"Levine frequently would say that 'if a fire breaks out above the 64th floor, that building will fall down.'"
September 14, 2001 8:49 AM   Subscribe

"Levine frequently would say that 'if a fire breaks out above the 64th floor, that building will fall down.'" 70s-era asbestos concern/hysteria may have exacerbated the tragedy. If some of you can get past the fact that this is a Fox news link, the story raises interesting questions about our tendency to over-react to every perceived scare, without considering the consequences.
posted by pardonyou? (15 comments total)
Boy, the right-wingers are really taking every opportunity to use this tragedy to promote their pet causes... In this case, their industry-backed attacks on environmental regulation... Shameless.

Yes, perhaps asbestos may have provided greater fire protection, but last time I checked, Asbestos doesn't exacly provide protection from a f%$&ing airplane crashing through a building!

Blaming the descruction of the WTC on the lack of fire retardants is like saying the lives lost at Pearl Harbor could have been spared had our ships only been more buoyant...
posted by mattpusateri at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2001

No, the article didn't claim that the building would remain intact (although my choice of quote admittedly did seem to suggest that). Rather, it suggested that the building may have resisted the fire longer (up to four hours instead of one). As you can no doubt appreciate, every second proved crucial in getting people out. What might have happened if there had been several more hours? I guess I would caution against such a knee-jerk dismissal of the article. If you're saying that the science doesn't support the claims, or that the risks of inhalation outweigh the benefits gained by better fire protection, I could stand behind that. I just want proof either way.
posted by pardonyou? at 9:13 AM on September 14, 2001

I wonder how long the asbestos would have lasted against the burning jet fuel, which burns a lot hotter than carpet, paper, and office furniture...
posted by elvissinatra at 9:21 AM on September 14, 2001

I just think it's a cheap shot three days after a tragedy. The author make a living diminishing and minimizing environmental and health risks on behalf of the industry and business groups that fund the Cato institute. To use the collapse of the WTC as a platform to pimp his anti-regulatory agenda is shameless.

It's not a myth that asbestos is directly related to health problems. It causes cancer.

A few more people may have gotten out. Or maybe not. There's not much data on how 100-story buildings hold up when the've been driven into by jet airliners. The research he cites refers to how a building would hold up if fire was the danger. Nobody really knows exaclty what stresses and structural tensions the airline collisions created in those buildings.
posted by mattpusateri at 9:27 AM on September 14, 2001

Agree with some of your points, but I think it's generally accepted that the ultimate cause of the collapse was the fire causing the steel to "melt" (weaken). If the spray asbestos could have prolonged the time it would take for the steel to weaken, the building would not have come down so soon. Sure, no one knows for sure what the stresses are, etc., but isn't it likely that asbestos, an admittedly superior fire retardant, might have helped?

As for another point, no one contends asbestos exposure does not cause health problems. The point asserted in the article is that the wet asbestos spray technique does not have the same concerns (since inhalation of loose fibers is what causes problems).
posted by pardonyou? at 9:34 AM on September 14, 2001

Considering the source, I'm less than convinced.

Much of this is based on hearsay and speculation based on anecdotal accounts, but I don't believe that many people from above the actual collision site escaped, while many or most from below did.

What I mean is that if most people from below those zones are show to have escaped, and most from above did not, then it seems likely that the enormous heat of the jet fuel would have prevented anyone from getting out from above the impact zone regardless of the insulation used.

It may yet be proven that a few seconds could have been gained by using asbestos, and a few lives saved - but that's essentially magic thinking.
posted by Sinner at 9:49 AM on September 14, 2001

I see your point, but don't think you can separate his argument about the building from his general thesis about the "1970s-era hysteria about asbestos"...

Perhaps asbestos may have given the building a little more time. We don't really know. Then again, if not for the "1970s-era hysteria about asbestos" a lot more than 5000 people may have died prematurely because they were exposed to a known carcinogen in schools, workplaces, and homes.
posted by mattpusateri at 9:54 AM on September 14, 2001

There are many types of protective coverings for steel beams, columns and girders. These products are tested by UL (Underwriters Laboratory). The asbestos product up through the 64th floor of one of the towers was an approved product for (I believe) 3 hours of protection. The 2nd tower, built at the same time but on a slightly different schedule, did not have any asbestos product.

