Tue, Jun 15th - 5:12AM
The Romans called it “amiantus” which means “unpolluted”, whilst over the years asbestos has proved itself to be the “perfect pollutant”. The history of this outwardly miraculous substance dates back up to 2500 B.C. In the Neolithic age asbestos was used as a temper for ceramic (prehistoric shards and wares that contain asbestos have been found in Nordic region). Since ancient times it was known to Greeks and Romans that asbestos had low thermal conductivity, and a resistance to acids and fire.
Its adverse biological effects were also known, however this pale white substance had cast spells of its miraculous properties on even learned men of that era, including Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, in such a way that they ignored all its harmful effects. This was so despite concerning circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that (as noted by Strabo at the time) slaves responsible for weaving asbestos into cloth tended towards premature death.
Because of its unique properties, asbestos was a material that only rich people could afford in ancient times. Greeks used asbestos as a wick for the eternal flame that was kept alight in honour of their goddess Vesta and as a funeral dress for the cremation of their kings.
Asbestos was also used make napkins. It is said that Romans used to throw asbestos napkins in fire to clean them. The dirt would burn off the napkin, but the asbestos would prevent it from burning any further, meaning that it would come out of the fire whiter than it went in. Moreover, asbestos was woven into cloth linings for suits of armor, whilst asbestos paper was used for writings and asbestos textiles were used by the wealthy.
Were people in the Middle Ages wiser than modern and so called advanced civilisations? Use of asbestos declined significantly in the Middle Ages, which suggests that they may have taken serious note of the hazardous effects of asbestos. However, it is rumored that Charlemagne had asbestos tablecloths. It is also said that Marco Polo witnessed textile items made of asbestos cloth on his travels and observed asbestos mining and the weaving of asbestos cloth in Asia.
In the next article of this ‘ABC of Asbestos Laws’ series, I will disclose how the Industrial Revolution made the use of Asbestosis widespread, and which industries commenced extensive use of asbestos in spite of all ancient observations of the hazards to the pulmonary health of humans. I will also discuss the way entrepreneurs were either oblivious to or chose to ignore its hazardous effects, and so failed to use other less hazardous substances, thus exposing millions of workers to this dangerous substance.