Asbestos is a building material that is made from a collection of naturally occurring silicate minerals. It was popular with 19th century builders and manufacturers because it has a number of beneficial commercial qualities including good tensile strength, resistance to fire, affordability and sound absorption. However, asbestos has been banned by the European Union due to its serious negative health side effects. The material has been proven to cause malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma and a disease called asbestosis.
Many buildings still exist that were built before this material was banned and contain asbestos in their walls and structure. In order to keep workers safe, those who take down these structures must be properly trained in the delicate art of safe asbestos removal to ensure that the microscopic fibres are not inhaled.
However, you might be surprised to know that asbestos is not just hiding in our walls. In fact, during its heyday asbestos was used for manufacturing a number of products, not just in the construction sector. Here are a few of the most surprising uses of asbestos that you might not be aware of:
Back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, asbestos was used to make a fluffy-white fake snow product that was commonly used for a Christmas decoration. People would put it on their Christmas tree, around their home or in shop window displays. It was desirable because it didn’t risk catching fire like other substances used in decorative ornaments. These fake snow asbestos fibres were even used on the set of the film “The Wizard of Oz”.
Now that we know how bad asbestos is for our bodies, it is somewhat horrifying to imagine that there was once a toothpaste that used asbestos fibres as the abrasive. This toothpaste was marketed after World War II, when asbestos use was booming during the Industrial Age and companies were coming up with new patents for its use as quickly as possible.
Imagine a hair salon from the 1950s and you will conjure up an image of those huge hood-style hair dryers that ladies would sit under. These types of hair dryers were perfect for drying your hair so that you could tease it and style it into an enormous 50s bee-hive or bouffant hairstyle. However, did you know that they also contained asbestos? They had a layer of heat-proof asbestos within the hood to save the hair salon customers from getting burnt.
After World War II, even surgeons began using asbestos thread to stitch up the wounds of patients. It was no doubt chosen for its high tensile strength and its superior flexibility, but it is quite alarming to think that this harmful substance was being placed within our bodies by medical professionals! It just goes to show how much our knowledge of asbestos has changed over the years.
A Magical Tablecloth
One of the most interesting stories about a strange use of asbestos is that of Charlemagne, Emperor of the Romans and King of the Franks in the 700s. He is said to have owned an asbestos tablecloth which he would remove after a feast and throw into the fire. Everyone would gasp in awe when the stains and crumbs were burned away but the tablecloth was left unharmed. After such a mind-blowing display, many of his followers were convinced that he had magical powers and I’m sure that Charlemagne didn’t worry too much about correcting them.
These are just some of the strangest and most interesting uses of asbestos over the years, some of which are pretty hard to believe considering how dangerous we now know this material to be.