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The Story of Asbestos

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 1, 2023 3:03 am

The Story of Asbestos

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 1, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, today we know asbestos to be a health hazard. But the natural mineral was not simply an artifact of the industrial age. Here’s the History Guy telling the story of asbestos.

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That's This is our American stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show and our favorite stories about our past history stories. Our next comes to us from a man who's simply known as the history guy.

His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The history guy is also heard here on our American stories. Today, we know asbestos to be a health hazard, but the natural mineral was not simply an artifact of the industrial age. Here's the history guy telling us the story of asbestos. Today, asbestos is pretty much known as something dangerous that used to be used in building materials. Billions of dollars are spent in asbestos abatement and ads play on television offering legal help to people who've been exposed to asbestos. If you have an older home, you might worry about whether there's asbestos in your home. Asbestos became so popular and used during the industrial era that we sometimes forget that it's not a new invention. It's a naturally occurring mineral and one that has a surprisingly long history with humanity. Asbestos has been used in production for at least 4,000 years.

And before it became known as a notorious killer, it had a very different reputation. The surprisingly long human relationship with asbestos is history that deserves to be remembered. Asbestos is an umbrella term that refers to six different naturally occurring silicate minerals composed of thin fibrous crystals.

The fibers are made up of even smaller pieces called fibrils, which can be as small as a single micron in length. The most commonly used type is called chrysolite or white asbestos, which makes up about 95% of the asbestos in most products, but a number of other kinds are recognized, including brown and blue asbestos. It functions naturally as an electric insulator, it is highly resistant to heat, it's chemically inert and it strengthens other materials when mixed. In Greek, the substance we now call asbestos was originally called emientos, meaning undefiled, because it showed no mark it was thrown into a fire. In its modern use, the word asbestos was first used in the 1600s. Use of asbestos, however, goes back much further than that.

4,500 years ago in East Finland, ancient people mixed asbestos into their clay, which strengthened the pots, while allowing them to have thinner walls and adding heat resistance. The ancient Egyptians wrapped pharaohs in asbestos cloth to prevent deterioration. Greek historian Herodotus and Pliny both mentioned using asbestos cloths in cremations to wrap the body and keep the body's ashes separate from the fires. Many cultures use asbestos to make napkins, tablecloths and clothes.

More than one writer made the same observation as the Greek historian Strabo, who said that these cloths were thrown into the fire and cleansed, just as linens are cleansed by washing. The fibers were also used as insulation for homes and ovens. Asbestos can be used to make candle wigs that don't burn away, and was used in the asbestos linchinus, a golden lamp that, according to one traveler, only needed to be refilled once a year. Even ancient writers recorded troubling things about asbestos. Both Pliny and Strabo mentioned that slaves that mined the mineral suffered from diseases of the lungs, and it was said that quarry slaves died young. Pliny called it a slave disease, and even described goat or lamb bladders being used as respirators.

Despite these observations, they never really truly understood the risks of the mineral. Asbestos continued to be used throughout the world, throughout the Middle Ages, though it seems to have declined somewhat. Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was said to have had an asbestos tablecloth that he impressed dinner gifts with, by tossing it into the fire at the end of the meal. In the early modern period, scientists turned to the utility of asbestos. Research into the material exploded, starting in the 17th century. Benjamin Franklin carried an asbestos coin purse with him in his youth, so that the money would never burn a hole in his pocket.

He sold it in 1724 to the eventual benefactor of the British Museum. Giovanni Aldini, known for his experiments using electricity to move the muscles of cadavers, invented a line of fireproof clothing for firefighters in the early 1800s, which became popular in places like Paris and Geneva. Asbestos stage curtains were credited with saving lives in theater fires, and others suggested making an indestructible book of eternity of asbestos paper. Possibly the most important use for asbestos were in construction. Mixing with rubber created a fire-resistant compound that allowed far more resilient steam gaskets, vitally important in advancing steam engines and boilers. In the 1860s, Henry Ward Johns created an asbestos tar paper for roofs which could protect buildings from fire. It was this invention that began to truly open markets for the product.

Asbestos was perfect for the industrial age. It was versatile and easily added to other materials. It was mixed into cement and wood to create fireproof ships and included in all kinds of plastic items for increased strength and as a binder. It would become a staple of the flooring industry in vinyl asbestos tile. It was widely used as insulation on pipes, water heaters, and engines, especially in trains and ships which use the product extensively. It was even used to make juice filters and breathing apparatuses.

