Why Was Asbestos Used so Widely?

A Quick History of Asbestos

In ancient Greece and Rome asbestos became a popular product because it was easily mined, it durability and its resistance to fire. Kings were wrapped and buried in asbestos and the eternal flames had wicks made out of this magical material. Since that time and throughout the ages, because of its unique and desirable qualities, it has been a popular material.

The US Navy in the 1930s needed just such a material for insulation on their ships and asbestos was drafted for this purpose. It quickly became one of the indispensable products needed for ship building. As world conflicts grew, shipbuilding expanded greatly and so did humans exposure to asbestos. Those who were most often exposed began to develop dire health issues, and by the end of the decade, the Surgeon General has issued a warning about the dangers of exposure to the material. The recommendations at that time were for people working with the material to do so in well ventilated areas with exhaust fans, and to don safety masks. Unfortunately, due to the war taking priority over all other things, and there needing to be more and more ships available, the recommendations were not implemented into law, resulting in thousands of lives lost due to asbestos exposure.

The connection between exposure to asbestos and a specific list of diseases was easy to spot, with naval ship yards and industrial areas around these places showing an explosion in cases occurring. But it was not just the workers who got ill. They would take the asbestos home in their clothing and expose their entire families to asbestos poisoning.

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals, which all have thin fibrous crystals, with each visible fiber composed of millions of microscopic "fibrils" that can be released by abrasion and other processes. These fibrils under certain circumstances are released in the air and can be inhaled where they get into the breathing passages and lungs. All types of asbestos fibers are harmful to humans. And prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious and fatal illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.

Asbestos production during the 1930s and 1940s became quite efficient, resulting in increased amounts produced and its cost of production plummeting. After World War II, asbestos became the cheap and abundant insulator in many areas of the US especially big metropolitan cities like New York. Asbestos exposure in New York primarily occurred in factories, shipyards, ships, hospitals and power plants that used vast amounts of the materials in their construction. It was also used in homes and commercial buildings quite often and thereby exposed millions who both built and occupied these structures to its hazardous effects.

Asbestos gets Regulated

In the 1970s after more than 150,000 deaths in the US from its exposure, asbestos use, handling and exposure was finally regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Although more than fifty years too late, the OSHA laws finally treated asbestos as a serious health hazard. Later, laws were introduced to cause the removal of asbestos in places where it directly and indirectly comes in contact with people. By the 1980s in most countries around the world, asbestos mining was ceased. And asbestos removal from homes and other structures began in earnest and continues today.

The medical fallout from asbestos has been devastating. Mesothelioma and asbestosis are the main illness caused directly by asbestos exposure. There are currently no treatments available and no cure has been discovered. Five-year survival rates for mesothelioma are around 10 percent. These cases will number in the hundreds of thousands for decades to come.

The use of asbestos has been subject to a widely-publicized string of lawsuits beginning in the 1970s, many of which continue today. By the time that the last vestiges of asbestos-related disease disappear, it is estimated that asbestos-related litigation will cost around $250 billion. When you factor in the costs of asbestos removal and clean-up, this number surely tops $500 billion.

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