Thursday, 20 June 2013

Five Curious Historic Uses Of Asbestos


Today we know asbestos is a very dangerous material. We know that when its fibres are disturbed, they will float into the air we breathe and then become lodged in our lungs where they can cause disease.

A scant few in ancient and medieval times suspected there were health risks associated with asbestos. For instance, ancient Roman Pliny the Elder suggested against purchasing slaves who had worked in asbestos mines because they died earlier. Despite these inklings, though, the asbestos hazard was not widely known or widely accepted before the twentieth century.

While the people of ancient, and later medieval, civilizations did not produce asbestos products on the same massive scale that was done during and after the Industrial Revolution, they did use asbestos products.

Mostly, these products were novelty due to its strange and ‘mystical’ properties. Asbestos in Ancient Greece was almost as valuable as gold. That’s why a common type of asbestos is called ‘chrysotile’; ‘chysos’ meant ‘gold’ and ‘tilos’ meant ‘fibre’.

Here are five fascinating historic examples of strange products made from asbestos and used long ago:

1.

In Ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins tended to a sacred flame that was meant to be everlasting.

During this time, Romans made wicks for candles from asbestos. For this reason, some speculate the wick for the flame kept by the Vestal Virgins was made from asbestos. 


The Temple of Vesta, where the Vestal Virgins kept the everlasting flame lit. 

2.
Ancient Persians imported asbestos from India. Explorer Marco Polo wrote that they believed the product to be the fur of an animal that lived in fire that they called ‘samandar’.

Persians used asbestos textiles to wrap their dead in the funeral pyre so their ashes would remain separate from the rest of the fire.

3.
Charlemagne was the first Holy Roman Emperor after the collapse of the Roman Empire three hundred years before his reign.

He reportedly convinced guests that he had supernatural powers by throwing the tablecloth soiled from use into a fire. He would then remove it clean and unharmed from the flame. Due to its inflammability, it is thought that this tablecloth is made from asbestos.

4.
During medieval times merchants traveled around selling, among other curiosities, ‘magical’ crosses that were said to be part of the cross upon which Jesus died.

They were ‘proven’ to be magical because they did not burn when placed in fire. The truth of their identity was also ‘verified’ because the asbestos has the look of very old wood.

5. 
The jeweler Faberge also created with asbestos minerals. Faberge, who also made the famous and beautiful Roman eggs, crafted a decorative dandelion from precious metals, including asbestos fibres as the fluffy dandelion seeds. 


A Faberge-made dandelion with an asbestos puff.

Resources:
Barbalace, Roberta A. (2004). A Brief History of Asbestos and Associated Health Risks. Retrieved June 2013 from http://environmentalchemistry.com/yogi/environmental/asbestoshistory.html
Inglis-Arkell, Esther. (2011). The sordid, bizarre history of asbestos goes all the way back to Emperor Charlemagne. Retrieved June 2013 from http://io9.com/5833469/the-sordid-bizarre-history-of-asbestos-goes-all-the-way-back-to-emperor-charlemagne.
Mesothelioma & Asbestos Information Exchange. (2011). History of Asbestos. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.mesothelioma-help-network.com/mesothelioma/articles/history_of_asbestos/index.html.
Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center. (2010). Asbestos History. Retrieved June 2013 from http://www.maacenter.org/asbestos/history.php.
United States Department of the Interior. (ND). Asbestos: Geology, Mineralogy, Mining, and Uses. Retrieved June 2013 from http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-149/of02-149.pdf.

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