History

Ancient History of Asbestos
(before 1900)

The ancient Greeks named the mineral asbestos, meaning inextinguishable. The Greeks and Romans also observed its harmful biological effects. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both reported a sickness of the lungs in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloth.

Original uses for asbestos included making the wicks for the eternal flames of the vestal virgins, cloth for the funeral dress used at the cremation of kings, and napkins and tablecloths. The Romans would clean asbestos napkins by throwing them into a fire, and the asbestos cloth would amazingly come out whiter. The Romans named asbestos, amiantus, which means unpolluted.

Asbestos use declined in the Middle Ages, but it was rumored that Charlemagne had asbestos tablecloths. In the course of his travels, Marco Polo reported about articles made from asbestos cloth.

Asbestos use began to appear in historical writings again in the 1700s, and its use intensified with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In industrial settings, asbestos-containing products were used for insulation for boilers, steam pipes, turbines, ovens, kilns, drywall products, and cements.

Early Modern Knowledge of Asbestos
(1900–1960)

In 1900, Dr. H. Montague Murray, a physician at London’s Charing Cross Hospital, performed a post-mortem exam on a 33-year-old man who had worked in an asbestos textile factory for 14 years. The patient was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, and he was the last survivor of a group of ten men who were working in the carding room of the factory in 1886. Dr. Murray found traces of asbestos in the man’s lungs. He concluded that the man died because of his occupation.

A 1906 study determined that there was an uncommonly high mortality rate among asbestos workers. The study concluded that this was probably due to the amount of dust that accumulated because of the poor working conditions, much like the working conditions of stonecutters. The study recommended that steps be taken to improve the ventilation and decrease the exposure to dust.

In 1917 and 1918, several studies in the U.S. observed that asbestos workers were dying unnaturally young.

The first diagnosis of asbestosis was made in 1924. An English doctor determined that the cause of death of a 33-year-old woman was what he called “asbestosis.” She had been working with asbestos since she was 13. Based on this, a study was done on asbestos workers in England. It found that 25% of them showed evidence of asbestos-related lung disease. In 1931, England passed laws to increase ventilation and to make asbestosis a compensable, work-related disease. It took the U.S. ten more years to take these actions.

In 1927, a foreman in an asbestos textile plant in Massachusetts filed the first workers’ compensation disability claim for asbestosis. It was 1930 before the first U.S. autopsy established the existence of asbestos lung disease on this side of the Atlantic.

Silicosis became a workplace issue in the 1930s, leaving asbestos-related diseases neglected for several years. Silicosis, a lung disease caused by silica dust, the main constituent of sand, resulted in lawsuits against the employers of the affected workers. This served as an early warning to the asbestos companies, and they began taking measures to cover up the health effects of asbestos.

In 1933, in the midst of the silicosis litigation, the Johns-Manville Corporation authorized their president to make a deal with an attorney who represented 11 asbestosis sufferers. The company paid $30,000 to settle the claims and insisted that the attorney agree that he would not “directly or indirectly participate in the bringing of new actions against the Corporation.”

States such as Wisconsin recognized that asbestos caused lung disease in its workers’ compensation laws as early as 1919. However, these laws often gave the employee a very short time to file his or her claim and made proof of the disease very difficult. Unfortunately, in most cases of asbestos-related diseases, the adverse health effects take years to manifest themselves, and the worker is often no longer in the same workplace.

Medical History
The following outlines the medical history of asbestos disease as reported in recent medical literature.

Year

Author

Description of Text


1879

Commercial production of asbestos insulation material begins.

1899

Murray

First case of asbestosis described in “Curious Bodies.”

1906

Auribault

First reported case of asbestos lung disease: linked 50 deaths to asbestos dust in weaving mill.

1918

Hoffman

U.S. Department of Labor bulletin – “urgent need for more qualified extensive investigation. . . .”

1924–27

Cooke

First “asbestosis” case in British literature.

1928–29

Seiller; Haddow

Case reports: average age at death, 41 (4 cases).

1920–29

25+ asbestos-related publications.

1930

Mereweather
& Price

363 asbestos textile workers studied. 95 (26%) had asbestosis and 21 had precursive signs. Saw dose-response relationship and importance of intensity and duration of exposure.

1930

International Labor Office, Geneva, Encyclopedia,
Occupation & Health

“the lack of more accurate and detailed data in medical literature regarding this industry in its various branches, including the utilization of by-products, is to be deplored . . . especially since the rapidly increasing development of industries utilizing asbestos adds greatly to the urgency of studying the conditions with a view to their amelioration.”

1930–31

Soper; Panacost & Pendergrass

Progression of the disease, even after cessation of exposure; long clinical latency – 15, 20, or 25 years.

1931

Lynch & Smith

Noted 172 cases reported in literature.

1931

Wood & Gloyne

Asbestosis in a “sawyer” description of industries and processes in which asbestosis occurs, includes insulation work.

