gooserider, i've never heard that asbestos was blown out of proportion. I wouldn't be suprised if it was, but I had never heard that. Do you have any good articles/books on the subject?
No pointers off the top of my head, but I can give the short form story... There are two forms of asbestos commonly used for insulation, grey and red.
Grey is what is used for 95+% of all applications. It is relatively inert, doesn't shed fibers that are a particular health hazard, (it comes apart in large chunks that don't make dust and don't float in the air...) and especially when not disturbed is essentially harmless. The problem is that it's very vulnerable to damage from salt water, which makes it useless in marine applications (like ship boilers)
Red asbestos is the nasty stuff, it's very fragile, sheds fibers, and makes dust that causes long term cumulative damage. However it's highly resistant to salt water damage, so it got used in a great many WWII vintage Navy and Merchant vessels, and other applications where salt water resistance was needed. Of course since it was a cumulative damage type thing, most people don't have a huge need to worry about this, only folks who had heavy duty exposure, like asbestos workers, ship builders, etc. It was about the time that the whole environmental scene started heating up that people noticed that the NY asbestos workers union had one of the richest retirment plans in the country, basically because none of it's members (who had heavy red asbestos exposure) lived long enough to retire... The publicity people, the media, and the litigation lawyers all jumped on the 'asbestos is bad' bandwagon without bothering to sort out the red / grey difference (after all, it people got more alarmed if ALL asbestos was blamed for a fairly small problem)
BTW, I have also seen claims that 9/11 wouldn't have been so bad if it werent for the asbestos scare! The original plans for the building called for (grey) asbestos coating on all the steel, but because of the uproar, only the lower floors of the buildings were coated, the floors where the planes hit were not. At least some engineering studies suggest that the steel would have held up long enough to get the fires out and evacuate the structures if it had been coated per the original specs....