Rachel Maines. Asbestos and Fire: Technological Trade-offs and the Body at Risk. NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. xiv + 255 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-3575-3.
Reviewed by Joseph Melling (Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Urban (November, 2005)
Breaking Down the Firewall? Academic Assessments of the History of Risk
This is an interesting, thoughtful, provocative, and ultimately frustrating book. The author courageously addresses one of the most complex and fundamental dilemmas of modern life: the hazards posed by technology which is designed to increase safety and reduce the risk of harm. Maines provides a scathing assessment of the enormous costs entailed in litigation to compensate the actual and alleged victims of asbestos poisoning in the later twentieth century. Rejecting the claim, frequently made in academic studies as well as in courtrooms, that the manufacturers deceived their customers, employees, and the public as to the dangers associated with asbestos, she argues that thousands of children and adults were saved each year from the horrors of death by fire as more buildings were insulated with this most effective of fire-retardant materials. The deleterious effects of asbestos dust were well documented from the 1920s, though the incidence of severe pleural cancer was not seriously appreciated until the 1960s. Industrialists, scientific experts, lawyers, and even trade unionists failed to pursue questions which could have protected lives and prevented the collapse of the industry. This study suggests that the search for scapegoats in the tragic saga of asbestosis is itself symptomatic of a deeper malaise within the American body politic. Alone among the advanced nations, the United States has failed to honor its historic responsibility to provide a publicly-funded health system which could absorb the human and financial costs of chosen technologies. In the absence of collective facilities to cope with the impact of toxic materials, individuals are compelled to depend on a litigation process to cover their individual losses. These transactions have proved an enormous extravagance for American society, enriching lawyers who rarely offer a rigorous analysis of the complex environment in which disease risks are encountered. Only with a mature acknowledgement of the trade-off between benefits and hazards inherent in the use of any technology, including its unintended consequences, can we progress to a more rational and cost-effective understanding of the built environment in which we live, work, procreate, recreate, and die.
These arguments are grounded in a broad and often elegant natural history of asbestos since classical times and a detailed narrative of fire disasters in the United States during the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Asbestos and Fire provides an interesting insight into the cultural history of this magic mineral by tracing the use of asbestos curtains in theaters and entertainment centers, where fires often led to a spectacular loss of life among affluent as well as impoverished patrons. Numerous photographs and drawings of the buildings where children and adults perished strengthen the parallel with the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, noted in the author's discussion of bombing firestorms during the Second World War as well as her assessment of Irving Selikoff's opposition to asbestos use in the construction of the Twin Towers. Maines carefully considers state regulation of industrial and public buildings following the 1908 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire alongside the startling and continued tolerance of timber shingles in the fire-prone western United States. The text also returns at different points to the death of children in school blazes, most memorably in 1958 at Our Lady of Angels in Chicago, elaborating the point that victims of mesotheliomas are almost invariably older adults, including those who had survived terrible fire risks as children before the advent of asbestos fire-proofing.
There is no doubt, therefore, that this book raises important and challenging questions for risk-averse modern democracies whose politicians frequently and naively persuade their constituents that historic hazards can be effectively controlled, if not removed, by technological solutions. It is more difficult to accept the terms in which its author presents the trade-offs of technical choice or the interpretation of key moments in the history of risk regulation. There is limited discussion of the large technical, philosophical, and sociological literature on the constitution and evaluation of risk, with only fleeting references to Ulrich Beck and Mary Douglas. Although fire disasters form the most substantial and detailed evidence given in the text, these descriptive narratives remain self-contained tragic tales, largely disconnected from any critical assessment of policy-making within local or central government. Maines acknowledges that she cannot engage in a consistent evaluation of historical trade-offs between conflagration and asbestos-related disease, mainly because the variable conditions are so complex and contingent. Asbestos was clearly only one contributor to the improved standards of fire safety during the twentieth century and its abandonment and removal does not appear to have resulted in a serious relapse in such standards.
Most of the latter part of the book returns to the asbestos hazard. A jacket blurb claims that the book offers "the most thoroughly researched and balanced look at the history of asbestos" as well as addressing wider questions of risk in technological choice. This bold claim is not easily justified on the evidence of the research undertaken or considered. The global asbestos industry has been the subject of enormous scientific and academic as well as legal controversy in the past four decades, generating a massive cache of primary and secondary sources, only a small selection of which is noted here. Maines broadly concurs with the much-contested arguments made by P.W.J. Bartrip in his prolonged defence of asbestos manufacturers Turner and Newall, including his dismissal of the claims that such manufacturers sought to suppress unwelcome research, the emphasis placed on the wider benefits of fire prevention and containment, and his discrediting of the professional qualifications of campaigners such as Selikoff. Alternative interpretations of each of these points can be readily found in the British, Australian, South African and European as well as American literature. One of the most potent trade-offs in the history of asbestos during the twentieth century was the decision to shift production to the least-developed and less-regulated countries where the terms of trade favored a greater acceptance of hazard. The central argument of Asbestos and Fire with respect to the undeniable inadequacy of the American health system as a spur to litigation must be also qualified when we consider the determined and successful pursuit of the largest global manufacturer, a British company, by litigants and their relatives who enjoy the benefits of long-established state health systems.
The author is to be sincerely commended for undertaking a broad and difficult subject, presenting the complex arguments and a wide range of examples in an interesting, accessible, and compelling way. This text is framed as a contribution to an important civic debate on the scope of our personal and collective responsibilities for the persistence of hazard in our manufactured environment. The prose is literate, vivid, and stylish as the author elegantly cites themes, technical solutions and tragic experiences from antiquity to the Twin Towers in support of an argument. The language employed also reflects some of the difficulties which we encounter in elucidating complex questions of risk assessment and practical consequences. Discussion as well as description is more often imaginative than analytical, turning on a vivid metaphor or leaning on a compressed, emotive reference to "burning buildings and burning bodies" that a plaintiffâ??s legal affidavit might deploy. If we are to fully understand the forces of risk and regulation it seems important to carefully, if rather tediously, deconstruct the terms in which academics as well as politicians, producers and consumers embrace the vocabulary of hazard and safety. For the history of the language of tolerable danger forms as much a part of the constructed environment as the architecture of the modern city.
. Ulrich Beck, Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society, trans. Mark A. Ritter (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995); Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
. P.W.J. Bartrip, The Way from Dusty Death: Turner and Newall and the Regulation of Occupational Health in the British Asbestos Industry, 1890s-1970 (London and New York: Athlone Press, 2001).
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Joseph Melling. Review of Maines, Rachel, Asbestos and Fire: Technological Trade-offs and the Body at Risk.
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