Asbestos has captured the attention of human kind for thousands of years. In fact, the Greek physician Dioscorides noted in De Materia Medica that handkerchiefs made of asbestos were reused, cleaned by fire[i]. Maybe a fine way to prevent the spread of germs well before it was widely understood, but I can’t imagine they were good for anyone’s health.
The material is fireproof, strong, flexible, and is an all natural mineral mined from the earth. Easy to see why it has captured the attention of so many including medieval alchemists who suggested the fibers came from hairs of fire resistant salamanders! It was with the growth of industry that the use of asbestos really took off, and took a toll on us all.
I do not wish to entirely vilify the material; it is still used and necessary in many applications in industry. But since the construction boom after World War II, its widespread use in products in our homes as well as the misunderstanding of the dangers behind the material, a costly toll has been paid. What is clear is that the material has been used in many things from ceiling tiles, shingles, floor tiles, loose insulation, and pipe insulation. The question is what do we do with it now we better understand the inherent dangers and realize it exists in many forms in our homes? We will look into this more in the coming weeks stay tuned!
Tremolite image used with permission from Asbestorama on flickr.
[i] James E Alleman and Brooke T. Mossman, Asbestos Revisited in Scientific American, July 1997