Asbestos is a naturally occurring group of fibrous minerals that has been recognized throughout history for its ability to reduce flame and provide excellent insulation. In fact, ceramic pots created from clay and asbestos were discovered in Finland as far back as 2500 BC. In ancient Greece, it was first mentioned in a book written by Theophrastus, titled, “On Stones.” In this text, the author described a mineral that looked like ‘rotting wood’ that did not burn when doused with oil and set on fire. The term asbestos is also attributed to an ancient Greek word, asbestinon meaning indestructible or unquenchable. It’s mentioned in Pliny’s work Natural History around 60 A.D.
The Greeks and other civilization used asbestos to make common lamp wicks and other fireproof products from asbestos because of its fire retardant abilities. In the medieval ages asbestos was used in the padding of the medieval armor. While asbestos has been used throughout history to insulate and strengthen various products, its use was not widespread until the mid 1800s. The first patent for an asbestos product was issued in 1828. It was for a special lining of steam train engines. In 1868, a patent for a roofing material containing asbestos was issued. This roofing material was highly regarded for its durability and fire resistance.
Around this same time, large deposits of asbestos were discovered in Quebec, Canada. This discovery jumpstarted the development of many asbestos products. It wasn’t long before asbestos could be found in: gaskets, fireproof safes, bearings, electrical wiring insulation, building materials, and even children’s toys.
By the 1900s many of the technological advances were made by the addition of asbestos. Plastics now contained asbestos fibers to increase their heat resistance. The automotive industry embraced asbestos use and soon it was found in tires, brakes and clutch linings. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that thousands of cars on the road today still contain parts made from asbestos. At the same time, asbestos became commonplace in the building industry with roofing tiles starting the trend. Additionally, asbestos could be found in plumbing pipes, textured paint, vinyl tiles, ceiling tiles and insulation.
The industry that used asbestos most prominately throughout history was undoubtedly the building and construction industry. Asbestos was the perfect material to keep buildings insulated and safe, as it was cheap, durable and practical. Asbestos was used in siding, floor and ceiling tiles, roofing tars and shingles, cement pipes, gutters and outdoor pipes, plaster, caulk and even in curtains that were hung in homes and schools. In fact, the United States Geological Survey has reported that as many as 3,000 products have contained asbestos at one time or another, including random household objects like electric blankets and hairdryers.
Today, asbestos is still used today for very specialized tasks. Its primary use is in the shielding for the space shuttle and in the insulation for the solid fuel boosters. This is one of only a few remaining legal uses of asbestos in the US. However, legislation is constantly being discussed in Congress to entirely ban the use of asbestos in the United States.