This Week’s WOW!: Mesothelioma & A Brief History of Asbestos

When Heather Von St. James contacted me to see if I’d be interested in doing a brief Moment for Meso blogpost to help her raise awareness about Mesothelioma, I initially thought it would be a good thing to do, but not particularly interesting. I was aware of Mesothelioma in a vague sense–I knew, for instance, that asbestos was a carcinogen and that abundant exposure to it could cause cancer–but in the process of researching a bit for this post, I ended up learning some very interesting things I thought I’d share with you! 

asbestosDID YOU KNOW? 

I’d always thought asbestos came into major usage sometime in the ’70s when lead paint and other dangerous substances seemed to be making their way into homes. I also thought that for the most part, asbestos was used in construction for fire-proofing. While this latter detail is true–asbestos has been commonly used in construction materials to increase their fire resistance–asbestos has a much longer history of use than that.

The ancient Greeks used it to create fabrics (for tablecloths and napkins, as well as funeral shrouds for pyres) that could be burned in a fireplace to cleanse them, rather than having to wash them. The Romans did this, too.(1) In fact, there’s a steady stream of asbestos use from then on throughout history, though asbestos became particularly useful during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. During the rise of steam-power, asbestos was put to liberal use as a fire-retardant insulator in steam engines and later in automobiles.(2) In the 20th century, asbestos was used in–yes–construction materials, but also in a vast array of other household items, like crock pots, hairdryers, car brakes, paint, fertilizer, and there’s even evidence that some baby powders were regularly contaminated with asbestos as well, due to contaminated talc mines.(3)

The thing is, though, people since ancient Greece have known that working near or mining asbestos causes respiratory illness. In Greece, it was considered to cause lung disease and even early death in the slaves who worked in the asbestos mines. During the Industrial Revolution, those working in shipyards and other industries which utilized asbestos liberally, it was not uncommon at all for workers to develop and die from mesothelioma.** All this time, we’ve known asbestos was bad for those working with it, and yet we seem addicted to its use. Even today, asbestos use is still legal in the U.S.(4)


– Exposure to asbestos doesn’t have to be first-hand to be at risk for mesothelioma. A lot of the spouse and children of those who work directly with asbestos or live in towns near asbestos mines can develop this aggressive cancer from inhaling particles from the clothing of the individual working in direct contact.(5)

– Symptoms of mesothelioma might not show up for up to 30-60 years after primary exposure. (4)

– Mesothelioma usually comes with an average of 10 months expected lifespan, post-diagnosis. (4)

– US Veterans are at the highest risk of mesothelioma due to their contact with construction and mechanical uses of asbestos. (4)

– 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year. (4)


(I recognize this isn’t “proper” format for a bibliography, but work with me here–I’ve got a newborn to get back to! At least this should help you find more information about the various facts I’ve discussed here. Learn more!)

(1) Ross, Malcom and Nolan, Robert P. “History of asbestos discovery and use,” Earth and Environmental Sciences of the Graduate School and University Center of The City University of New York, NY, 2003. (Pg. 449).



(4) Von St. James. Heather. “Moment for Meso,”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s