The history of asbestos

History of asbestos from ancient to modern times

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in soil and can be found on every continent throughout the whole of the world, but what is it’s history?

We do know that asbestos has been utilised for centuries by our ancestors and is still used in the manufacture of some products today.

Here follows a complete history of asbestos from ancient times right through to the middle ages and beyond.

Asbestos first used around 4000 B.C.

It’s believed that the long hair-like fibers of asbestos were first used to make wicks in lamps and candles in as early as 4000 B.C. according to history buffs.

Archaeologists have uncovered asbestos fibers in debris dating back to the stone age, which was around 750,000 years ago.

There is also historical evidence to suggest that the Egyptians used asbestos cloth to wrap around the embalmed bodies of pharohs in order to protect them from deterioration during the period 2000-3000 B.C.

Clay pots containing asbestos fibers were also discovered in Finland by archaeologists dating back to around 2500 B.C.

It’s believed that asbestos was used in order to strengthen the pots and make them resistant to fire.

Asbestos cloth wrapped around Egyptian mummy
Egyptians would wrap bodies in asbestos cloth to preserve them

Asbestos used by ancient Greeks & Romans

The ancient Greeks and Romans were said to have woven asbestos fibers into cloth.

Herodotus, the Greek classical historian, referred to the use of asbestos shrouds around 456 B.C.

Asbestos was apparently used in shrouds used to wrap around the dead before the bodies were tossed into the funeral pyre.

Supposedly, this was done to prevent their ashes from becoming mixed with the ashes of the fire itself.

The origin of the word ‘Asbestos’

Some believe that the history and origin of the word ‘asbestos’ can be traced back to a Latin idiom ‘amiantus’ which means unsoiled or unpolluted.

This is because the ancient Romans are said to have woven the asbestos fibers into cloth that was used to make table cloths and napkins.

Historians say these cloths were thrown into fire to clean them and came out whiter than before and undamaged.

As such, the Romans hailed asbestos as a miracle material.

Roman wedding feast
The Ancient Romans would make table cloths out of asbestos fibers

History of asbestos 755 to 1280

King Charlemagne of France is said to have wrapped the bodies of his generals in asbestos shrouds, just like the Greeks had done previously.

He also is said to have had a tablecloth made of asbestos fibers in order to prevent if from burning due to accidental fires that would occur during feasts and banquets.

Asbestos was becoming more popular, and by the end of the first millenium, it was being used to make cremation cloths and wicks and mats for table lamps.

These items were made using chrysotile asbestos imported from Cyprus and tremolite asbestos from the north of Italy.

During the first crusade in 1095, French, German and Italian knights used a catapult called a trebuchet, which was used in battle to fling flaming bags of pitch and tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls during their sieges.

By 1280, Marco Polo was writing about asbestos being used to make clothing.

This clothing was made by the Mongolians from ‘a fabric which would not burn’ according to Marco Polo.

He is said to have visited an asbestos mine in China in order to disprove the myth that asbestos came from the hair of a wooly lizard.

Throughout the rest of the middle ages, asbestos was used to insulate body armour.

King Charlemagne's tablecloth
King Charlemagne of France was said to use a table cloth made of asbestos

History of asbestos 17th and 18th century

Chrysotile asbestos was mined during the reign of Peter the Great in Russia between 1682-1785.

Benjamin Franklin visited Russia for the 1st time in 1725 and brought a purse made from asbestos back to England with him.

That same purse made from fireproof asbestos is now an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.

Paper containing asbestos was discovered in Italy back in the early 1700’s.

Benjamin Franklin brought asbestos purse to England
Benjamin Franklin brought an asbestos purse from Russia to England in 1725

Asbestos used in the 19th century

By the 1800’s, asbestos was becoming more and more popular.

Italians were using asbestos fibers to make bank notes.

The Paris fire brigade wore helmets and jackets made from asbestos during the 1850’s.

As the 1800’s drew to a close and the industrial revolution took hold, the asbestos industry and manufacturing began to flourish.

Asbestos was used for insulating boilers, steam pipes and turbines.

Early 1900’s asbestos production

Due to the industrial revolution, asbestos production really took off by the early 1900’s.

In fact, more than 30,000 tonnes was being produced worldwide during that period to use in products being manufactured.

Demand was so high that both women and children were added to the asbestos production workforce.

Their job would involve preparing, carding and spinning the raw asbestos fibers into materials, while the men worked down in the mines.

Over the years, concerns grew about the effects of asbestos on worker’s health, but this didn’t stop the mass production which was to continue for many more years.

So much so, that by 1910 more than 109,00 tonnes of asbestos was being produced around the world, so had more than trebled in just 10 years.

women working at asbestos mattress factory early 1900s
Women working at an asbestos mattress factory in the early 1900’s

Asbestos in the 20th century

Asbestos mining and production continued throughout the early and mid 20th century, particularly during word war II and continued to be mass produced over the next 30 years plus.

Uses of asbestos included insulation, fireproofing, sound-proofing, decorating and strengthening of products.

Production of asbestos hit it’s peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s in America, with dozens of operations on the East coast and California.

Consumption in the U.S peaked in 1973 with 804,00 tonnes being produced and peak world demand was in 1977.

25 countries were producing almost 4.8 million tonnes at this time each year, and 85 countries were producing thousands of products containing asbestos.

It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the use of asbestos began to decline.

The King City asbestos mine (KCAC) in west California was the last remaining mine in the U.S to close its doors in 2002.

The decline of asbestos production in the 21st century

During the 1980’s, the use of asbestos became less and less popular due to more evidence of its harmful effects on health.

Even so, it still took a long time for asbestos to be banned in countries around the world, despite its association throughout history with ill health and disease.

It wasn’t until 2003 that environmental regulations and consumer demand helped push for full or partial bans on the use of asbestos in 17 countries.

Please see our infographic below for a full list of which countries have asbestos bans in place.

In 2005, asbestos was banned throughout the European Union, including the UK.

Unfortunately though, asbestos continues to be used in emerging economies where it is embraced as much as it was in developed countries for much of the last century.

America still hasn’t fully banned asbestos, although the use of asbestos has steadily declined.

Back in 1991, a ruling made by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) which banned most products containing asbestos in 1981 was overturned.

Pressure from the asbestos industry led to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn the EPA’S 1981 ruling.

So the use of asbestos containing products is still legal in the U.S. even though it has rapidly declined over the last 30 years.

Other countries still producing asbestos in large quantities include Russia, India, China, Brazil, Thailand and Kazakhstan.

Russia is currently the world’s largest asbestos producer, with an annual production of around 0.75 million metric tons in 2019.

History of asbestos infographic

Follow our cool infographic below that details the complete history of asbestos and how it was used over the centuries, right through from the stone age to current day.

history of asbestos infographic 1
history of asbestos infographic 2

Did you enjoy reading this infographic about the history of asbestos?  Then check out our other interesting articles below.

Duty holders and employers have a legal responsibility to manage asbestos in their properties, carrying out an asbestos survey in their building so as not to put employees at risk.

So make sure you contact our Armco office to arrange an asbestos refurbishment survey, before it’s too late! 

Whether you need an asbestos management survey, or a refurbishment/ demolition survey, contact us on 0161 763 3727 or by visiting https://www.armco.org.uk/

Finally, for all your asbestos training needs call 0161 761 4424 or visit https://www.armcoasbestostraining.co.uk/to book an asbestos awareness training course.

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Published Oct 23, 2018
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