IN the aftermath of the terrible Victorian bushfires, with more than 200 dead, there has been a lot of recrimination particularly over the issue of control burning – or lack of. Others blame a combination of drought and unprecedented weather conditions – some have even blamed global warming.
There are new building guidelines following claims that many houses were simply not built to appropriate standards. In all of this discussion I have seen no mention of the word “asbestos” – and I don’t mean in the context of disease, but rather in the context of a fire retardant.
Yes, some types of asbestos represent a genuine danger to workers at certain exposure levels and under certain conditions, but there was never any doubt that the material was an effective fire retardant.
In 1903 at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago a fire started during a matinee performance killed 603 people. The cotton curtain was considered the culprit, but the only alternative at that time was iron curtains which were difficult to manoeuvre. That was just before the advent of asbestos. By 1909 almost all of Chicago’s theatres had asbestos curtains and soon city codes and insurance companies across the US were demanding it.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for asbestos fireproofing in all ships.
Some claim that the Twin Towers in New York collapsed so quickly because there was no effective fire retardant used in its construction. The original plans for the World Trade Centre required the interior steel in both towers to be covered in asbestos-based fireproofing-material. But these plans were changed following campaigning by activists. According to testimony by Donald Trump under oath at a hearing of the US Senate in 2005, “a lot of people say that if the World Trade Centre had asbestos, it wouldn’t have burned down … a lot of people in my industry think asbestos is the greatest fireproofing material ever made.”
Will anyone dare mention the world asbestos in consideration of building codes in the aftermath of the Victorian bushfires?
The Anti-Asbestos Inferno, In Eco-freaks, by John Berlau, Nelson Current, Nashville, 2006
Submission by Ralph Barraclough, House of Representative’s Bushfire Inquiry, 2003. http://www.aph.gov.au/House/committee/bushfires/inquiry/subs/sub482.pdf
Fire code advanced by a year, The Australian, March 7, 2009. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25150704-5018722,00.html