Author mangles facts in Asbestos and Fire

By The West Virginia Record | Feb 2, 2006

To the editor:

I am writing about the recent review of the book, Asbestos and Fire. I noticed the article in December announcing your publication which included the admission that your financing came in part from the Chamber of Commerce.

The review shows it. The statement that "more children died in fires than adults are dying now of asbestosis and mesothelioma" has to be one of the most mangled statements made about the asbestos industrial disaster.

The analogy mixing apples and oranges does not begin to describe the manipulation done to reach a desired result. Even a cursory look at which is available on the Internet shows the following:

1) The leading cause of fire-related deaths is smoking. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). A concrete bunker, solid asbestos walls, a cave, will not help a smoker who dozes off in bed with a lit cigarette in his hand.

2) Cooking is the primary cause of residential fires. (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). How does asbestos insulation prevent hot oil from burning, again?

3) Fire and burns rank third among causes of death for 5 to 14 year old children, and a significant portion of this loss of life can be attributed to playing with matches. (Playing with Fire: A Development Assessment of Children's Fire Understanding and Experience, Grlonick, Cole, Laurenitis and Schwartzman, Journal of Child Psychology, Vol.19, Issue 2, page 128 [1990]).

4) Experts estimate that between 50 and 60 percent of intentionally set and probably intentionally set fires in large cities are caused by children under the age of 18. (Grolinick, So, how do you prevent arson with asbestos? Fitting delinquents with bricks of asbestos cement?

5) The book Injury Prevention for Young Children, A Research Guide, Bonnie L. Walker, compiler, does not include asbestos in its index as a tool to prevent death and injury from fire.

The analysis that fire deaths fell from 1900 to 1970 due to asbestos ignores smoke detectors, distribution of fire hydrants and professional fire fighters, improved medical care, quicker responses to emergencies and improved safety education, decreased smoking rates and declining smoking inside. The author's analysis is a classic example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

The people I represent worked with thermal insulation, valued primarily not for its fire resistance, but for its heat insulation properties. High temperature steam and boiler insulation are industrial products. The most common component of home construction, gypsum or wall board, contained no asbestos, and other products such as floor tile contained small amounts.

"Asbestos shingles" contain five to 35 percent asbestos, with cement and other materials making up the difference; other products may contain up to 50 percent. The major fire proofing used for asbestos was spray fire proofing in large commercial buildings.

None of this leads to a conclusion that asbestos products prevent injury and death to children from fires. None of it constitutes a legal defense. Had asbestos been curtailed when its hazards were known by the leaders of the industry in the '20s and '30s, alternatives to asbestos would have been developed years ago, just as they have been now. There is no evidence that more children are dying in fires today because asbestos has been phased out.

The author won awards for her earlier book, The Technology of Orgasm. Her asbestos opinions quoted in the review would have benefited from the same degree of investigation that work displays. As it is, this comes off as misinformed Chamber propaganda, which, under careful scrutiny, makes no sense.

John H. Skaggs

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