The asbestos industry ushers in thoughts of lung ailments such as asbestosis and incurable mesothelioma cancer. But long before modern medicine showed the dangers of this mineral, ancient people knew of its fire mastering properties and the problems it presented.
Asbestos is a Greek word meaning "inextinguishable" or "indestructible". It is a naturally occurring silicate mineral consisting of magnesium, calcium and iron. It is composed of strong fibres, which are either silky in texture with curly fibres or straight with needle like fibres. When it is processed into manufactured products, very small fibres are created. These invisible fibres are the source of danger when inhaled.
The Romans mined or quarried asbestos from all over Europe and the Mediterranean. It was used in literally hundreds of products because it is strong, insulates well, and resists fire and corrosion. The ancient Greeks used asbestos in their cloth and the Romans used it in their building materials. They wove asbestos fibres into fabrics to make towels, napkins, nets and head coverings for women. It was also used in cremation robes and candlewicks and may have been used in the everlasting flame that was kept alight by the Vestal Virgins.
In the first century AD the geographer, Strabo, identified the first Greek asbestos quarry on the Island of Evvoia. Fibrous stone threads were combed and spun like wool in the process of making cloth-like products. As an example of Roman knowledge of its fire-retardant properties, Strabo writes, ""which is combed out and woven, so that the woven material is made into towels, and, when these are soiled, they are thrown into fire and cleansed, just as linens are cleansed by washing." The Romans called asbestos, amiantus (unpolluted), as a reflection of this easy to clean property and it remains the root of the French word (amiante) today. The 1st century historian Pliny the Elder also wrote of the qualities of asbestos. He noted "it is quite indestructible by fire," and "affords protection against all spells, especially those of the Magi."
Asbestos was widely known in other cultures as well. The Ancient Egyptians embalmed pharaohs with it and made clothing containing asbestos fibres to improve durability. Ancient Scandinavian peoples mixed it in pottery and sealed cracks in their log huts with it. The Persians imported 'stone wool' from India and they thought that this material was made from the hair of small rat-like animal, which lived in fire and died by water. When the Persians burned the bodies of their dead, they first wrapped them in linen called linum vivum, woven from the stone asbestos. Put into the fire, this cloth wouldn't burn, and so the ashes were preserved and kept safe to be put into the sepulcher.
In medieval times it was used as insulation in suits of armour. The Emperor Charlemagne reportedly used an asbestos tablecloth to convince some barbarian guests that he had supernatural powers, by throwing it into a fire and pulling it out unsinged. There is also obscure evidence of medieval merchants selling asbestos crosses, citing their resistance to fire as evidence that they were made from wood from 'the true cross'.
The negative health effects of asbestos were also known to the Romans. Both Strabo and Pliny also mentioned the sickness that seemed to follow those who worked with asbestos. It was recommended never to buy asbestos quarry slaves as they often "died young". Lung ailments were a common problem to anyone who worked with asbestos fibres. Pliny even made reference to the use of a transparent bladder skin as a respirator to avoid inhalation of the dust by slaves.
Despite the knowledge and warnings of the Ancients, the many uses of asbestos lead to ignoring the ramifications of exposure until the late 20th century. Today asbestos use is largely being reduced all over the industrialized world. While still used in such capacities as rocket fuel shielding in space programs, the risk to human workers is slowly being eliminated.