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Book "Asbestos and Fire" Explores Risk Trade-Offs

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Asbestos has saved thousands of lives in the short run, but in the long run it has serious health risks. As a result, asbestos has triggered billions of dollars in litigation costs, says Rachel Maines, Cornell University visiting scholar, in a new book.

Newswise — Fire has always been a major threat to human health. But after an "epidemic" of sweeping fires in the late 1800s in the United States and Europe that killed thousands of people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, it is little wonder that asbestos -- which is fire-resistant -- was swiftly endorsed as a necessary material in the construction of theaters, factories, hotels, schools and a myriad of other buildings.

Asbestos was used in about 3,000 kinds of products, in almost every industry, and became integral to construction in every community across the country during the first six decades of the 20th century, says Rachel Maines, visiting scholar in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and a historian of technology, in her the new book, "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Trade-Offs and the Body at Risk" (Rutgers University Press, 2005).

Yet, the potential dangers of asbestos were not unknown, Maines writes. It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that experts paid increasing attention to the health dangers of the fire-resistant material, which include respiratory disease and cancer.

"Asbestos has become a highly visible and controversial legal, scientific and public health issue, with hundreds of thousands of exposure cases creating a virtual subindustry of torts," writes Maines. "Thousands of hours of court time and millions of work hours, not to mention billions of dollars in settlements and judgments, are expended annually in resolving issues related to asbestos."

The 254-page book, which includes 28 black-and-white illustrations, explores the history and development of asbestos in the United States, Britain and Europe and evaluates the trade-offs between the risks of fire and those of asbestos. Maines writes that asbestos litigation has already exceeded some $40 billion in costs and that the industry could be looking at a potential $210 billion more. That's in addition to $50 billion spent on asbestos removal and related torts and $1 trillion in building depreciation. Other industrialized nations, however, have not experienced similar lawsuits, largely, says Maines, because the United States is the only one that lacks a national health insurance system to cover the related medical costs.

Maines also is the author of the controversial 1999 book "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' the Vibrator and Women's Sexual Satisfaction," which won the Herbert Feis Award from the American Historical Association.

Man remembers asbestos near old Kubota factory

(Kyodo News International (Tokyo) (KRT)) Dec. 27--AMAGASAKI -- One man who lived near one of Kubota Corp.'s old factories in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, can remember how his umbrella would be covered with white dust -- asbestos -- after it dried.

The now 62-year-old man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, used to live in an apartment building for officials of the defunct Posts and Telecommunications Ministry on the northern side of Kubota's old Kanzaki factory. Kubota is a major machinery maker based in Osaka.

Six months have passed since it was revealed that some residents living in the nearby area may be suffering from asbestos-linked illnesses.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral used in buildings, among other things, which is known to cause diseases such as mesothelioma, a rare cancer found in the lining of the heart, lungs and the abdominal cavity, and lung cancer even many years after being inhaled.

The government has unveiled a legal framework to help people with asbestos-linked illnesses as well as the families who have members that have died from such illnesses.

But critics say there is a large discrepancy between the government payments under the planned law and those provided under workers' compensation.

The man had lived in Amagasaki for 18 years when he was young.

He remembered that the tatami mats in his apartment were dusty and that his skin felt prickly when he wore underwear that had been dried outside.

Three former residents of the apartment, including his younger brother, died of mesothelioma.

"Amagasaki at the time was a polluted city with full of soot," the man said, adding that people never thought anything about seeing stuff in the air.

Kubota's factory went into operation in 1954. And from 1957 to 1975, it allegedly used 88,671 tons of blue asbestos to manufacture water pipes and other items. Blue asbestos (crocidolite) is said to be more toxic than white asbestos (chrysotile).

About half of the 251 workers involved in production for more than 10 years developed asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, and 61 have died.

A 70-year-old man who had worked in the factory between 1959 and 1966 used to remove solid asbestos from hemp bags and put it into a mill to loosen the fibers. He said clouds of asbestos would rise from the floor during the process.

The company provided workers with sponges and cotton gauze but did not inform them about the hazards, he said. He recalled that some men worked without wearing the gauze, and almost all the windows were open.

Working at the factory, which ran 24 hours on two shifts, was hard, but the pay was attractive, said the man, who was diagnosed with an asbestos-related lung disease in 1996.

He suffers from incessant coughing in the winter. Seven workers who all came from his hometown have died.

The dedicated effort of Kazuko Furukawa, 57, of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, brought to light that asbestos was affecting the people living near the factory.

Her husband had symptoms of mesothelioma in 2000 after handling asbestos at work. It took doctors a long time to confirm his illness and, in the meantime, his repeated requests for workers' compensation were rejected. He died in 2001.

Furukawa took part in activities launched by support groups to help those who were in the same situation as she was. While walking around the old factory, she ran into residents who never worked with asbestos but who had mesothelioma.

She began to see "asbestos pollution" in them.

Kubota subsequently began paying "sympathy" money to patients and condolence money to families of those who died from mesothelioma, thanks to the efforts made by Furukawa and support groups.

According to a survey conducted by Norio Kurumatani, an expert on industrial epidemiology at Nara Medical University, said the risk of dying of mesothelioma for people living in a 500-meter radius of the old factory is 10 times higher than the national average.

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