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Jarvis Restoration Blog

The History of Asbestos: A Strange Tale of an Unhealthy Material


Asbestos has been banned from use in homes for more than 30 years, and yet asbestos testing and abatement in Orange County is one of the most common services we offer, and one of the most useful for homeowners. Asbestos is a harmful carcinogen, and it has a nasty ability to just “hang around” long after its use was stopped. The problem is that asbestos is extremely good at hiding in unusual places. We recommend any home built before 1989 have asbestos testing done to ensure that any harmful amounts are removed.

Just what is the story of asbestos? How did this carcinogenic substance spread so far and wide? We’re going to briefly answer those questions today in this post—although there is much more to learn.

An Ancient Substance

Our story begins ca. 2400 BC. Yes, we’re going back that far. Asbestos is a naturally occurring material of long, thin fibrous crystals. Archeologists have evidence of humans using asbestos in clay pots in Finland ca. 2400 BC and it has shown up in Egyptian tomb-wrappings to help preserve the bodies. The first written reference to asbestos comes from the Greek writer Herodotus, who mentioned them in 465 BC as used in wrapping around bodies placed on funeral pyres. The material prevented the ashes of the body from mixing with those of the fire. 

The ancient Romans wove asbestos fibers into cloth … and it is with the Romans we have the first evidence that asbestos could be harmful: the Roman writer Pliny the Younger wrote that the miners who worked with asbestos would become ill and used mouth and nose masks to prevent inhaling whatever it was that was making them sick. 

The Modern Asbestos Industry

The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era for asbestos, where the material has numerous practical uses. Because of its resistance to heat, electricity, and water, it was an excellent insulator for engines, generators, ovens, and turbines. The first commercial asbestos mine opened in the US 1878 and asbestos soon became a big business around the globe, even as it was contributing to the deaths of numerous workers. By the start of the 20th century, asbestos mining was producing more than 30,000 tons per year. 

The Peak Years

The 1960s and ‘70s were when asbestos production was at its highest. In 1973, the US alone produced 804,000 tons of it. The substance was now everywhere: electrical wiring, cement, flooring, packing materials, fire-retardant sprays, car brake paddings, and most importantly for our purposes, thermal insulation in homes. However, the signs of the dangers of the substance were already documented. Studies in the 1930s showed that asbestos workers had unusually short lifespans, with many dying from what was termed “fibrosis.” 

The Ban Comes Down

When anything becomes as widespread and lucrative as asbestos, it’s hard to put a stop to it—even with evidence of its high toxicity. But by the late 1970s, it was impossible to deny the harmful effects of asbestos. Labor unions around the world demanded safer working conditions and the general public began to understand the danger lurking in their homes. Asbestos companies started to turn to alternatives to avoid numerous liability claims. In 1989, the US EPA announced the asbestos phase-out in almost all products. This didn’t actually halt the production of asbestos, but it rapidly declined. Although still found in many products today, it’s rare that it was used in homes after 1991. 

For comprehensive home restoration services you can rely on, contact Jarvis Restoration today!

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