Risky Security

Weighing the odds might mean not letting go

I’m about to stray some distance from historical veracity, or at least into pop psych speculation. But your mind does strange things when you’re looking for a new place to live, and doing it while there’s a raging virus underway does nothing to stabilize an overactive imagination.

A bit of real history: I didn’t grow up having to think about asbestos, and I’m not sure why. The homes in which I spent my childhood were built well before the substance was largely banned in the 1970s. Had there just been some good remediation going on there? Adults hiding dangers from children? Unknown. But over the past few months, after peering into strangers’ basements (home features I also didn’t have as a kid), I’ve developed an unnerving ability to identify asbestos tile, and to give the stink eye to innumerable square feet of ceiling panels. So much tile, so much of the dubious matter still there! OK, so it’s fine if left undisturbed—but we’re about fifty years out from having learned to shy away from the stuff. What’s going on?

Leonetto Cappiello (1909). Public domain image courtesy Poster Museum at Wilanów and Wikimedia Commons.

According to The Asbestos Institute, the material’s been in use ever since humans figured out how to make pots out of sand and clay—and it apparently didn’t take long to discover it wasn’t exactly a friendly mineral. But even though the Romans noticed their asbestos-mining slaves were getting seriously ill, that didn’t stop its use in weaving and building, and it’s continued to be employed, especially as insulation and as a fire retardant, until relatively recently.

Now, here’s where my historical speculation begins to get dicey. I’ve been doing all this home investigation in and around Chicago—a city that still keeps fresh in its memory the fire that gutted it in 1871.1 A lot of significant changes were made in the wake of that inferno; in addition to new codes and even new land created out of an infill of ruins, building with wood was out, and stone, terracotta, and eventually steel, was in. Depending on whom you ask, Chicago may qualify as the first city to have erected a true skyscraper—where the use of metal and steel, not all that flammable wood, was essential.

So, we’ve got the reminders of the fire all around us, even as we’re safer for the changes that were made in its wake. Except, of course, when it comes to all that asbestos meant to protect us from another round of flames. What gives; why haven’t we gotten rid of it all?2

Well, for one thing, it’s expensive and complicated to remove, and it’s not something you could, much less should, do yourself. But so many of those hot water heater closets and utility corners I’ve seen in the last few months are pretty small—not a truly cash-exorbitant undertaking, especially when your health might hang in the balance. What else might be going on here? An instance of that general “nothing will happen to me” poo-poohing that makes great spoofs like Happy Fun Ball so believable? Or could we be suffering from a sort of collective, lingering fear of fire, so deeply ingrained that we’ll accept the risk of inhaling malign fibers over the possibility that our homes will go up in a blaze?

Like everything else in life, you weigh a multitude of dangers, knowing there’s no such thing as a peril-free existence. And admittedly, it’s not as if a normal day-to-day consists of checking out the intimate parts of one home after another; before now, I wasn’t examining friends’ or neighbors’ laundry rooms or pipes, and I’m only coming late to the realization that this stuff has always been spread all too freely within our four walls. But this new, erm, exposure has made me wonder about the lengths we’ll go to to hold all hazards at bay, to accept one seemingly distant menace over another danger that feels all too familiar.

And maybe the issue’s been churning around in my brain because of the larger reality in which we’re living, hearts focused on a bit of hope for the end of our now-familiar pandemic. For those of us who’ve spent the last year masking up, stepping off of sidewalks to keep our social distance, finding new ways to stay entertained and alone indoors, and learning to deal with much longer, messier hair, how long will it take us to feel comfortable again just going about our business, watching out for cars before crossing the road, but not even noticing the pedestrians around us? What of this past year might we hold on to, and what percentage of that holdover will act as a security blanket we need to learn to let go of?

I can easily imagine myself being far too hesitant to hang out on a lawn with friends, to accept a ride, to hug someone or set foot in a train or go to a movie. And I can also imagine people eventually getting fed up with what they might view as my paranoia, much like kids a couple of generations removed from their older relatives rolling their eyes with impatience at what lingers from their Depression- or World War II-era experiences. I can easily envision, in other words, messing up good relationships because I’m unable to strike the right balance between the risk of being infected and the risk of alienating others. At what point might justifiable caution step over into paralysis or overreaction, and from there into estrangement? Moving in the opposite direction, in what ways might any of us legitimately be hesitant to move, when everyone else wants (understandably) to throw caution to the winds?

We’ve become all too familiar over the past year with these types of balancing acts—and as my new experience with a not-quite-predictable substance has reminded me, we’ve always had to weigh any number and type of risks in making a comfortable, not to mention secure, place for ourselves in this world. How should we proceed, then, as we look to a future less captive to COVID, or to any other dangers? It’s not quite Aristotle’s (equally difficult-to-apply) golden mean, but until we come up with a better answer or less complicated and pricey forms of remediation, maybe the best we can do where asbestos, or even a nasty virus is concerned, is to adapt the warning in that Saturday Night Live skit I mentioned earlier: “Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.”


Among other things, the city’s MLS team is named the Chicago Fire.


I frequently ask the same question about the extensive network of lead service lines that bring water and all sorts of potential health problems into the area’s homes and buildings. This is a different sort of beast, though, less subject to the decisions or wherewithal of individuals.