According to the WHO, asbestos is up there with smoking and bacon as one of life’s major health hazards. Although there are many myths and misconceptions about asbestos, the bottom line is it can still kill you.
Its dangers were discovered thousands of years ago when Pliny the Younger saw his slaves were getting ill from breathing it in. But that didn’t stop Pliny, or the rest of mankind, from embracing the “magic mineral” and using it right up until the present day. Here are some of the craziest things people did with asbestos – bearing in mind it literally kills you.
1. Asbestos Clothing
Yes, that’s right. People once wore asbestos. And not just any people. Pliny the Younger himself was asbestos clothing’s biggest advocate. He knew for a fact it was killing his slaves, but asbestos looked so good he couldn’t resist walking around with it draped over his young body.
Pliny described asbestos clothing as “rare and impressive”. And noted that it sold for “the same price as the finest pearls”. Which isn’t actually that expensive, since the real cost of wearing asbestos is your life.
2. Asbestos Cigarette Filters
There was a time when cigarettes were seen as harmless. Kids smoked them on street corners, and the country was smokier than an active volcano.
We now know that smokers were slowly toking themselves to an early grave. The process was slowed by the use of cigarette filters, but there was one filter that actually brought death closer.
People who smoked Kent Micronite brand cigarettes were sucking in that sweet nicotine through a filter made of asbestos. Thankfully asbestos was removed from the Kent Micronite filter; Though not because it was dangerous, but because smokers claimed it took away the flavour.
3. Asbestos Gas Masks
Asbestos gas masks sound great on paper. As asbestos is a hazardous material, so it makes sense for people to wear gas masks when handling it. But this entry is not about gas masks that protect you from asbestos. This entry is about gas masks made from asbestos.
According to recent analysis, asbestos was so abundant in gas masks that every mask from WWII should be assumed to contain the substance unless we can prove otherwise. This means for the entire duration of the war, people strapped one deadly material to their faces to protect themselves from another deadly material.
The worst part is, these WWII-era gas masks continued to inflict their asbestos fumes on children for generations. Decade after decade, gas masks have been passed around classrooms so teachers can show the children what it was like to be living in the war. It turns out these lessons were more realistic than the teachers thought, as they were literally putting the students’ lives in danger.
4. Asbestos Napkins
We all know that getting food on your face is a problem. Napkins do a pretty good job of solving that problem. But there’s one fatal flaw in the napkin’s design that we all have to accept: napkins are not fireproof.
You may be surprised to hear, then, that fireproof napkins were once a reality. Turning back the clock to before Pliny was prancing about in his asbestos threads, ancient Romans used to clean napkins by simply throwing them onto a fire. When the fire was put out, the napkin would emerge in pristine condition, both unburnt and unsoiled. How did this happen? The napkins were made of asbestos.
The most famous user of asbestos napkins was not a Roman, but a Persian. King Khosrau II of the Sasanian empire famously used to throw his asbestos napkin into the fire to impress his guests. They probably thought it was amazing at the time. But they wouldn’t have been happy if they’d known every time Khosrau set his napkin alight he had taken a few years off their lives.
5. Asbestos Snow
Christmas is a time where family, friends and strangers all gather together to partake in one sacred tradition: breathing in asbestos fumes.
It may not be an obvious Christmas pastime, but for decades of Decembers, people have been putting asbestos all over their houses, and occasionally showering themselves in it. No, this isn’t the bizarre practice of some obscure cult, or a part of the ever-impeding “War on Christmas”, it is in fact the accidental aftereffect of using fake snow as a Christmas decoration.
In the first half of the 20th Century, deadly white asbestos was the primary ingredient of all fake snow. Asbestos was a great material to make fake snow out of for a few reasons. It already kind of looks like snow, for one. And the fireproof properties that made it appeal to the ancient kings mean it can withstand festive fire hazards like tree lights and candles very easily. There is though, a very obvious reason it is a terrible material to use for decorations: it is extremely poisonous.
The bitter tragedy of using something so dangerous for such a wholesome purpose is best summed up in the classic yuletide movie ‘White Christmas’. The snow in that film? Asbestos. Which means the treetops were in fact glistening with the impending death of everyone on set.
6. Asbestos Hairdryers
You those giant overhead hairdryers that women sit under at the beauty salon while they read magazines and gossip about the scandalous behaviour of their friends and neighbours? Those things were just full of asbestos. The asbestos layer was meant to help stop the women from catching fire while they sat under warm air waiting for Gladys to finish spilling the beans about her affair with that French golfer. Unfortunately, the hairdryers slowly killing these women, meaning that the juiciest of juicy gossip came at a price.
7. Asbestos Makeup
This one is less crazy than the others, simply because it is not intentional. Only a few years ago the FDA investigated cosmetic products it thought were at risk of asbestos contamination. Why? Because makeup includes the element talc. Which is so closely linked to asbestos that its deadlier cousin can often worm its way into talcy products.
This unfortunate turn of events means that thousands of people have been painting asbestos fibres straight onto their faces for years now. If these people knew this was the case, the majority probably would have thought twice. Though some people would no doubt smear asbestos on their faces as a way of proving their overwhelming masculinity and daring a nature.
8. Asbestos Toothpaste
Cleaning your teeth twice a day is one of the most important things you can do to keep up your personal hygiene. At least, it is if your toothpaste is asbestos-free. In the postwar era, one of the most popular toothpastes in the US was Ipana Toothpaste. This toothpaste had it’s own Disney-created mascot called Bucky Beaver. And the brand’s theme song was even referenced by the character Jan in the 1978 movie Grease. Fortunately, Grease 2 chose to follow the exploits of a completely new set of characters, instead of showing us Jan’s untimely death from incessantly brushing her teeth with her favourite paste.
9. Asbestos Vinyl
Though most hipsters have probably listened to their vinyl copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico to death, they are not at risk of actually dying. The kind of vinyl we’re talking about here is the kind that swept the nation by storm in the 1920s. Vinyl flooring, vinyl wallpaper and vinyl tiles adorned the surfaces of thousands of houses around the world for several decades. For people who loved this material, there was no escaping asbestos fumes whenever they returned home.
10. Asbestos Fume Hoods
Back in the day, when scientists were doing chemical experiments, they would lower a device called a fume hood to protect themselves from, well, fumes. The problem with these hoods was; They were very likely to have contained asbestos, thereby releasing fumes that were potentially even deadlier than the ones underneath. This is just another sad irony from a world that kept using asbestos for several thousand years too long.