Industrial era uses of Asbestos

- Jun 15, 2018-

The large scale asbestos industry began in the mid-19th century. Early attempts at producing asbestos paper and cloth in Italy began in the 1850s, but were unsuccessful in creating a market for such products. Canadian samples of asbestos were displayed in London in 1862, and the first companies were formed in England and Scotland to exploit this resource. Asbestos was first used in the manufacture of yarn, and German industrialist Louis Wertheim adopted this process in his factories in Germany. In 1871, the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company was established in Glasgow, and within the following decades, the Clydebank area became a centre for the nascent industry.

Caer shovel loading an ore train with asbestos at the Jeffrey Mine, Johns-Manville Co., Asbestos, Quebec, June 1944.

Industrial scale mining began in the Thetford hills, Quebec from the 1870s. Sir William Edmond Logan was the first to notice the large deposits of chrysotile in the hills in his capacity as head of Geological Survey of Canada. Samples of the minerals from here were displayed in London, and excited much interest. With the opening up of the Quebec Central Railway in 1876, mining entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Stuart Johnson established the asbestos industry in the province. The 50 ton output of the mines in 1878 rose to over 10,000 tons in the 1890s with the adoption of machine technologies and expanded production. For a long time, the world's largest asbestos mine was the Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos, Quebec.

The applications of asbestos multiplied at the end of the 19th century. This is an advertisement for an asbestos-lined clothes iron from 1906.

Asbestos production began in the Urals of the Russian Empire in the 1880s, and in the Alpine regions of Northern Italy with the formation in Turin of the Italo-English Pure Asbestos Company in 1876, although this was soon swamped by the greater production levels from the Canadian mines. Mining also took off in South Africa from 1893 under the aegis of the British businessman Francis Oates, the Director of the De Beers company. It was in South Africa that the production of amosite began in 1910. The U.S. asbestos industry had an early start in 1858, when fibrous anthophyllite was mined for use as asbestos insulation by the Johns Company, a predecessor to the current Johns Manville, at a quarry at Ward's Hill on Staten Island, New York. US production began in earnest in 1899, with the discovery of large deposits in the Belvidere Mountain.

The use of asbestos became increasingly widespread towards the end of the 19th century, when its diverse applications included fire retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, pipes and fireplace cement, heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets, pipe insulation, ceiling insulation, fireproof drywall, flooring, roofing, lawn furniture, and drywall joint compound. In 2011 it was reported that over 50% of UK houses still contained asbestos, despite a ban on asbestos products some years earlier.

In Japan, particularly after World War II, asbestos was used in the manufacture of ammonium sulfate for purposes of rice production, sprayed upon the ceilings, iron skeletons, and walls of railroad cars and buildings (during the 1960s), and used for energy efficiency reasons as well. Production of asbestos in Japan peaked in 1974 and went through ups and downs until about 1990, when production began to drop dramatically.