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Asbestos is a type of metamorphic mineral group called "serpentine". Asbestos was used for thousands of years for various things, such as construction and pottery, although large-scale mining didn't begin until the 19th century. It became desirable as a building material because of its low cost, resistance to fire and acid, and sound absorption. Interestingly, asbestos is all natural.
Despite being a cause of lung cancer and various other diseases, and despite thousands of years of people's personal observations, asbestos was not known to be dangerous until scientific studies were done on its health effects in the 20th century. As a result of these advances in science, regulations have phased out asbestos as a construction material in many countries.
The mechanism of carcinogenicity for asbestos is frustrated phagocytosis, i.e., the inability of a phagocyte to engulf its target. This mechanism likely also applies to other similarly-shaped, biologically-inert substances such as nanotubes and nanowires that meet the same length threshold for pleural retention of 5 µm as asbestos does.
Artificial snow commonly contained asbestos fibers before the 1980s phase-out happened.
"It's perfectly safe!"
The danger of asbestos is sometimes erroneously claimed to have been known to the ancient Romans. The danger of asbestosis to workers was correctly recognized as early as the 1900s, and insurance companies began to take notice in the 1930s. The carcinogenicity of asbestos in humans was suspected since 1935 and was firmly established in 1955 by Sir Richard Doll. Nonetheless, the asbestos industry attempted to cover up the risks of asbestos into the 1970s. There is still the rare crank who denies the health hazards of asbestos, such as journalist Christopher Booker.
Use as medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, asbestos is used (including in powder form) for treating impotence, spermatorrhea, premature ejaculation, colic, muscle cramps, prostatitis, and endometritis. It is also used for kidney "warming" and yang fortifying, whatever that means.
In a nutshell
- History of asbestos-related disease
- Asbestos: mining exposure, health effects and policy implications, Kristina Luus.
- "Anti-asbestos campaigners have tried to claim that Pliny described the dangers of asbestos to those who mined it (Bk.33.122), but this was based on a misreading. Pliny was describing those who worked with cinnabar or mercury ore (K. Browne and R. Murray, 'Asbestos and the Romans', The Lancet, 336, p. 445)." Scared to Death, Christopher Booker, Richard North, page 326.
"Browne and Murray were unable to find an ancient writing attributing hazardous properties to asbestos." Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, Barry I. Castleman, page 1.
"Pliny the Elder is often said to have recorded that slaves working with asbestos came down with lung disease, but this seems to be based on a mistranslation; see Kevin Browne and Robert Murray, "Asbestos and the Romans," Lancet 336 (1990): 445." The Nazi War on Cancer, Robert Proctor, page 310.
"Dioscorides and other ancient Greek writers used the noun ασβεστος (asvestos) to mean quicklime; a meaning retained in Modern Greek. However, Pliny the Elder, apparently misunderstanding the use of this word by the early Greeks, replaced the Greek noun for quicklime, asvestos, with the Latin word asbestinon, or ‘‘asbestos.” "The mineral nature of asbestos", Malcolm Ross et al.
- IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Asbestos (Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Actinolite and Anthophyllite)
- http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100C/mono100C-11.pdf IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Asbestos (Chrysotile, Amosite, Crocidolite, Tremolite, Actinolite and Anthophyllite)
- http://www.particleandfibretoxicology.com/content/pdf/1743-8977-9-34.pdf Use of back-scatter electron signals to visualise cell/nanowires interactions in vitro and in vivo; frustrated phagocytosis of long fibres in macrophages and compartmentalisation in mesothelial cells in vivo
- Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz frolicked through it
- Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos Is Killing America by Michael Bowker (2003). Touchstone. Page 18. ISBN 0743251431.
- Some inorganic and organometallic compounds (IARC Monographs on the Evaluation Carcinogenic Risk of Chemicals to Man, volume 2).
- New Data on Asbestos Indicate Cover-Up of Effects on Workers by Bill Richards (November 12, 1978) Washington Post.
- Actinolite, TCMwiki.com.
- Aconite. This describes the asbestos ore actinolite.
- Critical Appraisal on Formulations of Kousheyashma (Asbestos) by Sharma, Govinda K., et al. (2013) Journal of Biological & Scientific Opinion· Volume 1(3):228-231.