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History of asbestos

Some of the earliest uses of asbestos are to be found in Finland, dating back to more than 3,000 years, which show asbestos used in insulation for log homes and also in pottery. In ancient Egypt, asbestos was used for embalming Pharoahs and also to improve the durability of their clothes. In ancient Persia, where they believed asbestos to be the hair from a mythical animal that lived in fire and died by water, they wrapped their dead in asbestos imported from India.

Asbestos gets its name from the ancient Greeks who realised the mineral's flame-resistant qualities and called it inextinguishable ('a' meaning 'not' and 'sbestos' meaning 'extinguishable'). The most common form of asbestos, chrysotile, also derives its name from Greek ('chryos' meaning 'gold' and 'tilos' meaning fibre, literally 'gold fibre'). The wicks for eternal flames were made of asbestos, as were the funeral garments for cremated royalty and, strangely enough, napkins. The first asbestos quarry was identified on the island of Evvoia.

The Ancient Romans also used asbestos for its flame-retardant and insulation properties. The Romans wove asbestos into fabrics to make towels, nets and even head coverings for women. It was also used in building materials. Roman restaurants used tablecloths and napkins made of asbestos. These materials were flame retardant and could be thrown into the fire to remove food and other debris, and placed back on the table for the next customer. The asbestos cloth would come out of the fire whiter than it went in, so the Romans named asbestos "amiantus", meaning "unpolluted".

In their constant use of the mineral, some of the ancients also realised that asbestos posed a hazard. Strabo, the geographer, noted that many slaves who wore asbestos suffered from sickness of the lung. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, noted that illness "followed" the slaves from the asbestos mines, and that they died young. He also observed that those exposed to asbestos at high concentrations, or for a long period of time, were more prone to illness of the lungs. He suggested that workers be protected from asbestos dust through the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin. Use of asbestos declined during the Middle Ages, but not completely.

The Roman Emperor Charlemagne, reportedly used an asbestos tablecloth to convince some barbarian guests that he had supernatural powers. In a well-known story, Charlemagne demonstrated his "powers" by throwing the asbestos tablecloth into a fire, and then pulling it out without any singe marks. Marco Polo was also shown items made from asbestos cloth on his travels. Asbestos was used extensively asinsulation in suits of armour.

Medieval times saw the production and sales of the asbestos cross. These asbestos crosses would look like wooden crosses (some forms of asbestos resemble old wood). Unscrupulous merchants claimed these "wooden" crosses came directly from the "true cross" – the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. To 'prove' their story, the merchants would demonstrate that the cross would not burn when exposed to fire.

Asbestos grew in popularity during the Industrial Revolution from the 1800's to the mid-to-late 20th century. In Industrial times, asbestos was used as insulation for steam pipes, turbines, boilers, kilns, ovens, and other high-temperature products. Near the end of the 19th century, its use became even more widespread. With the increase in demand, commercial mining of asbestos began. The first mine opened in 1879 at Thetford, Quebec, in Canada. At the time, the Thetford Mines produced 300 tons of asbestos annually. Shortly thereafter, asbestos mining began in Russia. In the beginning of the next century, mining operations for asbestos began in Australia and Africa, particularly South Africa.

With the invention of the steam train, asbestos became a highly valuable material in the United States. It was an effective solution to the problems of heat build up and temperature fluctuations in steam engines. Asbestos became a major component in insulating boilers, fireboxes and pipes in steam locomotives. Boxcars, cabooses, refrigeration units and steam water lines were all insulated with asbestos. Even when the steam locomotive switched to diesel power, the new trains still used asbestos for insulation. Brakes and clutches continued to be lined with asbestos. Use of asbestos continued through World War II, which saw the heavy use of asbestos in many different industries. Asbestos was incorporated in ships, insulating many components that were subjected to high temperatures. It was also used in the automotive manufacturing industry. Many vehicles still contain asbestos in clutch and brake linings. In the construction industry, materials containing asbestos included insulation products, floor and ceiling tiles, siding, and cement pipes. Most homes and buildings constructed during this time contain asbestos. Asbestos has been used in the manufacture of industrial, maritime, construction, and automotive products, household appliances and handheld hair dryers, ironing boards, and textiles.

Ancient observations of the health risks of asbestos were either forgotten or ignored until the turn of the 20th century. In 1897 a Viennese physician made the connection between asbestos dust inhalation and emaciation pulmonary problems. The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis.

Since then, a wealth of evidence compiled by researchers and medical experts has proven the dangers of asbestos and asbestos exposure. When asbestos is broken up or degrades, its microscopic crystal particles can remain airborne for prolonged periods of time, and when inhaled can cause [[a multitude of health problems]]. Because it takes years between exposure to asbestos and the development of asbestos–related diseases, much of the evidence against asbestos was not established until the mid-to-late 20th century, after thousands of people had already died due to asbestos exposure and millions of others had been exposed. Today, the use of asbestos has sharply declined, although many are surprised to learn that blue and brown asbestos were only banned in the UK from 1985 and white asbestos was banned as late as 1999.

Thousands die each year from Mesothelioma and asbestos related cancers. All are agreed that the number of deaths from asbestos related conditions will continue to rise. Estimates vary, but in the early years of this millenium we can expect 10 - 15,000 deaths per year from asbestos related illnesses, making asbestos far and away the biggest industrial killer ever.