Asbestos, Mesothelioma, and Lung Disease: The Historical Timeline from the 1800s to the Present

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(as reported from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2017)

Asbestos caused illnesses are a worldwide tragedy. They could have been prevented. It is estimated that for every mesothelioma case, there are six asbestos-induced lung cancers. And that doesn’t count other cancers from the exposure.

Asbestos takes the innocent as well as those working in asbestos plants. It takes family members of those who work in the plants, and those who simply live nearby the plants or in areas known to be high in asbestos fibers.

To date, about 55 countries have banned the use of asbestos. It’s only with a historical perspective that you can see why this hasn’t happened in the United States.

The following is a historical timeline that can give you that understanding. Part 1 is the timeline up until 1968, and Part 2 is the timeline from 1968 to 2015. Part 3 is the timeline from 2015 forward.

Asbestos Timeline, 1800s Up Until 1968

Before 1823 The earliest recorded discovery of asbestos in the U.S. was found on a mountain called Belvidere Mountain in Vermont.

Mid-1800s — Asbestos fibers are imported into the U.S.

1874 — First asbestos product was created. It was a type of covering for a pipe, made out of asbestos, paper and felts by the H.W. Johns Manufacturing Company.

1890s — Commercial mining of asbestos starts with a type of asbestos called chrysotile that was mined from open pits at Belvidere Mountain.

1906 — The Johns-Manville Asbestos Company gave asbestos this slogan – “Serves more people in more ways than any institution of its kind in the world” in an ad in the Saturday Evening Post. The advertisement was for products for the homebuilder, industrial and commercial builders. It also targeted companies that made furnaces. At that time, it was believed that the asbestos industry was one of the greatest industries of the world.

1918 — X-ray changes in the lungs from asbestos were published in the American Journal of Roentgenology for the first time.

1919 — Insurance companies in the U.S. and Canada refused to insure asbestos workers. It was too risky for the workers to develop disease.

1920 — “Asbestosis” was the new term for the type of lung disease           (pneumoconiosis) that was caused by breathing in asbestos dust. The term “curious bodies” was used to describe formations of asbestos in the liver and spleen. Now they’re called “asbestos bodies”.

1927 — A foreman in an asbestos plant in MA files the first official workers compensation claim in the U.S..

The first death of uncomplicated asbestosis was reported to the Medical Society of South Carolina.

1928 — The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that inhaling asbestos caused asbestosis in an editorial and explained the case history of the man who died from the disease.

1920-1930s — Awareness of asbestos hazards is growing.

1930 — Lancet medical journal published the first epidemiological study. The study focused on asbestos textile workers. The authors concluded that exposure to asbestos caused the lung disease asbestosis and that asbestosis was preventable. A similar report of these findings also appeared in Harvard University’s Journal of Industrial Hygiene.

The British Parliament introduced the idea that there was a connection between workplace asbestos and asbestosis, and introduced compensation in the workmen’s compensation act there. In the U.K., they eliminated workers who had active or healed lung conditions or heart conditions from employment believing they were likely to get sick if working in this industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor recommends that if asbestos dust is suppressed, it prevents asbestosis. This was reported in the journal called Asbestos.

International recognition of asbestos occurs via the International Labour Office publication, the Encyclopaedia of Hygiene, Pathology and Social Welfare. They covered topics such as the health dangers of asbestos, recommended practices for industry, and asbestos legislation. This report also discussed insurance companies refusing to cover asbestos workers for insurance coverage in U.S. and Canada, giving others the same idea.

1931 — U.S. Bureau of Labor Bulletin had a report on how to control airborne asbestos dust via localized exhaust ventilation at dust producing points, via using enclosures for those who are doing handwork in dusty locations, via the use of wetting methods, and via not allowing young workers into especially dusty asbestos work areas.

1935 — First shocking study on U.S. asbestos textile workers showed that 87% of the workers had changes to their lungs that showed up on x-rays if they worked over 15 years with asbestos. Engineering controls could reduce the asbestos dust by up to 75%, they concluded. More than 75% control was too expensive for industry and it was not recommended.

Mid-1930s — It became known that asbestosis occurred at any stage of processing, enough exposure to the dust.

Reports of workers with asbestosis diagnosed with lung cancers became prevalent in the U.S. and the U.K.

1938 — The U.S. proposes its first guidelines based on problems that were caused by asbestos dust by the U.S. Public Health Service. The concentration recommended was 5 mppcf. However, there were cases of asbestosis found in workers exposed to lower levels. Because most of the workers had worked <5 years in the asbestos environment, they falsely concluded that the level of 5 mppcf would limit new cases of asbestosis, not considering the long term effects.

1940 — Encyclopedia Britannica stated that asbestos and silica are two known dusts that cause harm to people.

