Asbestos worth the risks, author Maines asserts

By Ann Knef | Jan 13, 2006

While the $140 billion asbestos trust fund bill stalls in Congress, the asbestos litigation problem in America grows. Businesses have declared bankruptcy, jobs have been lost, consumer goods cost more and the country is less competitive

So would America, a lumber-built tinder box, have been better off without the "iron curtain" properties of asbestos, given the onset of illness and massive tort?

In her book, "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk," Rachel Maines argues that the risks associated with the widespread use of asbestos in America were worth the lives saved.

"More children died in fires than adults are dying now of asbestosis and mesothelioma," Maines said.

In 1948, fire deaths in America reached 11,000 -- 40 percent of which were children, she said. Today there are about 3,000 fire deaths in the country per year.

Thanks to asbestos -- a product that doesn't catch fire, weaken, conduct heat or absorb heat -- the fire death rate in America fell by three-fourths between 1900 and 1970, Maines said.

Anywhere people assembled, the use of asbestos in construction exploded in the middle of the last century: schools, theaters, sky scrapers, restaurants, homes.

Extracted from rock, HW Johns, later known as Johns Manville, was responsible for mass producing asbestos, making it economically feasible at the turn of the last century. Johns Manville was the first major corporation to go bankrupt from asbestos-related illness claims.

"Even if we had the information about the latent effects of asbestos we still would have protected our children," Maines said.

One of the deadliest fires claiming the lives of children occurred in 1957 at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago. In one hour, the rapidly burning wooden structure, killed 90 people -- mostly children.

"The fire had begun in an oil container in a basement stairwell at one corner of the building and swept up the stairways and between the walls to the second floor, where children and teachers were trapped in classrooms by the dense smoke and the blazing wooden floors and wainscoting. Ninety persons, most of them children, died between 2:47 p.m. and 3 p.m. while fire fighters and police, struggling to hold back crowds of screaming and terrified parents who had flocked to the burning school, worked at desperate speed to pull children from the windows before they were overcome by smoke inhalation or caught by the flames....

"After the fire, with funerals featuring child-sized coffins scheduled every day for weeks, fire-prevention professionals and school officials examined all the evidence from the fire and concluded that the pre-code building, constructed in 1910, was unsafe in part because of its floors, walls, wainscoting, and partitions were combustible...

"The acoustic ceiling tiles, from which a flashover fire killed twenty-eight in one classroom alone, were made of wheat straw,"
excerpted from "Fire and Asbestos," and reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.

"There are a bunch of other horrific examples that show why people were scared," Maines said. "People are very much afraid of fire."

In the book, Maines details many more of America's deadliest fires and how asbestos, discovered to be a fire retardant wonder product, grew to be omnipresent in building materials.

Between 1950 and 1970, the volume of asbestos in manufacturing and construction equaled approximately five-to-10 pounds per person per year.

"There is so much of it in our buildings," she said. "There is no way to get rid of it in our lifetime or our children's lifetime. It's out there protecting us right now."

It was used on transformers, electrical equipment. It was used in construction, concrete, ceilings, walls, floors.

In projection booths at theaters it was particularly useful because film was made of cellulose nitrate-which is also used to make gun powder.

Maines argues that manufacturers are not to blame for those who have asbestos-related illnesses today.

"Building codes called for it," she said. "We arrived at these codes through a democratic process. We are responsible for asbestos."

Post World War II, the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Administration began funding mortgages for millions of GIs, Maines states. Homes had to be inspected and meet Underwriters Laboratory (UL) code which required furnaces be wrapped one-and-a-half-inches thick in asbestos.

"It's not the fault of companies," she said.

"The mass conspiracy theory is laughable," she said.

The book also raises a chilling point about the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Would asbestos have saved the four-hour rated, fiberglass-insulated twin towers from incineration? A four-hour building code rating means that people would have that many hours to safely escape a burning building.

"Most engineers doubt that with the weight of the buildings and the jet fuel, neither one could have withstood those forces," she said.

Skyscraper builder Donald Trump testified before a congressional committee that asbestos would have prevented the buildings from crumbling.

Maines contends the solution to asbestos litigation problem is national health care coverage.

"We are the only nation facing an asbestos litigation problem," she said.

"We are the only country this has happened to," Maines said. "We are the only industrialized country that does not have national health insurance. So, those who are sick have to go to court. It's cruel way to spend the last years."

"I feel like it's our responsibility to take care of people who are injured," she said.

She adds that people injured by asbestos only receive 42 cents on the dollar of compensation. The rest is allocated to "transaction costs," such as attorney's fees.

"That's not very efficient," she said.

"Litigation should not be a substitute for a social system."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is presently occupied with matters of greater media interest, struggles with the asbestos trust fund bill.

Last summer, a Congressional Budget Office study suggested that $140 billion may not be sufficient to pay expected claims.

"Congress is making its 16th attempt in 20 years to resolve the problem," Maines said. "They keep reaching impasse."

Businesses want finality, while potential claimants don't want to be shut out if they end up sick and have no where to turn.

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