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The History of Asbestos Use in America

Asbestos History Timeline

One day my grandfather felt really sick and so my grandmother went with him to the emergency room. My family had no idea what was wrong, but we didn’t think it was anything serious. He stayed in the hospital for a few days and soon after, he had numerous blood tests and a lung biopsy procedure which eventually showed that he had been living with mesothelioma. He got much sicker all of a sudden and we knew that he wouldn’t be with us much longer because of his late stage mesothelioma diagnosis. This hit our family very hard. My grandfather was a construction worker in New York City for many years until he retired. He bravely worked on some of the tallest skyscrapers.

He would always tell stories about his life on the job; walking across tiny beams hundreds of feet in the air with no harnesses, eating lunch on the beams with an amazing view of the city, or playing pranks on his workmates. He loved his job. Unfortunately, through working on these buildings, he was unknowingly exposed to asbestos. His job, which he took so much pride in, is what caused his premature death. He passed away one year ago in February, just thirty days after his mesothelioma diagnosis. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him. It is not fair that the companies producing the asbestos products that my grandfather was exposed to knew of their potential dangers, yet he was kept in the dark.

Asbestos was discovered by the Ancient Greeks more than two thousand years ago. The Greeks noted its harmful biological effects. They noted the “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves that worked with asbestos, but its seemingly magical properties overruled the obvious symptoms. The use of asbestos declines during the Middle Ages, but reappeared in the 1700s and became popular along with the Industrial Revolution during the late 1800s. This is when it began being used as insulation for steam pipes, turbines, boilers, kilns, ovens, and other high-temperature products.

Asbestos insulation was the biggest source of asbestos exposure for workers throughout the 1900s. Heat insulation containing asbestos was used for the first time in 1866. In 1870 asbestos was mixed with cement for boiler covering. By 1874, asbestos insulation products reached commercial production and were sold on a mass scale. Bans on asbestos-containing insulation didn’t appear until the 1970s. One of the primary manufacturers of asbestos insulation products was Johns Manville.

In the 1930s major medical journals began to publish articles which linked asbestos to cancer. People may be exposed to asbestos in their workplaces, communities, or even homes. Asbestos products release tiny asbestos fibers into the air. When these fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs. The fibers accumulate in the lungs over time and eventually lead to mesothelioma. Many of the people currently fighting mesothelioma in America were unwittingly exposed to asbestos in their younger years and were shocked to find out that they had been exposed to such a harmful substance for such a long period of time.

After it was publically established that asbestos was linked to cancer, most asbestos products were banned in the United States. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally began banning some asbestos related products in the 1970s. In 1990, the EPA overturned the bans and instead prohibited spray-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits. Asbestos is still legally allowed in certain small concentrations but these concentrations can still be harmful with on-going exposure. Asbestos exposure is still an issue in America today.

Asbestos is present in new products and materials and an estimated thirty million schools, homes, and workplaces are still contaminated with asbestos. Most asbestos used in the United States today is imported. Asbestos is still used commercially in brake pads, automobile clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile, and imported cement pipe and corrugated sheeting. This is significantly fewer products than had previously contained asbestos, but I still feel that these uses are unnecessary. Steps need to be taken in order to not only stop the production of products containing asbestos, but to remove the existing asbestos from old buildings and products.

My grandfather worked on the first skyscrapers that utilized spray-on asbestos insulation in New York City. Construction workers were surrounded by asbestos every day, yet they were all unaware of the harmful effects that would hit them later in life. Proper precautions were not taken many years ago and the results to that generation of workers are horrific. Sadly, there is no happy ending to the History of Asbestos Use in America.

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Last Modified: February 4, 2019

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