1942 — Eight states (CA, CO, MA, MI, NC, OK, PA, SC) adopt legal regulatory standards for airborne dust containing asbestos (5 millions of particles per cubic foot in air, abbreviated mppcf).

Asbestos is used to insulate warships and war equipment for World War II. The Navy used asbestos for pipe insulation, for gaskets, valve  packing, and insulation used for steam turbines. The Navy took extra care to prevent asbestosis in its sailors and shipyard workers.

In 1941, a survey of New York Naval Yard workers found no asbestos diseases. In a cross-sectional study of four naval shipyards, only three pipe workers had asbestosis. They concluded that the way they were covering pipes had to be safe when exposures were kept under the regulatory limit.

1944, 1949 — The AMA made a statement that asbestos was now one of the known or suspected occupational cancers.

1951 — In the U.S., the Walsh-Healey Act makes safety provisions and recommends the air concentration level be set at 5 mppcf. Some of the changes included evaluating the design of control equipment and devices and making sure they were efficient.

1952 — Encyclopedia Britannica changed its section on asbestos to say that there was a connection between those exposed to asbestos dust (and chrome salts or nickel carbonyl) and cancers involving the whole respiratory tract.

This was based on a toxicologist report from Wilhelm Hueper. He worked at the National Cancer Institute as the Director of the Environmental Cancer Department. He was brave enough to make the  statement that lung cancer was found in up to 20% of autopsies where asbestosis was present, usually 14-20 years after the first exposure to asbestos.

The data he used was from studies in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and France. One study mentioned pleural cancer from asbestosis written in a book by the E.I. DuPont De Nemours & Company. This book contained an important comment, “Pulmonary carcinoma has been observed with such high frequency in employees of the asbestos industry that a causal relationship has been accepted by most authorities.”

Hueper also stated that men and women had an equal chance to get lung cancer from exposure to asbestos.

1960 — A large series of case reports was published involving a rare pleural tumor called mesothelioma in 22 males and 11 females. Thirty-two of the patients had been exposed to crocidolite asbestos in the NW Cape of South Africa. Some were never miners and had been exposed to the dust because they lived near the mines.

The Longshoremen’s Act of 1960 adopted the 5 mppcf level. This was the limit for all longshoremen.

1963 — The case reports collection now reaches 120 mesothelioma cases. They were reported to the 14th International Congress on Occupational Health.

An epidemiological study was done in the U.S., showing mesothelioma at much higher rates than what was expected that occurred amongst workers in a company using mixed forms of asbestos. A second study found similar findings; thus, the first evidence asbestos causing mesothelioma is established.

There was a call in the asbestos industry for better prevention techniques such as dust suppression techniques. However, in a conference of the New York Academy of Sciences on the health effects of asbestos, the industry representatives agreed that eliminating the use of asbestos was the only way to prevent asbestos-related cancers.

1965 — This is when the 1956 Conference on the Biological Effects of Asbestos was held. The conference coordinators documented the need for immediate action on asbestos and it was definitely time for a more rigorous approach on occupational safety and health be taken. This is the year when asbestos regulation came out of the darkness. Asbestos was the very first toxin that was addressed where a complete standard was created by OSHA. However, OSHA is nonexistent in 1965.

1967 — The Longshoremen’s Act accepted a new method for counting asbestos fibers. They lowered the limit to 12 fibers/ml, which was equivalent to 2 mppcf. This method only counted fibers that were greater than 5 um in length with an aspect ratio of 3:1 or greater.

1968 — An article on asbestos appears in the New Yorker that stated that asbestos was the only mineral that could be woven into cloth. It could withstand heat. Electron microscope views of asbestos show fibers in  it that are fibrous. They show a million individual fibrils all lined up side by side in a linear inch of chrysotile asbestos. In insulation material, the electron microscope shows 3800 glass fibrils. When you compare these same linear distances to human hair, you’ll find 630 human hairs. Asbestos has very specific properties that make it desirable by industry:  high tensile strength, unusual flexibility, extreme fineness, spinnability, and resistance to heat and the elements, along with great powers to adsorb and to filter.

The Threshold Limit Value, which was 5 mppcf is recommended to be lowered to 2 mppcf or 12 fibers/milliliter by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. However, the head of the TLV committee from 1962 to 1977, Stokinger, ignored the facts that asbestos was a carcinogen and didn’t believe the epidemiological studies. Thus, no efforts to stop asbestos diseases occurred until after the OSHA law of 1970.

Asbestos Timeline, 1968 Up Until 2015

In this continuation article of the timeline of events unfolding over several decades, you may see that NIOSH, OSHA and EPA did a lot to try to get asbestos banned. Unfortunately no form of asbestos is safe. No exposure is safe. And there is no way you can safely work with asbestos.