As demand grew, production had to match it. The first industrial asbestos mine was opened in the Thetford Hills of Quebec in the late 1870s and thriving industries also blossomed in Germany, England, South Africa, Australia, and Finland. It quickly became mechanized and by 1900 there were more than 30,000 tons being produced annually. It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that medical professionals started to notice health issues connected to asbestos. In 1897, a doctor in Austria attributed patients' breathing problems to breathing asbestos and an 1898 report by the British government cited widespread damage and injury of the lungs due to the dusty surrounding of the asbestos mill. The first confirmed death from asbestosis was reported in England in 1906 by Dr. Montague Murray. Murray performed an autopsy on a 33-year-old patient and found large amounts of asbestos fibers in his lungs. Across Europe other reports of deaths from fibrosis were reported. Insurance companies were aware of the dangers too in as early as 1908.

They decreased coverage and increased premiums for workers in the factories that used asbestos. Asbestosis is the damage caused to the lungs by tiny asbestos fibers. The scarring within the lungs hinders oxygen from being transferred to the blood.

It can take time for the symptoms to present because lungs have a kind of excess capacity but once this excess is gone the symptoms grow worse very quickly. Before it was understood the symptoms were often missed because it was often seen in conjunction with tuberculosis and pneumonia. In 1924 the death of Nellie Kershaw who had worked spinning asbestos into yarn led to an inquest in which the pathologist Edmund Cook identified minerals found in Kershaw's lungs as the primary cause of the fibrosis of the lungs and therefore of death. Because of these and other cases Edward Rowland Allworth Meriwether decided to study asbestos workers in textile factories. A full quarter of the workers were suffering from asbestos and those who had worked longer were sicker. The report underlined the seriousness of the disease and within a year legislation was passed in the UK to make efforts to reduce asbestos dust and require medical screenings for employees. Meriwether felt that the study meant asbestos workers faced inevitable death. The study was published simultaneously in the United States and became the most prominent study proving the danger of asbestos.

The warning signs couldn't slow the industry. Production tripled between 1900 and 1910 and in the late 1930s asbestos was already massively popular. In 1939 the Johns Manville Company built an Asbestos Man protecting mankind's buildings for display at that year's World's Fair. The growing tensions of World War II caused countries to stockpile asbestos for fear of disruptions in production and the U.S. asbestos was used in almost every facet of the war effort. Bazookas, jeep engines, torpedoes and ship engines all used asbestos.

Even army medics carried it as an easily sterilized dressing. Use in American shipyards led to high rates of lung cancer and mesothelioma in shipbuilders. U.S. asbestos consumption grew astronomically during the war.

In 1942 the U.S. was consuming 60 percent of the world's production up from 37 percent just five years earlier. Meanwhile the use of asbestos in the United States actually reached its peak in the post-war years. In Europe and Japan asbestos was used widely in the construction necessary to rebuild war to our nations while in the U.S. the practical uses of asbestos meant it became an integral part of thousands of products put into brake pads in cars and elevators used in hair dryers, air conditioners, electric insulation, fake snow, includes that used on the set of the Wizard of Oz, surgical thread, irons in the filters of tint micronite cigarettes and even as an abrasive in toothpaste.

But the consensus that the product was dangerous continued to grow. Multiple reports connected to occurrences of several kinds of cancers and in 1964 Dr. Irving Selikoff presented findings that deaths at a New Jersey asbestos factory were 25 percent higher than would be expected statistically. The peak of asbestos consumption in the U.S. was reached in 1973. By the 1960s growing understanding that even small amounts of exposure could cause serious health defects finally began to take a toll on public opinion.

The Environmental Protection Agency created in 1970 became the Crusader. In 1973 it banned spray-on asbestos for insulating and fireproofing purposes. The 70s would also see them ban asbestos in cement pipes, artificial fire embers and wall patching compounds. In the 80s it required schools to document asbestos and remove it if dangerous to protect children and teachers though the cost of abatement was sometimes prohibitive. In 1989 the EPA created the ban and phase-out rule which would have eventually led to a complete ban of asbestos containing material. The last asbestos mine in the United States closed in 2003 and still the legacy of asbestos exposure looms large where an estimated quarter million people a year die from complications due to asbestos exposure mostly from cancers like mesothelioma. What was once touted as the miracle mineral that could solve almost any problem has now become the enemy. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler as always for his production and you can find the History Guy's storytelling on YouTube.

Just search History Guy on the YouTube search bar and you'll find all of his work. The story of asbestos from a miracle compound to the doghouse. A terrific story of what things were and what they are now and how many better and safer ways we have to do things thanks to the miracles of modern manufacturing. The story of asbestos here on Our American Stories.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-01 04:37:45 / 2023-03-01 04:43:27 / 6

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