A: Believe it or not, asbestos has been around for a while, and it looks like it’s here to stay (at least in some parts). From the Greek for inextinguishable, asbestos has the long and mostly proud history of flame-resistance and insulation.
In fact, Charlemagne allegedly had an asbestos tablecloth that he would gleefully clean by tossing it in the fireplace. (Information on the incidence of lung cancer among his household staff is sadly unavailable.) In later years, the long-lasting and heat-resistant fiber was used in everything from brake linings, to roofing shingles to cement pipes.
However, in the 1970s we came to learn that our old friend, now heavily in the insulation business, had been filling our indoor air with innumerable evil little mineral shards. Some buildings in the U.S. constructed as late as 1986 contain asbestos in their ceilings.
Here’s the tricky part, though. Asbestos only poses a risk if the fibers break off into the air. Incidentally, asbestos insulation is still legal in Canada, but that’s partly because it’s widely mined in the Canadian wilderness.