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Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk

Author(s):Maines, Rachel
Reviewer(s):Aldrich, Mark

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Rachel Maines, Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. xiv + 254 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8135-3575-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Aldrich, Department of Economics, Smith College.

In this brief, lively, and thoroughly researched essay Rachel Maines, who is in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, embeds asbestos use in history. Her central thesis is that in modern times asbestos has saved far more lives from fire than it has taken via disease. On balance asbestos was therefore risk reducing. Economic historians have recently written on the causes of the western mortality transition, and this book is in that vein. It should interest all economic historians but especially those concerned with health, safety and the environment.

The book contains a preface, six chapters and two appendices — one a list of end uses of asbestos and the other a partial list of organizations that specified asbestos in codes or standards. There are also copious footnotes and an index but, irritatingly, no bibliography. The first chapter sketches broad themes. Maines reminds us of just how dangerous fires once were. There are two tables and a graph of fire deaths relative to population from 1900 through the 1980s and a brief history of the centrality of asbestos in fire prevention efforts. Not only is asbestos the gold standard of fire prevention materials it is also excellent insulation and Maines hints that for many years in many applications it had few good substitutes. Sprinkler systems might clog; in a hot fire, stone would crumble and iron or steel weaken, but asbestos was fireproof.

This history, Maines argues, is essential to understand the modern asbestos controversy. As she puts it “asbestos was evaluated between 1870 and 1964-1965 against a background of the problems it solved, not of those we were later to learn that it created” (p. 12). Citing Tversky and Kahneman, she notes that framing of issues can affect choices and the diminution of fire risks changed asbestos risk perceptions — a sort of worry homeostasis. Maines claims that those who argue “we should have known better than to use asbestos” (p. 20) are a-historical. Well into the 1940s environmental testing was primitive and medical literature is inherently conservative. It took disaster to yield silicosis regulation and the risks of lead were long known before it was banned from paint and gasoline. Asbestos risk was unclear well into the 1950s, she argues, whereas, fire risks were very clear.

The remainder the book is broadly chronological. Chapter 2 briefly discusses asbestos use from ancient times to 1880. Until the late nineteenth century high costs limited the asbestos market to high value products such as scientific filters. But with modern transportation and mining methods, prices fell after 1870 and asbestos use spread to boiler and pipe insulation, electrical insulation, roofing products and much else.

Chapter 3 discusses the innovation of asbestos curtains to prevent theater fires, the development of building codes, and the use of asbestos in ship construction. The author reminds us of the many disastrous theater fires. Since most originated on stage, a fireproof curtain could significantly reduce mortality, and she rehearses experiments with unsatisfactory alternative materials such as iron. She observes that inevitably and depressingly fire code enactment and enforcement came after such disasters. Beginning in the late nineteenth century the National Board of Fire Underwriters, National Bureau of Standards, National Fire Protection Association and other public and private groups developed codes. These were intended to reduce fire risks and mandated or urged asbestos use in a host of situations. After 1900 in most cities one could not obtain a building permit, or insurance, or a mortgage without using at least some asbestos.

Chapter 4, “Mass Destruction by Fire: Asbestos in World War II,” is misleadingly titled; it also discusses the increasingly use of asbestos during the interwar years as well as hotel fires. Chapter 5 discusses fire prevention after World War II in workplaces, schools and homes. The author again describes a number of horrors such as the 1958 Our Lady of Angels school fire in Chicago that took ninety-five lives. Then she again discusses the impact of these tragedies on local fire and building codes and ends with an extended discussion of the role of national safety organizations in developing model standards and codes that promoted asbestos use. While some of these were performance standards most were more or less specific. Asbestos was sometimes required (“vertical [heat] supply ducts had to be covered with ‘approved air cell asbestos'” (p. 146). Sometimes asbestos was one of several acceptable substances; sometimes it was asbestos “or other approved noncombustible material” (p. 145).

The last chapter is on “The Asbestos Tort Conflagration.” The author explains the tort explosion asserting that several key court cases “made it apparent that the legal profession had an unprecedented opportunity in the relatively helpless situation of American workers … with respect to health care for catastrophic illness” (p. 159). She then critiques the claim that there had been a conspiracy of silence on asbestos disease, provides a brief review of the medical and legal debate, and ends with summary observations of risks versus benefits and the claim that the asbestos claims mess demonstrates the need for national health insurance.

What to make of all of this? The major claim — that asbestos was central to the development of a fire safety system that sharply reduced risks in the years after 1870 and that it became deeply imbedded in professional and legal standards and codes — is convincingly argued. But was asbestos “indispensable”? Maines never fully addresses this but she strongly suggests that in many uses for a long time it had few good substitutes and I suspect that this is correct. She also argues that concerns over asbestos disease could not have occurred until fire risks had diminished. I doubt that tort law is that logical; indeed it has been criticized because it often fails to balance risks and benefits. The claim may have more substance if applied to asbestos regulation but curiously, Maines provides hardly any discussion of U.S., Canadian, or other regulatory efforts.

Maines is critical of the blithe assumption made by asbestos critics that there were lots of good substitutes; yet she never addresses the development of substitutes in the twentieth century and their relationship to the impact of asbestos regulation on fire safety. I was an economist working on asbestos regulation at OSHA in 1979-1980. I recall much interest in substitutes but little concern with fire safety. OSHA did not dare ban asbestos because there was then no known substitute for it in brake linings. (Maines notes that EPA actually did try to ban asbestos and was prevented by a court because of the absence of substitutes.)

The material on building codes is repetitious and the chapter on asbestos torts is too brief. I also wish Maines had provided more detail on the asbestos market. Tables on per capita consumption and end uses would be helpful, as would more information on prices. If the relative price of asbestos fell over a long period then its spread would have been into increasingly marginal uses, a situation that might undercut her claims for its importance. Her discussion of the Underwriters Laboratory Tunnel flammability test could be clearer. Although she notes that asbestos is still the zero point in the test, she fails to explain that the numbers products are assigned are indices and all comparisons are to red oak which is assigned a value of 100. Despite such quibbles for anyone interested in the history of health and safety this is a book worth reading.

Mark Aldrich is Professor of Economics at Smith College. He worked on the development of asbestos regulation at OSHA during 1979-1980. He most recent book, Death Rode the Rails, is a history of railroad safety and is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII