How Marvel's Asbestos Lady represents the decline of an industry
1870 – 1949: Rise of an industry and creation of Asbestos Lady
Quebec became the first province in Canada to mine asbestos in the 1870s. From there the material rose in popularity. But what is asbestos? What made it so popular?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found in trace amounts throughout the world. Asbestos is recognized for being fire retardant, extremely durable and resistant to chemical erosion which made it a popular building material and an excellent material for a super villain suit.
CBC News notes that in its peak, asbestos had over 4,000 applications. Inventors were tripping over each other to find more uses which saw asbestos woven into clothes, building insulation, and even coffee pots. It was so popular that “it was called the “magic mineral” and was touted as Canadian Gold.”
As with most things, pop culture eventually caught on to the trend. In 1947, Marvel Comics created a super villain named Asbestos Lady. Asbestos Lady was a gifted scientist who designed a flameproof costume from asbestos and wielded a flame-thrower and guns that fired asbestos-lined bullets. From that point on, Asbestos Lady appeared in many comics fighting her longtime nemesis, the Human Torch. Her fire retardant suit made her an appealing super villain. How could the Human Torch defeat a villain who was fireproof?
1950 – 1989: Reports of illness from asbestos were growing as was the industry
Asbestos reached its peak sometime after 1950. It was used in building materials everywhere and many consumer products. It became a popular material of choice in products such as roofing shingles, floor tiles, ceiling materials, cement products and automotive parts, to name a few. Marvel also capitalized on its growth in popularity with the introduction of Asbestos Man in 1963. Yes, they created another super villain with a fire-retardant, asbestos-lined suit.
Despite warning signs of asbestos, the industry did not stop manufacturing and distributing it. Asbestos was believed to be making workers sick since the 1920’s where there were reports of workers becoming ill with “dust disease of the lungs.”
In 1966, there was a comprehensive study to determine the effects of chrysotile asbestos mining in Canada. At the time, Canada produced 40% of the world’s asbestos and the study appeared to indicate that asbestos was not responsible for causing miners’ lung cancer. However, the Canadian Labour Congress notes that years later it was discovered that payments totalling almost a million dollars were made to the organization as they were overseeing the study.
In the years that followed the study, the government of Canada continued to hold out on an asbestos ban because it did not want to lose its $100 million dollar chrysotile asbestos industry.
1990 – 2016: Cancer revelation and the fall of asbestos
In the end, Marvel correctly cast the role of asbestos. Asbestos was the villain in their comics and in many ways it became a villain in real life.
The Asbestos Lady was imprisoned after being knocked out by the Human Torch, but Marvel reports that “in the years that followed she had contracted cancer due to her constant exposure to asbestos.” The diagnosis came in 1990 but her final fate is unknown; however Time writes that she is believed to have succumbed to the disease.
The story of Asbestos Lady timely followed the real life story surrounding asbestos. In 1990, it was no longer used as a building material. This was due to the wide range of health and legal problems that were plaguing the industry. It also became public fact that asbestos causes cancer. However, much like the fate of Asbestos Lady, at the time, the fate of asbestos was still unknown. Although it was not being used in building materials, Canada was still mining and exporting the product.
Even today, the fate of asbestos is still being written. The Canadian government is looking to implement a comprehensive ban on asbestos but only time will tell if asbestos in Canada will see the same fate as the Asbestos Lady.
It is important that the story of the Asbestos Lady wasn't left unrecorded. Her story serves as a reminder that asbestos is dangerous and that no one is immune. But with that being said, don’t expect to see the Asbestos Lady on the big screen anytime soon.