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Chrysophiles versus chrysophobes: the white asbestos controversy, 1950s-2004

Tweedale, Geoffrey and McCulloch, Jock (2004) Chrysophiles versus chrysophobes: the white asbestos controversy, 1950s-2004. ISIS, 95 (2). pp. 239-259. ISSN 0021-1753

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In the first half of the twentieth century, asbestos was a controversial mineral because of its association with asbestosis and asbestos related lung cancer. It has proved no less so since the 1960s, when another asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, was identified. Mesothelioma appeared to be more strongly linked with blue asbestos (crocidolite) than with the other asbestos varieties, brown (amosite) and white (chrysotile). This finding triggered a fierce debate between “chrysophiles” (those who declared chrysotile innocuous) and “chrysophobes” (those who believed it was a mortal hazard). This essay attempts the first history of the chrysotile controversy, which shows that a scientific consensus on the safety of white asbestos was very slow to emerge. This was only partly due to the complexities of scientific research. Political, economic, and social factors have militated against a speedy resolution of the debate, facilitating the continued production and use of asbestos in the developing world.

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