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Asbestos and Fire

Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Asbestos and Fire
    Book Description:

    For much of the industrial era, asbestos was a widely acclaimed benchmark material. During its heyday, it was manufactured into nearly three thousand different products, most of which protected life and property from heat, flame, and electricity. It was used in virtually every industry from hotel keeping to military technology to chemical manufacturing, and was integral to building construction from shacks to skyscrapers in every community across the United States. Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, this once popular mineral began a rapid fall from grace as growing attention to the serious health risks associated with it began to overshadow the protections and benefits it provided.In this thought-provoking and controversial book, Rachel Maines challenges the recent vilification of asbestos by providing a historical perspective on Americans' changing perceptions about risk. She suggests that the very success of asbestos and other fire-prevention technologies in containing deadly blazes has led to a sort of historical amnesia about the very risks they were supposed to reduce.Asbestos and Fireis not only the most thoroughly researched and balanced look at the history of asbestos, it is also an important contribution to a larger debate that considers how the risks of technological solutions should be evaluated. As technology offers us ever-increasing opportunities to protect and prevent, Maines urges that learning to accept and effectively address the unintended consequences of technological innovations is a growing part of our collective responsibility.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-7023-5
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. 1 The Asbestos Technology Decision Environment
    (pp. 1-23)

    The American perception of risk in the opening years of the twenty-first century has been significantly altered and reshaped by the events of September 11, 2001, and by the less deadly but still frightening episodes of Oklahoma City in 1995 and the World Trade Center in 1993. We look up at our tall buildings with a new unease; we contemplate the relative dangers of vaccination versus those of smallpox, a disease driven from the natural environment in 1980; and we regard with suspicion packages hand-addressed in block capitals, unidentified white powders, and rented trucks parked close to public buildings. Our...

  7. 2 Asbestos before 1880: From Natural Wonder to Industrial Material
    (pp. 24-44)

    Asbestos is an old material, first used by humans in the Neolithic Age as a temper for ceramics. Prehistoric shards and ware containing asbestos have been found in Finland, central Russia, and Norway, and at Lapp sites in Sweden; and the material was still being used for this purpose in the 1970s in Uganda and Kenya. Native American sites have yielded asbestos fragments among other Indian artifacts such as bone tubes and scraping tools shaped from antler.¹ It has been known since antiquity in both the western world and Asia as a natural wonder and a source of fiber for...

  8. 3 The Rise of the Asbestos Curtain
    (pp. 45-77)

    Between 1797 and 1897, more than 10,000 persons worldwide are known to have perished in theater fires, nearly all of which started on the stage and then engulfed the audience in smoke and toxic gases.¹ This figure does not include small theaters in out-of-the-way places, most of which had no reliable records of such episodes, and no authorities to which to report them, nor does it include any public-assembly occupancies other than theaters, such as hotels, churches, and cabarets.

    The appalling loss of life in nineteenth-century theaters created a demand both for life-safety technologies to prevent disasters such as the...

  9. 4 Mass Destruction by Fire: Asbestos in World War II
    (pp. 78-117)

    Fire has been employed as a weapon since humankind first learned to control it; but not until large cities could be burned from the air did it become, as in the Second World War, a true weapon of mass destruction. Torching a village or a town is certainly destructive, and there will be fire casualties among the slow-moving—usually the very young, the sick, and the very old—but the procedure is laborious enough to give most of the population the opportunity to flee. A heavy rain will thwart the attack altogether. Most preindustrial villages consisted of single-story buildings from...

  10. 5 Schools, Homes, and Workplaces: Fire Prevention in the Postwar Built Environment
    (pp. 118-154)

    Asbestos emerged from the battles and firestorms of World War II with a global reputation for saving lives and property in a world haunted by images of burning buildings and bodies, a world in which whole cities had been obliterated by fire. In the United States, we were never again to feel safe behind our oceanic walls; we had carried fire to our enemies and knew that our enemies could—as they eventually did—carry fire to us as well. The engineers and underwriters who had drawn fire-vulnerability maps of Hamburg, Tokyo, and Dresden came home to communities that now...

  11. 6 The Asbestos Tort Conflagration
    (pp. 155-172)

    After 1965, in part due to the success of the fire-safety system that included asbestos, short-term fire safety moved into the background of discussions of the material, and its long-term health hazards were generally treated as if they were the only safety considerations associated with asbestos. The marker event for this change was the New York Academy of Sciences conference on asbestos in October 1964, the results of which were published the following year. Organized and led by Irving J. Selikoff of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, a charming, courageous, and compassionate medical professional with more charisma than...

    (pp. 173-180)
    (pp. 181-186)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 187-244)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 245-254)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-256)