Facebook Twitter YouTube Google Plus

Asbestos Exposure Info | Asbestos Research | History of Asbestos

Marco Polo encountered asbestos in China where it was called salamander’s wool. The ancients had many names for asbestos, calling it "mountain leather," "incombustible linen," "rock floss," and “lapis asbestos”. Defined by its uses, the strange material could be braided into rope or used as insulation. The use of oil lamps for illumination was a major application before the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Once braided, asbestos could be turned into a wick that was both indestructible and cheap. Charlemagne had a napkin made from asbestos that he would purify by throwing into a fire.

At the dawning of the industrial age, machinery, steam, and fire became catalysts for the more widespread use of asbestos. By the 1860’s asbestos began appearing as insulation in the United States and Canada. Thousands of different uses for asbestos appeared by the middle of the 20th century. These included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, drywall joint compound and on and on.

Timeline Linking Asbestos Use and Respiratory Diseases

For all its wonderful properties, early asbestos research also proved that this naturally occurring material could be linked to a number of respiratory diseases. Early citings linking asbestos to respiratory disease, mesothelioma and other cancers included:

  • The Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted that the slaves who worked in the asbestos mines were less healthy than other slaves. He recommended that such slaves not be purchased since they would “die young”.
  • Strabo, a 1st century geographer, also observed the rise of health problems among asbestos workers. Since it was noted that asbestos exposure caused primarily a respiratory disease, Pliny the Elder suggested the use of a respirator made of transparent bladder skin to protect workers from asbestos dust.
  • Modern medicine first documented an asbestos-related death in 1906. Soon afterwards medical reports began to identify a mystery tumors, and insurance companies began to cut their coverage of asbestos workers.
  • The term mesothelioma entered the medical literature in 1931 when it was identified by Klemperer and Rabin.
  • By the 1940’s mesothelioma was being associated with asbestos exposure. Still, at the urging of industry, public authorities and the medical establishment continued to resist recognizing the connection between mesothelioma and asbestos.
  • Finally, the link became incontrovertible with a 1960 article published in Lancet entitled "Primary Malignant Mesothelioma of the Pleura."


During this time, the growing awareness of the connection between asbestos exposure [New Page http://www.curemeso.org/site/Asbestos_Information/who-is-at-risk.htm] and asbestosis and mesothelioma eventually brought some government regulation. (Contrary to popular belief, to this day asbestos has not been banned in the U.S., though it has in numerous other countries.) It also brought litigation. During trial discovery proceedings it became clear that the asbestos industry had known about the hazards of the product for decades. Moreover, they had conspired to hide the facts from both their workers and the consumers of their products. This disregard for the health and safety of both employees and consumers led to thousands of successful lawsuits and settlements against asbestos vendors. Over time this led to over sixty companies seeking refuge in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Learn more about asbestos, the dangers of asbestos exposure, and who is at risk. Contact the Meso Foundation for expert help and a free copy of the book "100 Questions & Answers About Mesothelioma."