Asbestos – the wonder material of the future, yesterday!

“Gasp! The horror! Asbestos!”  they cry, as the ordinary decent folk look on in disbelief. “Surely asbestos is the worst thing since satan?”. Well, actually things are not as clear cut as they seem here, and we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the fibres as another one of humanity’s terrible mistakes; of which there seem to be many these days.

Yes, this is still the Ordinary Decent Gamer, but I’m taking a detour as usual into another subject that interests me.

frustrated_t_rex_typing_by_kid_liger-d32hardTyping on the bus is not easy, but this is the life I have chosen – a bus typist – and I will try my best for the next hour or so of my very limited bus typing career, Space is very limited, I’m surrounded by strangers, and I’m simply too tall for most public transport. Thankfully the Goldliner has a decent amount of leg room, which makes things slightly easier. I am finding difficulty managing the actual process of typing though, as my arms are folded by my side, like a Tyrannosaurus rex trying to write a blog post on a bus. Did you know that dinosaur simply means “terrible/great lizard”, which is quite an appropriate name.

Cool, eh?
Cool, eh?

Anyway, back to asbestos. It was once hailed as a wonder material, and rightly so, because there were few things with more desirable qualities and fewer trade-offs. It combined light weight, sound absorption, fire resistance, electrical insulation, and the fibres were strong and flexible enough to be spun. These properties hailed from the fact asbestos is a silicate, and despite what people may think, it occurs naturally all over the planet and isn’t a man-made material. Man has been exploiting the power of asbestos for thousands of years. In Finland, pots and utensils made of asbestos reinforced clay dating back as far as 2500 BC. By the 19th century it was being mined and used widely, for everything from car brakes to oven mits, and mixed with concrete in buildings.

I should really clarify about the substance itself. Asbestos actually refers to two main groups of minerals: the serpentines and the amphiboles. Chrysotile, the only serpentine, is otherwise known as white asbestos, and makes up around 95% of the asbestos fibres in use. Of the amphiboles, the most famous, or infamous, is crocidolite, known popularly as blue asbestos. For the most part, the asbestos you hear about is chrysotile, because it has the most industrial applications, and it will be in the schools you attended, and the buildings you worked/work in, particularly if they are 1950s-1970s. But is it really that bad?

All asbestos fibres are not born equal – some are more dangerous than others. White asbestos is amongst the least dangerous, whereas blue asbestos is much more dangerous, though it is hard to quantify exactly how much of a health hazard the fibres are. The biggest fears around asbestos exposure are lung cancer, and mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the covering and sac around the lungs. Some studies have reported up to 18% of miners of blue asbestos dying due to mesothelioma. Residents of blue asbestos mining towns didn’t even have to work in the mines to get mesothelioma – they just had to live there. This is unusual, because heavy asbestos exposure is more frequently associated with the worst effects.

An immensely emotional scene!
An immensely emotional scene!

The reason there is a difference between the fibres is one of shape – chrysotile fibres are curly and more easily cleared from the lungs, whereas amphibole class fibres are straight and penetrate more deeply into the lungs. The mechanism by which asbestos causes cancer is not completely known, but it is thought that the fibres are small enough to tangle with the chromosomes (genetic material) and interfere with normal cell division causing cancer. The presence of the fibres can also cause chronic inflammation, which could lead to the development of cancer.

That’s enough of that, now back to normal business. I finished MGS4! It’s now up there as my favourite game, which ties up the series so beautifully. Most of the unanswered questions were finally addressed, and the final fight was suitably weird for Kojima. I’ll write about it some more when I get some more time, but that’s it for now.

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