It has been said that "time makes fools of us all." This sentiment applies to many aspects of life, but seems especially apt when it comes to our increasing understanding of health risks. When we look back at old movies and television shows, many of us are shocked to see how common it was for actors and characters to smoke, and even to endorse cigarettes openly.
As another example, consider the X-ray. We now wear lead vests when we need to get an X-ray image at the hospital. But shortly after the technology was first discovered, it was harnessed into a device called the shoe-fitting fluoroscope. These live X-ray machines sat in shoe stores around the country and helped salesmen look through the shoes of customers to determine how well the shoes fit. Knowing what we now know about the dangers of X-ray overexposure, who could imagine using such a hazardous piece of equipment?
The use and popularity of asbestos now seems as absurd as cigarettes and the shoe-fitting fluoroscope. Yet less than a half-century ago, asbestos was still being used in thousands of manufactured products and building materials. It was even hailed as a sort of miracle product in the early days of news reels.
Indeed, Popular Mechanics magazine recently shared some archived asbestos promotional videos, one from the 1940s and another from the 1960s. The web page has the appropriate caption: "A Horrifying Look at When We Didn't Know Asbestos Could Kill Us."
In many ways, asbestos was a miracle product. It was naturally occurring, lightweight, fireproof, and it made a great insulator. But those benefits are minor compared to the health risks of asbestos exposure, including and especially mesothelioma.
There are probably many things we do today that will someday seem unimaginable in retrospect. Hopefully, by that time, asbestos exposure will no longer be a risk in America or anywhere else.