The Evolution of Asbestos: From Miracle to Toxin
Though asbestos is well-known as a toxic substance that can cause mesothelioma and other fatal diseases, in the past it was hailed as something of a miracle mineral by a number of industries. In fact, the mineral’s resistance to heat and chemicals made it much sought-after and highly used. Use of asbestos in the United States was common during World War II and saw its heyday in the 1960s.
At its most popular, asbestos was heavily used in a number of industries, including automotive, construction, manufacturing, and ship-building. Products where asbestos was commonly employed include:
- Roofing materials
- Car brake linings and clutch pads
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated in 1988 that asbestos was used in some manner in the construction of roughly 750,000 public buildings in the United States alone. Asbestos can still be found in many public buildings and homes in the United States.
Before the adverse health effects of asbestos ingestion or inhalation were publicly known, the mineral was used in such common products as cosmetics, crayons, space heaters, potholders, hair dryers, and garden products.
The truth is, people have long been aware that asbestos poses some type of health risk. In Ancient Egyptian days, a slave who worked in the asbestos mines was worth less because he was more likely to die of a respiratory disease. Still, it was not until the 1970s that OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the EPA started to regulate asbestos use. The mineral was not officially tied to cancer until the International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed it carcinogenic in 1989. That same year, the EPA banned any new use of asbestos in the United States, but an appellate court ruling in 1991 made some use of the substance legal again.
There is no way to totally avoid exposure to asbestos, which exists in low levels in the air, soil, and water supply (not to mention in many of our homes, schools, and public buildings). Still, most people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos illness suffered sustained and regular contact with the mineral, such as ship builders, automotive mechanics, asbestos miners, and construction and demolition workers.