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Natural Asbestos: Where it is and how to avoid it

September 24, 2019

Toxic elements in the environment are often chalked up to man-made byproducts and pollution. However, naturally occurring materials can be just as dangerous. Asbestos, commonly known to cause cancer, is often found in construction materials, talc-based powders, and heat-resistant
products. While all of these things are man-made, asbestos is actually a mined mineral, present in the earth. Deposits of the substance are rich in mineral-dense areas, posing a threat to human health and air quality.

What is Asbestos?

In naturally occurring deposits, asbestos is considered safe until disturbed. The broad term “asbestos” refers to a group of six silicate minerals that have similar properties and were used widely in construction throughout the 20th century. All subdivisions of asbestos share the desirable characteristics of resistance to heat, flame and electricity, as well as low cost, sound absorption, and high relative tensile strength.

Asbestos fibers are microscopic and can easily become airborne once disturbed, allowing for them to be inhaled. Once inhaled, the tiny fibers cling to the lining of our internal organs, where they cause inflammation and scarring to occur. The immune system knows these fibers are harmful and attempts to break them down and remove them, but the fibers are too durable, which then causes a chain reaction of irritation leading to tumor development over time.

The most common maladies from asbestos exposure are asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma is an extremely hostile form of cancer that can form in the linings of the heart, abdomen or testicles, but most commonly the lungs. After exposure it can take up to 50 years before diagnosis, making it extremely difficult to identify and treat. Upon diagnosis, life expectancy is short, at only about 2 years on average.

Presence in the Environment

Like any mineral, asbestos is more prevalent in certain areas than others. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, asbestos usage and exposure dates back nearly 5,000 years, and both identification and prospecting of the mineral have been ongoing since the 1800s. The ATSDR’s map of natural asbestos incidence reveals the asbestos deposits are most common along mountain ranges like the Appalachians, Rockies, Sierra Nevadas, and the Cascades.

Sumas Mountain, located in the Northern Cascades of Washington State, is home to large natural deposits of asbestos. Natural erosion, as well as the effects of man, has given rise to a slow-moving landslide along the slopes of Sumas, with runoff into the nearby Swift Creek. Asbestos fibers have been exposed by this natural process and contaminated the waters, which are upstream of farming communities and towns.

In 2016, Whatcom County asked Washington State for $5.8 million to contain the dangerous mineral, so as to not infect any people or animals. Though the EPA website listed the cleanup of the Swift Creek location as “committed,” currently all phases of the cleanup plan are in the “not
yet achieved” phase.

The Swift Creek site is not an outlier. Countries around the world are working to mitigate the effects of natural asbestos exposure, which are often compounded by human environmental disruption. Countries like Canada, the U.K., Australia, and the European Union have banned asbestos, Canada most recently in late 2018.

Western Australia’s high levels of asbestos in conjunction with mining activities have given rise to the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world. The town of Wittenoom is a particular example of the dangers of exposing natural asbestos. Though the town’s asbestos mine closed in 1966, a bill to finalize the closure of the town was introduced in March of this year. To date, over 2,000 people have died from asbestos exposure at Wittenoom. This action underlines the serious threat that asbestos poses, even half a decade after being disrupted for the first time.

What Citizens Can Do

This September 26th is the 16th annual Mesothelioma Awareness Day. This is a perfect time of year to advocate for asbestos remediation and awareness. Indoor and outdoor pollution are on the rise, reports the EPA. So it’s essential to be aware of what contaminants you may come into contact with every day and how they infect the environment.

Beyond natural exposure, it’s also important to be aware of asbestos within buildings and other products. If you or your loved ones live in a mountainous area and your home, place of work or school was built before 1970, it is highly likely to contain asbestos. There is no federal mandate
to remove asbestos from standing structures, so it is estimated by the EPA to still be present in nearly 700,000 buildings nationwide.

Contact an abatement professional if you think asbestos may be present. Using a licensed professional is imperative to mitigate the risk of illegal dumping, which can deposit disturbed asbestos back into the environment. This risks contaminating groundwater or putting animals at risk of inhalation.

The stories of Swift Creek and Wittenoom are frightening. Exposure can be especially likely during the summer months, as warmer weather may stir up dust and entice people outside. The first thing citizens can do to mitigate their own risks of exposure is to check your local environmental agencies for exposure maps. In the U.S., ongoing asbestos clean-up site information can be found here . Supporting actions for a full asbestos ban is also important so that further contamination can be avoided.

Article written by Sarah Wolverton from Mesthoelioma.com

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