Over 50 countries around the world add up these details and place the stamp of BANNED on the substance. But what was it in America’s history that has prevented this ban?

You’ll find out with the timeline events in the history of asbestos here.

1969 The Walsh-Healey Act used the same counting method as what was used for the Longshoreman’s Act, that of 12 fibers/ml and 2 mppcf as their asbestos standard.

By the 1970s  Over 700,000 tons of asbestos were now used in the U.S. annually.

It was unquestionably known that asbestos caused asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma to workers with occupational exposures. The worst part was that innocent family members and others who had environmental exposures also ended up with the asbestos diseases.

1970 One of the world’s foremost experts on asbestos disease testified to Congress, “It is depressing to report, in 1970 that the disease that we knew well 40 years ago is still with us just as if nothing was ever known.”

A London asbestos expert, S. A. Roach, stated at a conference on biological effects of asbestos: “5 million particles per cubic foot are simply standards, although I hope I did not use the word ‘safe’. These are standards which are actually used, although they are not ever expressed as being safe standards.”

He believed that even if the level was dropped to 2 mppcf, it would not be a perfectly safe level of dust. It was also reported that asbestos in the air is quite invisible:  workers don’t see any dust in the air until the concentration level is 20-40 mppcf.


1971 The U.S. OSHA is born. They adopt a new level of 5 fibers/ml. Now safety and health in the workplace wasn’t going to be hit or miss anymore in the states; they will crackdown on all states simultaneously.

1971-1996 Asbestos control moved forward fast. NIOSH produced a lot of different documents and more: 2 Criteria for a Recommended Standard, 1 Current Intelligence Bulletin, 4 Congressional testimonies, 8 scientific policy statements and over 600 published reports. OSHA issued 2 Emergency Temporary Standards for asbestos, 3 major Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, 3 final asbestos standards and 31 Federal Register notices related to asbestos regulation.

1971 In December, OSHA issued an Emergency Temporary Standard for asbestos of 5,000,000 fibers/m3 based on a count of fibers >5um in length and with no peak exposures >10 fibers/m3 for up to 15 minutes in an hour for up to 5 hours in an 8-hour day, with mandatory respirators where engineering controls were not feasible. OSHA said they had to issue an emergency standard because working conditions constituted a grave danger and that it was necessary.

1973 EPA bans spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing materials in fireproofing/insulation on buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits that contain more than 1% asbestos.

1975 EPA bans installation of asbestos pipe and block insulation as facility components, and on boilers or hot water tanks when the material was either pre-formed (molded) and friable or wet applied where it could become friable after drying.

NIOSH calls a meeting to discuss the hazards of asbestos in brakes. Its reports has atrocious results, showing levels as high as 37.3 fibers/m3 (>5 um in length) within 10 feet of the operator during brake servicing operations. The NIOSH then issued a Current Intelligence Bulletin on asbestos in brakes and gave specific recommendations to protect workers. However, a backlash from lobbiers for the brake manufacturers began and has not stopped yet until the present day.  How asbestos brake manufacturers act shows us why asbestos regulations are so difficult to change and why the U.S. still doesn’t have a ban on asbestos.

OSHA declared asbestos is a human carcinogen and published a Notice of Proposed Rule Making to revise the asbestos standard for general industry (not construction) with a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.5 fibers/m3. However, successful lobbying by the industry interfered with the new ruling. Without political support (4 Senators and 2 Congressmen objected saying the proposal was economically infeasible for industry), OSHA backed down. They did not hold any hearings and dropped the new standard entirely.

1976 NIOSH issued a Revised Recommended Standard for Asbestos. They were convinced that exposure to all types of asbestos fibers caused cancer and asbestosis. NIOSH showed evidence that asbestos inhaled by animals caused mesothelioma and lung cancers after as little as one day of exposure. They confirmed the relationship of dose to disease:  that excess levels of cancers were found at all asbestos fiber concentrations; thus, there was no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Their recommendations were that phase contrast microscopy should be used in every workplace no matter what the cost was, and the concentration allowed should be set at 0.1 fibers/m3 >5 um in length over an 8 hour time period with no greater than 0.5 fibers/m3 >5 um in length for a 15 minute sampling period. This was the first time a U.S. governmental agency suggested a complete ban on asbestos in the workplace, and they continue to advocate this policy.

1977 The Consumer Product Safety Commission issues another partial ban on asbestos for artificial fireplace embers made with asbestos and all joint wall patching compounds containing asbestos.

1978 EPA expands the ban to all spray-applied surfacing materials not covered in the 1973 spraying ban.

Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. held a Press Conference in Washington, D.C. in April on the topic of the dangers of handling asbestos. A 3-page physician advisory was to be sent to all MDs in the U.S. from the Surgeon General of the U.S. on the hazards of asbestos.

