Asbestos, though dangerous, has been mined for over four thousand years. Its uses changed with the times until its use became almost completely banned in the United States in the 90’s. This begs us to ask the question: What Was Asbestos Used For?
Cookware to Magic Napkins to Cement
The oldest recorded use for asbestos can be found in ancient pottery used in East Finland. These pots and cooking utensils were made of asbestos-ceramics that contained the asbestos mineral anthophyllite. What made these ceramics so interesting was that they seemed to only come from Lake Saimaa in Finland.
A few hundred years later, wealthy Persians amazed dinner guests with napkins that were cleaned by tossing them into a fire. This would burn the dirt, stains, and whatnot right off, but the cloth would be removed from the flames unscathed. How is this possible? It is thought that the napkins were woven from asbestos fibers. Around this time is when reports were written of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne having a tablecloth made entirely of asbestos.
The large-scale asbestos industry didn’t kick off until the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1850’s Italy tried to produce asbestos cloth and paper but was unsuccessful in creating a market. The first asbestos companies were founded in 1862 when it was being used in the production of yarn. This process was adopted by industrialist Louis Wertheim and spread to Germany. The increase in its use would lead to industrial mining of the mineral in 1870’s Canada. A decade later and asbestos mines would open in the Urals of Russia and alpine regions of northern Italy.
The United States mined the resource not just for yarn production, but also for insulation. Asbestos was then put into everything from pipes to fuse boxes to lawn furniture and cement. Asbestos was used so much around the world that in 2011 it was discovered that over fifty percent of the houses in the United Kingdom still contained asbestos despite various bans put in place years prior.
Chrysotile asbestos is still used in roofing shingles, cement sheets, joint blocks of cement, and pipes because the chrysotile type of asbestos does not flake as easily. Researchers say that this fact does not make it much safer than its amphibole counterparts as chrysotile fibers can still cause mesothelioma. It is also used in brake pads and corrugated sheeting.
Sometimes asbestos is found to be a contaminant in vermiculite potting soil and home insulation. Many homes still have this vermiculite insulation in their attics. Though all vermiculite currently used in potting soil is essentially amphibole-free, pre-1990 products from the Libby mine contain amphibole asbestos.
So, What Was Asbestos Used For? – Conclusion
Though it has been found to be dangerous to humans, asbestos was used because it was easy to access and extremely versatile. So if anyone asks you: what exactly was asbestos used for? You can tell them that back in the day it was for practically everything because it’s flame retardant, sound absorbing, and easy to come by. Thankfully, its uses are not as widespread. Enough have suffered from mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by the mineral.