Book 'Asbestos and Fire' explores risk trade-offs

August 18, 2005

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Fire has always been a major threat to human health. But after an "epidemic" of sweeping fires in the late 1800s in the United States and Europe that killed thousands of people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, it is little wonder that asbestos -- which is fire-resistant -- was swiftly endorsed as a necessary material in the construction of theaters, factories, hotels, schools and a myriad of other buildings.

Asbestos was used in about 3,000 kinds of products, in almost every industry, and became integral to construction in every community across the country during the first six decades of the 20th century, says Rachel Maines, visiting scholar in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and a historian of technology, in her the new book, "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Trade-Offs and the Body at Risk" (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

Yet, the potential dangers of asbestos were not unknown, Maines writes. It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that experts paid increasing attention to the health dangers of the fire-resistant material, which include respiratory disease and cancer.

"Asbestos has become a highly visible and controversial legal, scientific and public health issue, with hundreds of thousands of exposure cases creating a virtual subindustry of torts," writes Maines. "Thousands of hours of court time and millions of work hours, not to mention billions of dollars in settlements and judgments, are expended annually in resolving issues related to asbestos."

The 254-page book, which includes 28 black-and-white illustrations, explores the history and development of asbestos in the United States, Britain and Europe and evaluates the trade-offs between the risks of fire and those of asbestos. Maines writes that asbestos litigation has already exceeded some $40 billion in costs and that the industry could be looking at a potential $210 billion more. That's in addition to $50 billion spent on asbestos removal and related torts and $1 trillion in building depreciation. Other industrialized nations, however, have not experienced similar lawsuits, largely, says Maines, because the United States is the only one that lacks a national health insurance system to cover the related medical costs.

Maines also is the author of the controversial 1999 book "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' the Vibrator and Women's Sexual Satisfaction," which won the Herbert Feis Award from the American Historical Association.
-end-


Cornell University

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