For thousands of years, asbestos remained in the margins of ancient society, bewildering onlookers with its magical properties while concealing its more harmful ones. But as civilization matured, so did its use of asbestos.

In our previous installments, we learned how ancient and medieval societies used this mysterious, naturally occurring mineral to protect cremated remains, clean fabrics, mystify travelers and, more strangely, besiege castles. But what about the uses for which asbestos is  known today — such as insulation, roofing tiles, brake pads and cement? And why does asbestos seem to target workers?

The appeal of asbestos as a mineral that can be used in commercial products is mostly due to its fire-retardant nature, and that legacy can be traced all the way back to the ancient world. But it would reach new magnitudes in the 19th century, when ambitious industrialists found ways to make extraordinary profits off the mining and manufacture of asbestos-containing products.

This was the time of the industrial revolution — an era of unprecedented economic growth, driven by a new system of labor with unrivaled access to capital. All that power, wealth and demand would conspire to deliver asbestos-containing materials into millions of buildings, vehicles, factories, machines and ships all over the world — as well as the lungs of millions of unlucky laborers.

It was in all those hideaways where asbestos would lurk, often for decades, threatening the health of handlers and occupants well into the 21st century. And it is in that history of asbestos during the industrial revolution that we find the beginnings of a modern public health crisis.

The Birth of a Massive Asbestos Industry

One of the earliest asbestos mining operations was in Thetford Hills, Quebec — a region of Canada that would continue to mine the substance all the way into the 21st century. (The last two Quebecois asbestos mines closed only recently — in 2011.)

Asbestos mines were also established in northern Italy, South Africa and the Ural mountains of Russia, which is today the largest asbestos mining and exporting country in the world.

Much of that raw asbestos was shipped to Europe and processed by the Scottish Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company. In the United States, asbestos processing began as early as 1858, when the Johns Company, later renamed Johns Manville, began mining fibrous anthophyllite from a quarry on Staten Island, New York.

The company would eventually become the largest miner, processor, manufacturer and supplier of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in the world, mostly in service of insulation and construction materials.

With the building boom brought by the industrial revolution, developers sought new ways to protect their factories, office buildings and high rises from the threat of fire. Throughout the 19th century, buildings grew more crowded, cities grew more dense and factories started handling more volatile materials. As a result, fires occurred in greater frequency than in previous eras.

Asbestos proved highly effective at keeping fires at bay, and by the 1870s, companies started cropping up all over the place to provide builders with a steady supply of asbestos.

The incredible demand for asbestos was driven by its many applications: Fire-retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, heat-resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, fireproof drywall, joint compound, and even lawn furniture were all manufactured at some point with asbestos.

To meet the demand, new U.S. mines were established in Vermont, Georgia, Montana, California and all throughout Appalachia. With millions of tons of asbestos being extracted from the earth and put into buildings, it’s no wonder the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1985, estimated some 20 percent of all buildings contained asbestos in some form or another.

An Asbestos Omen in Montana

One of the most catastrophic asbestos mining operations in history was in Libby, Montana. In 1881, gold miners in Libby discovered vermiculite — a valuable mineral used for insulation and soil conditioning.

Vermiculite, however, is often contaminated with asbestos, as the two minerals form through the same geologic processes. To this day, vermiculite mines are frequently tested for the presence of asbestos.

According to the EPA, while in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite — and almost all of it was contaminated with asbestos. Over the course of its operations in the 20th century, the Libby mine would expose some 100,000 local residents to asbestos, killing hundreds and leaving thousands sick. It remained open with workers mining the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite until 1990. 

Federal prosecutors would later bring a lawsuit against the owner of the mine, W.R. Grace, alleging the company was aware of the asbestos contamination and conspired to release the asbestos anyway. Simply put, the company knew asbestos was dangerous and chose not to warn workers, putting profits ahead of people. That narrative would, unfortunately, become very familiar as asbestos lawsuits shed further light on asbestos companies’ wrongdoing.

A Health Crisis Emerges

At the turn of the 20th century, medical research continued to advance, revealing more about the lingering health effects of asbestos — those who worked with the mineral were dying at unusually high rates. In 1897, a forward-thinking Austrian doctor linked the inhalation of asbestos fibers to the pulmonary problems of one of his patients.

In 1900, an English doctor at London’s Charring Cross Hospital named Montague Murray uncovered a spate of deaths from patients who worked spinning asbestos. All 10 of them were in their thirties and previously healthy, and they all died with the same presenting symptoms:  bloody cough, chest pain and shortness of breath.

Upon the passing of one of these patients, Dr. Murray performed an autopsy and discovered heavy scarring in the lungs. But it would still be decades before the wider medical community understood what they were dealing with.

Asbestosis — the disease that killed the English worker Nellie Kershaw — wasn’t described until the early 1930s. Kershaw had worked at a textile factory called Turner Brothers Asbestos Company for roughly fifteen years. Mesothelioma, a highly deadly form of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, wasn’t connected to asbestos until the 1940s.

Even so, the labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th century delivered a small victory to workers at higher risk of asbestos exposure.

In 1908, Congress passed the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) with the goal of protecting and compensating railroad workers who were injured on the job due to the negligence of employers or manufacturers.

The law was an early triumph in what would become a century-long battle to protect workers and hold corporate wrongdoers accountable. What the railroad workers, spinners and machinists of that era could not have foreseen, however, was just how devious the asbestos industry could get in its attempts to secure profits and protect its prized mineral.

As the first lawsuits were brought against companies who mined, shipped, processed and sold asbestos, a pattern of downplaying, deflecting, misinforming and outright lying emerged. Asbestos companies, it seemed, would do or say anything to protect their profits.

In the next installment on the history of asbestos, we’ll take a closer look at how such companies profited off of the U.S. military and capitalized on war efforts throughout the 20th century. 

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