In 2013, asbestos – the deadly substance that was once frequently used in construction and other industries – is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Australians are discovering that many buildings, even their own homes, might be contaminated with asbestos. Once disturbed, it can release deadly fibres into the air that, when inhaled, cause a range of fatal diseases, such as mesothelioma.

However, the substance has not always held such notoriety. Indeed, just 30 years ago it was hailed as an incredibly useful material – hence its incorporation into so many buildings throughout the country.

According to the National Health and Research Council, asbestos is reasonably inexpensive to mine and process, and it possesses many other characteristics that rendered it something of a godsend to many sectors. These include its resistance to fire, electrical charges and a variety of chemicals; its flexibility and strength and the fact that it’s both a fantastic insulator and sound barrier.

That’s why asbestos was used in a huge range of products, such as concrete, paint, furniture and even table cloths.

Did you know that asbestos fibres can be spun and woven? The ancients did, and they were also clued-up on its other amazing properties.

Ancient Rome

The term “asbestos” has actually been attributed to Gaius Plinius Secundus – better known as Pliny the Elder – who was a Roman author, philosopher and military commander in the first century AD. In his book Natural History, he described the substance as “abestinon”, which means “unquenchable”.

He explained that his contemporaries used asbestos in myriad “woven products”, including napkins, shrouds, and – of course – table cloths.

Ancient Greece

Pliny the Elder wasn’t the only ancient who was fascinated by asbestos, or took the time to jot down a sentence or two about it. In the fourth century BC, one of Aristotle’s students, Theophrastus, wrote of a substance that possessed all of the attributes we associated with asbestos.

According to “Asbestos Revisited”, an article published in Scientific American, Theophrastus described it as “resembling rotten wood” and explained that it “would burn without being harmed” when doused with oil. This information was included in his book “On Stones”, written around 300 BC, and is one of the earliest references we have to asbestos.

Like the ancient Romans, the ancient Greeks also incorporated asbestos into products such as clothing – originally for slaves, but when its seemingly magical properties were discovered, the substance was used to dress more regal persons. They were not unaware of its usefulness as a insulator, either, placing it in their walls and even ovens to keep the heat in and the cold out.

The deadly substance continued to be used for the next thousand years, appearing in books at different times from all over the world.

The Middle Ages

Interestingly, the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Information Exchange states that pieces of asbestos were sold during the Middle Ages to gullible consumers who were told they were taken from the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

In order to demonstrate the religious power of such relics, clever merchants would toss the asbestos – which, as Theophrastus pointed out, looked like rotten wood – into fire and impress the crowds by retrieving it unscatched.

Many scholars from this period claimed the substance’s fascinating properties could only mean one thing – that asbestos fibres were actually salamander hair. “Asbestos Revisited” also states that other possible candidates for the source of asbestos during this period included lizard plumes and bird feathers.

Charlemagne

One of the most famous possessors of a product made from asbestos was Charlemagne. Emperor of Western Europe from December 25, AD 800, to January 28, AD 814, Charlemagne is remembered for his campaigns and reforms – and, apparently, his table cloth.

Legend has it the “Father of Europe” owned a remarkable table cloth woven out of asbestos, which he used to astound (or, as Scientific American suggests, intimidate) his guests by throwing it into the fire and then removing it – completely unharmed. This left many believing Charlemagne had supernatural powers.

How to clean asbestos table cloths

However, he was simply doing what the ancient Romans and Greeks had done hundreds of years earlier. While in the time of Charlemagne having a table cloth made from asbestos was very elite, as was mentioned earlier in ancient Rome and Greece this was a common household item.

One of the main reasons was that such a table cloth could be cleaned by just tossing it in the fire.

After they had finished eating, explains the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Information Exchange, the ancient Romans would place their napkins, table cloths and any other materials made out of asbestos in the fire, where all the stains and food scraps would burn away and the table cloth would remain intact, fit for the next meal of the day.

Apparently these items often came out of the fire whiter and brighter than when they went in, a phenomenon that led ancient Romans to give it another awe-inspiring name: “amiantus”, which means “unpolluted”.

Present Day

An increased asbestos awareness – particularly of the risk it poses to anyone who comes into contact with it – has led to the substance’s being completely banned in Australia. The National Health and Medical Research Council explains that asbestos began to be phased out in the 1980s and was only completely prohibited at the end of 2003.

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