they look and act like asbestos.

For those diagnosed with mesothelioma, these unknowns are both a frustration and a source of hope. Doctors cannot act on information they don’t know. Yet the fact that researchers are continually making new discoveries means the future holds a chance of better outcomes.

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