Flexible Meaning

Asbestos has a long and complicated history. Learn what has given it such flexible meaning.

Asbestos. It occurs naturally in the ground, usually in deep pockets under the earth. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described it as “live linen…glowing on the hearth at banquets,” and 18th century scientists openly wondered if, with its fibrous structure, the material could be both vegetable and mineral. It is now a known carcinogen, and most industrialized nations severely limit its use and manufacture.

Some people call it a miracle of a natural resource with no equal that has saved countless lives, others call it one of the greatest occupational hazards of the twentieth century. How can a natural resource hold such emotional power over us? How can it be both killer and savior, mysterious mineral and dangerous product of industrial capitalism? Asbestos, like so many other materials we take for granted, is more than the sum of its parts.


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