Asbestos & Fire

Rutgers University Press, 2005

Asbestos & Fire

For much of the industrial era, asbestos was a widely acclaimed benchmark material. During its heyday, it was manufactured into nearly three thousand different products, most of which protected life and property from heat, flame, acids, and electricity. It was used in virtually every industry from hotel keeping to military technology to chemical manufacturing, and was integral to building construction from shacks to skyscrapers in every community across the United States. Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, this once popular mineral began a rapid fall from grace as growing attention to the serious health risks associated with it began to overshadow the protections and benefits it provided.
In this thought-provoking and controversial book, Rachel Maines challenges the recent vilification of asbestos by providing a historical perspective on Americans’ changing perceptions about risk. She suggests that the very success of asbestos and other fire-prevention technologies in containing deadly blazes has led to a sort of historical amnesia about the very risks they were supposed to reduce.

Asbestos and Fire is not only the most thoroughly researched and balanced look at the history of asbestos, it is also an important contribution to a larger debate that considers how the risks of technological solutions should be evaluated. As technology offers us ever-increasing opportunities to protect and prevent, Maines urges that learning to accept and effectively address the unintended consequences of technological innovations is a growing part of our collective responsibility.

“Against a backdrop in which the mere mention of 'asbestos' strikes fear, Rachel Maines reminds readers of the valuable role asbestos has played as an insulating and fire-stopping material. She shows the complexity of technological solutions through the example of asbestos: how and why a material developed for the purpose of saving lives was withdrawn from the market when its risks were perceived to outweigh its benefits. Anyone wanting to know about the history of asbestos use will find this book to be an excellent reference."-Sara E. Wermiel, Ph.D., author of The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City

More Reviews:

Aldrich, Mark. "Review [untitled]." EH-Net (August 2005).

Ayoub, Nina. "Nota Bene review [untitled]," Chronicle of Higher Education 51, no. 43 (July 1, 2005): A14.

Baranoff, Dalit. "Review [untitled]," Business History Review 80, no. 1 (2006): 188.

Blumer, T. "Was the widespread use of asbestos still the right decision?" BizzyBlog (January 15, 2006).

Gilbert, D. M, review in Choice,

Knef, Ann. "Asbestos worth the risks author Maines asserts," Madison St. Clair Record (January 13, 2006). Reprinted in West Virginia Record.

Knowles, Scott Gabriel. "Review [untitled]." Technology & Culture 48, no. 1 (2007): 175-77.

Lang, Susan S. "New book explores history and controversy of asbestos use." Cornell Chronicle 37, no. 2 (August 25, 2005): 11.
Reprinted by Newswise SciWire as "Book 'Asbestos and Fire' explores risk trade-offs." Newswise SciWire (August 18, 2005), and various medical and scientific webpages, including Bio-Medicine News, PsychCentral,Science Blog, Mesothelioma Search Engine, Asbestos and Mesothelioma Resource Directory and AZMaterials.

Melling, Joseph. "Breaking down the firewall? Academic assessments of the history of risk." HistoryNet (November 2005).

Ritter, Steve. "A science book compendium: C&EN reads about the corporate world, motherhood, environmentalism, and asbestos." Chemical & Engineering News 83, no. 44 (2005): 41.

Tebeau, Mark. "Review [untitled]." Enterprise and Society 8, no. 2 (2007): 465-67.


Rachel Maines, “Is the Proposed Asbestos Settlement Fair?”, on History News Network, 13 Feb 2006.

Rachel Maines, "Engineering Standards as Collaborative Projects: Asbestos in the Table of Clearances," Business and Economic History Online, v. 9, 2011.

Rachel Maines, “The Asbestos Litigation Master Narrative: Building Codes, Engineering Standards, and ‘Retroactive Inculpation’,” Enterprise & Society (Dec 2012) 13 (4): 862-897.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MITOpenCourseWare, “Science, Technology and Society” (STS 462) 2008.

Samet, Jonathan M. "Risk assessment: predicting asbestos's fallout." Science 312 (May 19, 2006): 1000-01.

Technology History Reading List,” Harvard Law School, summer 2007.