I've been thinking a lot about asbestos recently. I'm not sure why. When I worked at the Science Museum, asbestos was something other people thought about. Every object that went on display had to be thouroughly checked for asbestos in a lab first, and then issued a 'certificate' (or something, I didn't go on the course). Since then, I've kept thinking about it. Asbestos was widely used not that long in all sorts of things. Walls, bricks, ships, oven-proof gloves... Spin forward half a century and now it's completely banned, and getting rid of the stuff safely is a big, expensive job.
There are other chemicals and materials that were once used widely but are now hidden away from us for our own safety. Mercury is a fascinating element. A liquid metal. I remember having a toy 'mercury maze' when I was a kid. But mercury is pretty toxic, and can be inhaled as mercury vapour, so isn't something that we see much any more.
Radioluminescent paint sounds like it was fun too. The paint was literally radioactive, and glowed in the dark - great for clock and watch handles. Unfortunately, also not good for your health.
I'm not really sad that these substances aren't around any more - asbestosis really isn't funny, and has killed thousands and thousands of people.
I wonder, though, how we managed to use all these things for so long before discovering their dangers? Bad science? Ruthless industry? Or did their effects just take a while to materialise?
More importantly, and this is the main point of this rather rambling post: is it possible to predict which materials and substances we use now that will later be diagnosed as 'dangerous' and withdrawn from use? Will we look back on mobile phones as being a big mistake? How about these new forms of plastics? Or GM food? Or has science and safety precautions moved on so much that walking blindly into the next asbestos crisis is now unlikely?