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Goodbye, Fire Blankets Of Old: The Great Asbestos Cleanup

Sep 15, 2008
Anyone familiar with old movies is familiar with one sight: the asbestos curtain in theaters, slowly lowered over the stage at the conclusion of successful (or unsuccessful) performances done on the cheap. Asbestos used to be the country's miracle material, the chief product in fire blankets, insulation, and anything that needed to be protected from fires. But upon the discovery that asbestos was causing serious health issues, the miracle material turned quickly into a nightmare.

It's not as if the toxic character of asbestos was entirely news. Ancient historians (among them Pliny the Elder) noted the tendency of slaves to become sick and even to die after prolonged periods spent working on asbestos manufacturing. Despite these recorded ill effects, however, asbestos remained seriously popular, even venerated. It was said that asbestos handkerchiefs and fire blankets were the easiest pieces of cloth in the world to clean: just throw them in the fire and pull them out, whiter than ever.

And in the nineteenth century, when manufacturing became a much easier proposition worldwide, architects and industrialists saw no reason not to exploit the fire-retardant capabilities of asbestos as much as was humanly possible. Asbestos fibers were mixed into cement, into the walls of buildings, into clothes--into literally anything that might bear the risk of fire. It's a strategy that made sense in the early manufacturing age, when the risk of serious fires had become all the more aggravated due to the prevalence of oil, spark-throwing machinery, poor ventilation due to urban conditions, and other major fire hazards. To protect from serious problems, asbestos was used liberally.

But this strategy bore evil fruit. In the early twentieth century, asbestos miners began to become ill in droves, an epidemic brought on by increased asbestos mining to meet the demand of the Western world for this "miracle material." It didn't take long for doctors to declare asbestos poisoning a disease, and for the disease to become a serious workplace health issue. After several multi-million dollar class action lawsuits in the 1930s in the United States, the manufacturers finally responded and began to limit their use of asbestos. But even when alternative fire-resistant materials were available--fiberglass in particular--the companies were sometimes slow to adopt safer, if less perfectly-fireproof measures. Why mess with a working formula, after all--even if it costs people's lives?

Today, the world is engaged in a massive effort to clean up the remaining asbestos from its buildings and public spaces, and asbestos production and use is the lowest it's been in hundreds of years. Fire blankets are no longer made from asbestos, as a rule, to give one example of the scale of the reduction. Gone are the days of the miracle material and the thought that only magic could prevent fires as effectively as did asbestos. It just goes to show the symptom of increasing knowledge in the world: those looking for miracles are advised to look harder, or to look elsewhere.
About the Author
To see the various uses of the fire blankets see the web site at www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk
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