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The sordid, bizarre history of asbestos goes all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne

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Most of us know asbestos as 'that puffy stuff it cost a fortune to take out of the walls of public schools.' Yes, it's annoyingly toxic, but this substance also has a long and sometimes bizarre history that stretches back to the Dark Ages. See what all the fuss is about, and why the fuss has lasted so long.

What Is Asbestos?

When we see someone handling a material from behind a seventeen layer hazmat suit, we tend to assume they are handling mankind's latest screw up; nuclear waste, dangerous chemical combinations, or a vial of the smallpox virus that governments like to keep around for some reason. Asbestos comes across as a new invention. In fact it's literally as old as the hills.


There are many types of asbestos, and they spring up in hillsides. They were mined, processed, and used in everything from roof tiles to floor tiles to the clothes on our backs. Asbestos forms tiny little fibers, which are spun up into larger, longer fibers, and which finally can be turned into ropes, cloth, and puffy balls of fluff. It has all the advantages of a lightweight fiber, while retaining the advantages of a mineral. Minerals don't burn at regular temperatures. They take a lot of energy to heat. They also give off a lot of heat when they cool. Asbestos works as a flame retardant, an insulator, and a resistant to corrosive chemicals. It's ground up and sprayed on windows and tiles, woven into fiber to wrap around pipes and put in clothing, and used to give texture to materials.

And it has been for a long time.

The Celebrity History of Asbestos

Asbestos was at its most popular in the 1950s, which is why it's rare to find a building built before the year 2000 that hasn't got some asbestos in it. But twentieth century builders weren't the first to dig it up from the earth. The name comes from Pliny the Elder's description of it as asbestinon, or 'unquenchable.' It was used during Roman times, and has been used since then.


Perhaps the most famous user of asbestos was the emperor Charlemagne. He was said to have had a tablecloth made from the substance. He'd host dinner parties, with people eating and drinking off the tablecloth. Then, at the end of the evening, when the table was cleared, he would pick up the cloth and throw it into the fire. When it failed to burn his guests were amazed. It was said that he used it to convince some of his guests that he had supernatural powers.

Other cultures made clothes from asbestos. They were considered practical because all it took to clean them was a fire. People threw them into the fire and let the food and other stains burn off of them. Marco Polo was shown these fire-proof garments and told that they were made from the wool of a salamander. He was less easily convinced than Charlemagne's guests.

One of the strangest early consumers of asbestos were jewelers. As people became more settled, and more wealthy, they didn't only use precious metals to adorn their bodies. They used them to adorn their homes. Jewelers crafted flowers made of pearls on stems made of silver, or tiny emerald-studded cats and dogs in miniature gold houses. While organic things decayed, precious metals lasted forever. But fibers didn't. Wool or cotton threads would decay, but asbestos never would. Fabergé Jewelers, of the Romanov eggs, created a dandelion in a cut-crystal vase with a puff made of asbestos fibers.


The Tide Turns

Although the first documented case of death by asbestos was way back in 1906, the many functions of the mineral, and the steam behind the asbestos industry, kept it in use. There are three main diseases caused by exposure to asbestos. One is asbestosis. Asbestosis is simply the result of inhaling too many asbestos fibers over too long a period of time. Some of the fibers remain in the lung, where they cause scarring. Scar tissue hinders the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen, essentially smothering the sufferer.


Asbestos is a carcinogen, so any exposure to it is likely to increase the likelihood of cancer. Since asbestos fibers are breathed in and lodge in the lung, many people exposed to large amounts over long periods of time develop lung cancer. But the health problem most associated with asbestos is mesothelioma. It is cancer of the lining of the lung. It's extremely rare, and almost all cases are linked to exposure to asbestos.


As the fifties wore away and the number of cases of asbestos-related health problems mounted, the tide of public opinion turned against asbestos materials. In America, the mounting concern over asbestos in schools lead to the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act. The act required schools to catalog all the asbestos materials used in schools, remove any that were dangerous, and have a plan in place for manage the risk of all the remaining material.


So do you live in a house with asbestos? Yes. Unless your house is less than ten years old, it's probably full of the stuff. Although asbestos material is not healthy to handle, its risk is mostly confined to those who help manufacture items using it. They are exposed to a lot of small particles flying through air. Once in finished form, asbestos is generally contained to the roof tiles it was sprayed on or the pipes it surrounds. As long as asbestos-containing materials are in good condition, they aren't going to be ingested or inhaled.

It's just probably not a good idea to order more. Not even tablecloths.

Via the EPA, the HSE, and Weitzlux.