Photo courtesy of
the Asbestos institute
Asbestos is made
of long, thin fibers, which are very strong and resistant
to heat and chemicals.
The story of asbestos is a cautionary tale
for tomorrow's materials scientists and innovators. Asbestos has
been used in thousands of products in innovative ways for a long
time, because of its strength, durability, and resistance to heat
and fire. In the construction industry, it has been used extensively
in ceiling and floor tile, pipe insulation, firebrick, window caulking,
duct connections, and spray-on fireproof insulation.
Today, however, the mere mention of the word
can cause panicfor good reason. Since the early 1940s, millions
of people have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos fibers, causing
thousands to develop lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis,
which, in turn, has spawned new legal and removal specialties.
There's a cruel irony in asbestos: When it's
contained and controlled (the fibers remain bonded and do not become
airborne), it protects people and property better than any other
material. But when it's out of control, it's an invisible killer.
The same can be said of many products and most chemicals.
Now that the risks regarding asbestos are known
and safety measures prescribed, why isn't anyone looking for
new applications? The material hasn't been banned. It continues
to be used in many products, and the benefits of asbestos are manyhigh
tensile strength, chemical and thermal stability, high flexibility,
as well as low conductivity. To date, there are no comparable substitutes.
Organic fibers, plastics, and glass wool fibers are used, but these
materials may turn out to be as hazardous as asbestos, and they
do not work as well.
Innovation is stymied by many factorsfear
of eternal litigation should a new product fail or be improperly
used, and the weight of stringent regulation. It seems unlikely
that tomorrow's scientists will be able to remove all risk
for universal asbestos application, but they're going to try.