The advisory suggested that doctors do the following for those potentially exposed to asbestos:

  • take an occupational or exposure history
  • carefully manage lung disease
  • emphasize smoking cessation because smoking plus asbestos exposure increases a worker’s risk of developing cancer more than just smoking or asbestos exposure alone
  • screen for cancer

1979   OSHA and NIOSH form a joint working group to evaluate how effective the OSHA Asbestos Standard is. Their conclusion was there was no safe level of exposure to asbestos, the OSHA PEL was inadequate, and clinical symptoms occur at all exposure levels, even for those living nearby asbestos-contaminated areas.

1980 A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on benzene affected the setting of asbestos standards. The case was Industrial Union Department v. American Petroleum Institute. The Court held: “Therefore, before the Secretary can promulgate any permanent health or safety standard, he must make a threshold finding that the place of employment is unsafe in the sense that significant risks are present and can be eliminated or lessened by a change in practices.”

This meant that a risk analysis of both the current level of exposure and also the level proposed for the new standard had to be done before any proposed standards were made.

1983 OSHA issued another Emergency Temporary Standard for asbestos. The asbestos industry challenges it in court and it is thrown out. OSHA never tried to use the Emergency Temporary Standard again from this day on.

1984-1986 OSHA published two new asbestos standards covering general industry and on construction, reducing the PEL to 0.2 fibers/m3. OSHA did the risk assessment and calculated that 7815 cancer deaths over a 45-year working lifetime would be prevented.

1988 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia asked OSHA to explain why the level couldn’t be 0.1 fibers/m3 and two years later, OSHA lowered it to .1 fibers/m3, with all the necessary documentation that was needed. Two final standards were published, one for general industry and one for construction.

The standards also required all employers to talk with employees about the hazards of asbestos. The standard did not hold building owners accountable for testing for asbestos. It did require building owners to assume that all thermal system insulation, sprayed or troweled onto surface material, and flooring material that was installed prior to 1981 contained asbestos unless proven otherwise.

1989 — EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products under Section 6 of the Toxic Substances Control Act. It was an attempt to ban future manufacturing, importing, processing and distribution of asbestos containing products.

The industry appealed the ban in the courts. The rule was vacated in October 1991 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. This meant that products were not banned, except for corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper and flooring felt and any new uses of asbestos.

Asbestos containing products allowed to remain in the U.S. markets include:

  • Brake blocks, disc brake pads, drum brake linings
  • Automatic transmission components, clutch facings
  • Cement – corrugated sheet, flat sheet, shingle, pipe
  • Clothing
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Roofing felts, roof coatings, non-roofing coatings
  • Vinyl floor tile
  • Millboard
  • Gaskets
  • Friction materials

Under the Clean Act Air, these asbestos products are banned:

  • asbestos pic insulation
  • asbestos block insulation on facility components such as boilers and water tanks
  • spray-applied surfacing asbestos-containing materials
  • spray-on application of materials containing more than 1% asbestos to buildings, structures, pipes, and conduits unless meeting certain conditions specified under 40 CFR 61, Subpart M.

By 2000 Most U.S. manufacturers had stopped producing asbestos-containing products.

U.S. asbestos consumption decreased to 14,600 tons.

2015 The U.S. was still importing 343 tons of chrysotile asbestos each year, 95% from Brazil and 5% from Russia.

Nearly all U.S. asbestos consumption is from the chloralkali industry.


NIOSH determined that asbestos is a proven human carcinogen. So did OSHA. So did EPA. No form of asbestos is safe. No level of exposure is safe. There is no safe way to work with asbestos.

Perhaps it will take a universal world-wide ban on asbestos mining, manufacture and all uses of asbestos, from a world-wide common law court to get the pain to stop.

Globally in the year 2013, about 194,000 asbestos-induced cancer deaths occurred. This is a statistic from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In 1990, the number was 94,000. Looking at mesothelioma cases, the number of deaths in the U.S. increased in the last 16 years from 2479 to 2597.  The trend of malignant mesothelioma deaths in those under the age of 55 suggests that asbestos fibers are continued to be inhaled. For every case of mesothelioma, there are six asbestos-induced lung cancers.

It’s not right that the asbestos industry and its political allies can act against the public health interests of the masses. It’s not right that profits are more important than a human life.


The strategies used by the asbestos industry is similar to those used by the tobacco and sugar industries. They create doubt and false controversies, always questioning issues that were solved decades ago. It seems that making large donations to political campaigns will always be one of the causes that continues this type of history. Today, it’s asbestos that isn’t banned. What is it tomorrow?


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