1933

Ellman

First U.S. case report of asbestosis in an insulation worker.

1933

Donnelly

Describes short exposures as definite, serious industrial hazard. Consensus is that protective devices used in plants are inadequate.

1933–34

Mereweather

Risk in milling and manufacturing processes is patent and serious. Concludes affected workers face inevitable death.

1934

Wood & Gloyne

Review of the first 100 cases of asbestosis they had seen. It includes two cases of individuals working outdoors, one office worker, and a boiler-riveter. Two cases had serious lung cancer.

1934–35

Dept. of Labor, Commonwealth of PA, Special Bulletin I, II, & III

Bibliography contains 125 publications. Dust measurement and disease correlated to 8% disease at 5 mppcf, 22% at 17 mppcf, and 57% at 44 mppcf. Overall, approximately 25% of those who survived had asbestosis.

1935

Lanza

Survey of U.S. mines and mills. 126 random exams (all more than three years of exposure) with 67 cases of asbestosis. Dust control only partly effective; industry must face this problem.

1935

Lynch & Smith

First asbestosis and lung cancer case reported in the U.S.

1936

Donnelly

Asbestosis in 34% of workers; seriousness of hazard has received insufficient attention. Greater number of exposed workers means asbestosis of greater importance.

1936–38

Egbert; Nordmann, British Factory Inspectorate Report

Additional cases of lung cancer in asbestosis.

1938

Dreessen

U.S.P.H.S. study – “tentative” threshold value set at five mppcf “until better data are available.”

1938

Lanza

Reports that 1931 British regulations applied to all factories and workshops where asbestos-containing products were either manufactured or sold.

1930–39

150+ published articles

1941

Kuhn

Reports German case of shipyard insulator receiving disability compensation for asbestosis.

1942

Holleb

Reports two cases of lung cancer in insulation workers.

1942

Hueper

Book on occupational tumors discusses asbestos exposure and lung cancer – “suggestive of an occupational origin.”

1942

Germany recognizes combination of asbestosis and lung cancer as compensable occupational disease.

1943

Hueper

Convinced of occupational origin of lung cancer with asbestosis, concerned about industry reactions, and stresses need for workers to be informed.

1943

Welder

First pleural tumor reported.

1946

Fleischer

U.S. Navy survey of three shipyards, hygiene and clinical – high dust counts during cutting, sawing, and mixing asbestos products. Disease expected among workers in these operations. Clinical survey found three cases of asbestosis among the 51 men with more than ten years experience in the yards.

1946

ACGIH

Adopts five mppcf into a list of MAC values (called TLVs after 1948).

1947

Mereweather

31/235 (13%) autopsied cases of asbestosis had cancer of the lungs or pleura. Only 1% seen in silicotics and general population.

1949

AMA editorial

Increased attention needed to probable occupational hazards of cancer.

1940–49

50+ new published articles

1951

1949 British Factory Inspectorate Report

Burlap packaging criticized as a health hazard. Stresses need to be watchful for disease among those who are not fully aware of risks.

1953

Weiss

First mesothelioma case reported in an insulation worker.

1955

Doll

Mortality study of 113 asbestos textile workers, all with more than 20 years of exposure. Excess mortality found (39 deaths; 15 expected – 11 lung cancer; 0.8 expected).

1955

McLaughlin

Reports increasing cases of asbestosis in Great Britain, including insulators.

1955

Schepers

Reports asbestos-containing insulation products produce asbestosis in animals.

1956

Frost

Of 31 insulation workers in Denmark with more than 20 years in the trade, 22 abnormal.

1958

Van Der Shoot

Reports pleural mesothelioma in a Dutch insulation worker in a refinery.

1950–59

125+ publications

1960

Wagner

Asbestos exposure and mesothelioma – 32/33 cases had asbestos exposure, occupational or environmental.

1960

Kiviluoto

Pleural calcifications seen more frequently among residents in county with asbestos mine or mill (7.9%).

1960–63

Eisenstadt, Wilson, McCaughey, Wade, Elmes, Castleman, Kibbee

Case reports of mesothelioma seen among workers using asbestos products in Great Britain & U.S.

1963

Mancuso

Mortality study in the U.S. shows asbestos plant workers have increased mortality rates.

1964

Marr

Six cases of shipyard asbestosis. Industrial hygiene survey done, some counts exceed TLV. “During sawing of blocks and pipe sections and removal of old insulation, the work environment appears extremely dusty.”

1964

Selikoff

Mortality study of asbestos insulation workers, excess asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma deaths. Clinical survey of 1,117 workers.

1965

Newhouse

Nine cases of mesothelioma among family members of asbestos workers, 11 neighborhood cases.

1965

McVittie

Between 1955 and 1963, 41% of new cases of asbestosis diagnosed by the Great Britain pneumoconiosis panels were workers in the insulation industry; 21% were workers in textile factories.

1960–69

200+ publications

  Mesothelioma History
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