Asbestos is not a product of modern technology. Yet despite the evidence of severe health risks related to exposure to asbestos dating as far back as the first century, the production of products containing asbestos continued to grow until the mid 1970s, with a lack of understanding and awareness that still has fatal consequences today.
In the 21st century, workers are protected from exposure to asbestos as a result of very strict regulations and enforcement. Asbestos awareness has significantly increased, with a corresponding recognition of asbestosis symptoms, no longer denied.
The word asbestos comes from the Greek word meaning ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘indestructible’, and it is possible to trace written documentation of the use of asbestos back to the days of the Roman Empire. However, evidence of the use of asbestos in pottery and chinking of log homes dating back to 3,000 BC has been found on archaeological digs in Scandinavia.
Asbestos was used by many different cultures for numerous purposes. The Egyptians embalmed the pharaoh kings with asbestos, and the Persians imported asbestos from India for wrapping their dead. In early Greek and Roman times, asbestos was used for flame retardant cloth, building materials and women’s clothing.
In medieval times asbestos was used extensively as insulation in suits of armour.
Near the end of the 19th century, the use of asbestos became even more widespread as a result of the industrial revolution. Asbestos was used in the manufacture of more than 3,000 products including textiles, building materials, insulation and brake linings. Its use continued to increase through to the 1970s.
The hazards of asbestos were recorded as early as Roman times, who noted that workers exposed to asbestos had many health problems and lung ailments were common to anyone who worked with asbestos fibres.
In 1897 a Viennese physician attributed emaciation and pulmonary problems to (asbestos) dust inhalation. The first documented case of an asbestos-related death was reported in 1906 when the autopsy of an asbestos worker revealed lung fibrosis.
In 1928, the effects of asbestos in the lungs were identified as asbestosis, the fibrotic scarring of lungs resulting from prolonged exposure to asbestos dust could have a latency period of 15 years or more. By 1935 physicians were beginning to notice that some patients who had asbestosis also were victims of lung cancer.
By 1978, documented studies were beginning to demonstrate the extent to which asbestos workers had been affected. In one study, asbestosis was detected in 10% of asbestos workers who had been employed in the industry for 10-19 years, in 73% of workers who had been employees 20-29 years and in 92% of workers who had been employed for more than 40 years.
Documents reveal that asbestos manufacturers were aware of the health risks related to exposure to asbestos from the 1940s and 1950s, but chose to conceal this information from their employees.
In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began to regulate asbestos.
Asbestos advice is now freely available and comprehensive procedures in place for asbestos compensation to be awarded. Unfortunately, legislation cannot undo the damage that was done to those who worked in asbestos related jobs prior to 1980s.