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Asbestos became a central part of commercial product manufacturing in America in the early 1800s. Its first popular use was the lining in steam engines in 1828.
Why asbestos? Simple: It was cheap, durable, flexible and naturally acted as an insulating and fireproofing agent. The construction and manufacturing industries fell in love with its potential and used asbestos-containing products whenever possible.
During World War II, use of these products peaked, and the shipbuilding industry utilized the mineral extensively. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, asbestos was the ideal material to use.
Although people have found a wide variety of uses for asbestos since antiquity, the material's extensive use as an ingredient in construction materials started during the industrial revolution. By the late 19th century, nations around the world were operating massive mines to meet a burgeoning demand for the mineral. Manufacturers used the majority of the output from these mines to produce construction materials, including asbestos cement and insulation for buildings and machinery.
Just before the Civil War, the first patent for roofing shingles was awarded to Henry Ward Johns, who founded the New York-based H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company. For the next 40 years, Johns Company manufactured an assortment of asbestos products, including textiles and insulation, in addition to the highly profitable asbestos roofing products that framed Henry Ward Johns' success and initially funded his business.
By this time, however, Johns Manufacturing was not the only company producing these materials. In fact, discovery of naturally occurring deposits in the U.S. in the 1880s prompted mining of the mineral for commercial uses. To remain competitive, Johns Manufacturing made a strategic business decision in 1886, aligning itself with Manville Covering, a company that operated an asbestos mine and specialized in insulation and pipe covering. The merger established the Johns-Manville Corporation, the largest manufacturer of asbestos products in the U.S.
With Johns-Manville at the forefront of the boom, the asbestos industry grew rapidly by the early 1900s, and by 1905 the United States' many asbestos manufacturers produced 2,820 tons of the mineral – all for domestic use.
The use of asbestos-containing products stretched across a number of industries. Although most of the products could be categorized as either construction or automotive materials, some were general. The following list includes some of the most popular products:
Brake pads, clutches, hood liners, gaskets and valves.
Flooring, ceiling and roofing tiles were commonly made with asbestos. The adhesive used to lay down flooring tiles has also been a source of exposure.
Asbestos-containing cement was used in building materials because the fibers provided strength without adding much weight. Its insulating and fire-resistant properties also made the mineral an ideal substance to add to cement.
Asbestos was used in the production of cloths and garments for its resistance to heat and corrosive elements. Some of the most common textiles included blankets, fireman suits and rope.
Although these products met the demands of the construction, automotive and manufacturing industries, the medical community did not approve of asbestos use. Respiratory conditions stemming from working around the mineral were acknowledged by doctors in the late 1800s. By 1907, the first case of asbestosis was reported. In addition to this pulmonary disease, mesothelioma and lung cancer became associated with exposure in later years. The first documented case of mesothelioma linked to exposure was in 1964. While concerns for related disease grew during the 1900s, the use of asbestos in products grew even faster.
Finally in the 1970s, the scientific evidence surrounding the dangers of the mineral became publicly accepted. In December 1977, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos-containing patching compounds and artificial fireplace ash products. More than a decade later, on July 12, 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a ban on most contaminated products, but this ruling was overturned two years later by a New Orleans court. Currently, the EPA ban affects only flooring felt, rollboard and certain types of papers.
Products today can be made with asbestos as long as it accounts for less than 1 percent of the product. Current products include brake pads, automobile clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile, cement piping, corrugated sheeting, home insulation and some potting soils. Although products can still be made with small amounts of asbestos, the regulations that control its use and manage its removal from older buildings are very strict.
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