Asbestos revolutionizes technology, but at a price

History of a miraculous mineral

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Over a century ago, American builders began using a remarkable mineral product. Being mined from a type of serpentine rock, it was natural, abundant and easy to produce, yet its unique properties made it almost limitlessly useful. It was resistant to chemicals and intense heat. It was an excellent electrical and thermal insulator. Out of its fibers, you could weave a cloth that wouldn't burn. You could even mix it with other materials to make them stronger and more fireproof. Over the course of the 20th century, American industry -- with the government's blessing -- found thousands of uses for this miraculous mineral. Woven into a cloth, it was used to insulate electrical wires. Mixed with a binder, it made a fireproof insulation for pipes and ducts. Mixed with cement, it made a host of practically indestructible building materials such as corrugated siding, shingles and flue pipe. Mixed with vinyl, it made an incredibly durable floor tile. Nor was its usefulness limited to constructio...