For centuries, asbestos was used. Thousands of workers were exposed to the risks of this mineral that has several beneficial properties, but on the other hand can lead people to death. First, the relation between asbestos and death of some workers wasn’t made clear. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noticed something wrong regarding asbestos workers. Both found a sickness in the lungs of slaves that worked with asbestos. Despite the evidence, the diseases related to the asbestos use were ignored for a long time. Only in the year 1931, the first laws were created in England in order to create preventative measures.
The use of asbestos
The Greek people named this mineral asbestos uniting two words in Greek: a, for non and asbestos, for extinguishable. So, asbestos means inextinguishable, which can be easily understood after reading about the effects of this mineral on the lungs of workers.
Asbestos was largely used due to its various properties. This mineral is resistant to fire, to some chemical effects and it also is waterproof. Due to this characteristic of being resistant to fire, it was used by unreliable merchants that used to sell crosses – that were supposed to be pieces of the cross where Jesus Christ was hung – made of asbestos. Since asbestos may have an appearance of old wood it could be easily sold and the fire resistance was the perfect excuse to sell it.
During the 1800s, the use of asbestos increased due to the Industrial Revolution. It started to be used worldwide, without any regard to working conditions. More than 3000 branches of industrial production used asbestos in the manufacturing of its products, which just contributed to the development of a disease commonly diagnosed in people that were exposed to asbestos.
The health conditions regarding asbestos exposure
For centuries, asbestos was used. And for decades, its effects were simply ignored. Doctors related some deaths to the exposure to asbestos, but it took years until the first measures were taken.
During the Industrial Revolution and the following years, working conditions were highly despised. By that time, it didn’t matter what conditions people worked under, but how fast and efficiently they could do their job. This situation only contributed to the increase in the number of people who had respiratory problems.
The problem and the risk to the health regarding asbestos lies in a simple action: inhaling the particles spread by this mineral. If the particles are not inhaled, it does not represent a risk. But the truth is that, working with asbestos, it is almost impossible not to inhale particles.
These particles inhaled get stuck in the lungs’ tissues, causing a type of cancer that is known as mesothelioma or asbestosis. Mesothelioma is a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings. When it is diagnosed, it is in general too late to do something: it’s often fatal. Besides, mesothelioma has a long period that it remains in a latent state: it can remain unnoticed for 15 up to 60 years.
Asbestosis is a condition that compromises the elasticity of the lung tissue, which makes it difficult for the organs to exchange gases, resulting in a low level of oxygenation of the blood. It restricts breathing and can be unnoticed for up to 30 years. Even with the preventative measures assured by laws, the number of deaths related to the exposure to asbestos has increased. In 1968, there were 153 deaths caused by mesothelioma but in 2003, statistics show 1874 deaths. And it is not a world number: it was registered in Great Britain.