The substituted product met UL testing standards. If not, NYC code officials would not have accepted it. Therefor, it should not have mattered about the asbestos whatsoever.

mattpusateri is correct, we are not sure what damage the plane caused inside the structure. It seems obvious to this architect that there was a lot of steel that lost its fireproofing when the plane hit, as well as so much critical structural damage, that its amazing the buildings stood for as long as they did. The plane did not hit an individual floor, but many at the same time in each tower.
posted by kpett at 10:01 AM on September 14, 2001

Personally I think we're in trouble when we start thinking, "Gee, we really should have designed our buildings so they could withstand being kamikazeed by airliners carrying tons of jet fuel."

Most likely the substitute insulating sprays would have held up reasonably well against any other fire. The decision to use less dangerous substances (instead of asbestos) is not one we should regret.
posted by mattpfeff at 10:13 AM on September 14, 2001

Wouldn't the impact of the plane have cut through at least some of the supporting columns, and anything that was shielding them, asbestos or not?
posted by kirkaracha at 10:23 AM on September 14, 2001

Yes, kirkaracha.

On another note, this article from Engineering News Record has an authority who believes one entire tower and only 30 floors of the 2nd tower had the asbestos.

mmmmm, I wonder who is correct? I bet against Fox News.
posted by kpett at 10:39 AM on September 14, 2001

> It's not a myth that asbestos is directly related to health
> problems. It causes cancer.

I don't believe we balancing risks intelligenty. I believe one particular type of risk (asbesdos causes death) happens to be getting its 15 minutes of fame and people react in a knee-jerk manner -- EEEK, a RISK! KILL IT! -- and demand some alternative that still has risks, other risks (fire causes death, too), only those risks might as well not exist because they don't happen to be getting their 15 minutes of fame right now.

I went to the drugstore this morning to get a thermometer. My daughter said she felt bad and her forehead felt hot to my hand. I found I couldn't buy a mercury thermometer. "Taken off the market," said the lady. "Mercury. Poison."

The only thing they had was battery-operated electronic thermometers. $7 model ultra-cheap, ultra-flimsy, probably last a week. Alternatively, pro model for 70 bucks, and it still requires batteries. Now, these things are fine for nurses who use them eighteen times a day and have plenty of batteries on hand. For a home first-aid kit thermometer, which may get used only two or three times a year, I guarantee you the next time I need it the instrument will be broken, the battery will be dead and the backup battery will be dead also.

So, because of the minuscule trace risk of a droplet of heavy metal escaping into the environment (from which it was extracted in the first place), we'll replace an item that's low-cost, accurate, simple to operate, unpowered, requires no maintenance and with reasonable care lasts forever with a device that's about as well-made and lasting as a Macdonalds happy-meal toy and requires batteries, or an item that costs $70 and also requires batteries.

Despite what the drugstore lady told me, I did find manage to find two mercury basal-metabolism thermometers in dusty old birth-control kits on a back shelf. Bought 'em both.

Brainless, helpless, cowardly, weakling people.

Fat, too.
posted by jfuller at 10:45 AM on September 14, 2001

So, because of the minuscule trace risk of a droplet of heavy metal escaping into the environment

Mercury is extremely poisonous, and can even be absorbed through the skin. That's just the way it is; no politics are involved.
posted by skyline at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2001

I don't think the risk from Mercury Thermometers is that the mercury will escape into the (general) environment. I think the risk is that it may break in the child's mouth when they bite down too hard on it. Or that the children will play with the "cool" mercury droplets, as I did when I was much younger.
Mercury poisoning is no fun. Asbestos isn't that much fun either.
Oh, and by the way, it's also brainless to accept that something you've used for a long time must be better than the newer alternatives. Two cents
posted by nprigoda at 11:00 AM on September 14, 2001

And also, does anyone have any info on the poor people that have to extract both the mercury and asbestos from the earth? I'd be willing to bet that they are a) poor, and b) pretty sickly.
Maybe I'm jumping to conclusions here?
posted by nprigoda at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2001

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