Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk


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 Fire
is 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.


When I first researched and wrote Asbestos and Fire a decade ago, I was an outsider looking into the world of asbestos litigation, which I have since come to know from the inside, as an expert witness for asbestos defendants. My research on engineering standards and building codes proved to be a novelty in asbestos litigation, which historically has focused on medical issues.

Plaintiff arguments in asbestos litigation are based on a master narrative of negligence, conspiracy and deceit intended to hold defendants liable for having used asbestos in products manufactured or installed decades ago. This strategy has been successful in producing billions of dollars for plaintiffs and their counsel in settlements and judgments since 1966. the vast majority of current asbestos claims result, however, from past efforts to enable compliance by property owners and building contractors with building and safety codes at the Federal, state and local levels that specified and approved asbestos in code-compliant assemblies. Asbestos was, and to a large extent still is, ubiquitous in the built environment because it was ubiquitous in building codes until the 1990s.

The use of asbestos was approved, specified, and sometimes required, by law, including in standards incorporated by reference into the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and its 1987 revisions, and the safety codes for Hill-Burton hospitals enforced by the U.S. Public Health Service. the tort law system that supports asbestos litigation has driven this much older and wellestablished building law, and the engineering standards it incorporates, into a legal shadow from which it has yet to emerge. I have written at greater length on this subject in “The Asbestos Litigation Master Narrative: Building Codes, Engineering Standards, and ‘Retroactive Inculpation,’” Enterprise and Society (December 2012), and “Engineering Standards as Collaborative Projects: Asbestos in the Table of Clearances,” Business and Economic History On-Line 9 (September 2011).

I first became interested in asbestos in 1977 while preparing a paper for the Michigan Women Studies Symposium about American needlework history between 1880 and 1930, an enterprise which has so far inspired the writing of four books, dozens of articles, and a dissertation. Among the many patterns I

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