Asbestos – The Miracle Throughout History

Known by the Ancient Greeks as the “miracle mineral”, its name was derived from the Greek word meaning unquenchable”, a reference to its quality to be unburnable.  Its qualities of being a soft fiber that could be woven like textiles and used to protect against fire found its importance in Greek society for use in sacred lamp wicks and in Roman society for use in cremation clothing for the wealthy. 

From its industrial birth in the late 1800’s, asbestos has been mined and manufactured into over 3,500 different products today.  During the Industrial Revolution, scientists and manufacturers found that asbestos fibers could also be used for wear resistance, flexibility, moisture control, binding, chemical resistance, and electrical insulation.  Now, asbestos is defined in Geology as “a commercial term applied to a group of highly fibrous silicate minerals that readily separate into long, thin, strong fibers of sufficient flexibility to be woven, are heat resistant and chemically inert, and possess a high electrical insulation and therefore are suitable for uses where incombustible, nonconductive or chemically resistant material is required.”  In industry, it takes on the name of the product it is made into.

Manufacturers of asbestos containing products from the early to mid 1900s were proud to place their label on asbestos products to showcase its superior qualities.  Asbestos building products made from this era, like pipe insulation tucked away behind building walls, still bear the labels.  Due to the products superior qualities, they have remained in buildings for decades, mostly unchanged.

When environmental regulations caught up with asbestos fibers in the 1970s, building products containing asbestos were replaced by man-made fibers in similar building components – replaced not for higher quality or lower cost, but for health concerns.  The Romans knew that slaves who mined asbestos died earlier than those who didn’t.  Today, we know that workers breathing asbestos fibers contract asbestosrelated diseases typically causing premature death.  Asbestos regulations are built around managing and controlling airborne fibers from asbestos building products or from asbestos fibers being mined.  Products which contain asbestos fibers work as they were designed by the manufacturer.  Uncontained airborne microscopic asbestos fibers cause problems to human health.

Due to these health concerns, regulations have forced the phaseout of asbestos in building products.  Liability and management concerns have forced building owners to remove asbestos products from their buildings.  Safety and health concerns have forced the removal of asbestos products during renovations and demolition of old structures.  And, disposal concerns have placed the asbestos products in polyethylene bags in regulated landfill cells by licensed and protected workers.

Over the past year, our clients have relied on us to address their asbestos concerns, so their asbestos building materials are managed properly, and their renovation projects conducted safely and efficiently.  Asbestos will persist as long as building owners continue to manage their buildings.  MTC will continue to assist these owners with asbestos surveys and hazardous materials management to ensure that asbestos building materials are properly handled. 

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