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Section three: Fireproofing industrial society
TOPIC SECTION:
Fireproofing industrial society
Since the rise of built communities, fire has been one of the greatest threats to human life and property. Over centuries, fires have wreaked havoc on cities, de
Image: Engraving of a fire which burnt over 50 houses in Amsterdam, Holland, 27 July 1679
Engraving of a fire which burnt over 50 houses in Amsterdam, Holland, 27 July 1679
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
stroying Rome (64 BC), London (1666) and Chicago (1871). In order to secure the future of the modern city, a major fire-safety movement began in the nineteenth century. It improved urban planning, professionalised fire services, and introduced telecommunication of alarms and fire-resistive construction with new materials, including asbestos.
Asbestos was suited to the goals of the evolving system of fire protection in the twentieth century. It can be woven in
Image:In the 1930's, asbestos suits like this were designed to protect firefighters
In the 1930's asbestos suits like this were designed to protect firefighters
NMPFT/Syndication International/Science & Society Picture Library
to cloth, wrapped around pipes and wiring, or made into roofing tiles and wall cladding for buildings not designed to take the weight of heavier materials, such as ceramic tiles. In shipbuilding this latter characteristic promised safer ships and improved fuel consumption. Regarded as the most effective response to the dangers of fire, insurance underwriters and safety engineers required asbestos’s use as part of a professionally designed system of fire s
It [asbestos] can be woven into cloth, wrapped around pipes and wiring, or made into roofing tiles
afety in the construction of public buildings such as theatres, hotels and schools. Faced with disasters, and even the destruction of entire cities, the public rightly regarded fire as an immediate and visible risk; asbestos was not. In the United States alone, asbestos use rose from half a million pounds in 1937-39 to about 1.2-1.5 billion pounds per year in the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s Americans were using 5-10 pounds of asbestos per person per year.

Most of the asbestos manufactured and installed during this period is still in place, protecting people from fire. Scientists have debated its removal as it is also exposing building and maintenance workers to long-term cancer risks. As a result of research carried out in the 1950s and 1960s, epidemiologists have shifted attention from the problems solved by this technology to those it has caused. While 10,000 Americans died of fire in 1948, 2355 reportedly died of mesothelioma in 1999, and another 449 from asbestosis. As early as 1989 asbestos cases accounted for 3.52% of all civil cases and represented 61% of all product liability cases in US courts. It has been alleged that fire deaths are again on the rise after 20 years of asbestos abatement.

 
 
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Section one: Asbestos and Africa
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The first medical links between mesothelioma and asbestos were made in South Africa, the only country in the world to mine the three main types of asbestos.  > more

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Section two: Life and death in Belfast
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Through the work of Dr Elmes and Dr Wade, the high prevalence of mesothelioma in Belfast dock workers was identified.  > more
 
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