D espite the overwhelming amount of evidence that proves the carcinogenic and toxic properties of asbestos, it is still widely used and produced in many places around the world. In the United States, only a handful of its uses are banned. If a product contains 1 percent asbestos its use is still allowed and the product can legally be labeled as “asbestos-free.”
Most people are exposed to asbestos while on the job. Those who work with asbestos-containing materials are most likely to suffer from asbestos-related diseases such as:
- Lung cancer
- Pleural plaques (thickening of lung tissue)
- Mesothelioma (cancer in the lining of the lungs or abdomen)
- Asbestosis (accumulation of scarred lung tissue)
Despite its use in many manmade products, asbestos is actually a natural mineral. Naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) is the term used to describe the mineral in its natural form in the environment. It is usually found in serpentine rock in mountainous regions.
In the Unites States, there are several known large sites of NOA including:
- Clear Creek Management Area and El Dorado Hills, California
- Libby Mine and Karst Mine, Montana
- Fire King, Smith Creek and Casper Mountain, Wyoming
- Belvedere Mountain, Vermont
- A number of mines in Jackson and Macon counties, North Carolina
California’s Clear Creek Management Area contains one of the largest deposits of NOA in the world.
If left alone, NOA is not a threat. However, activities like mining and other disruptive activities can cause the release of asbestos fibers into the air.
The mining industry is notorious for a number of environmental asbestos exposure disasters. For example, at the vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, W. R. Grace & Company allowed contaminated vermiculite to pollute the town. Hundreds of its miners and residents died of asbestos-related disease.
In the past, workers would mine and mill asbestos by hand with no respiratory protection. Today, the mining of asbestos is not much safer (mining of asbestos in the United States stopped in the early 1990s). Most of it is done in open-pit mines. To save money, mining companies often use a dry milling process which increases the level of asbestos dust.
The largest producers of asbestos today are Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan. Russia’s Uralasbest mine is nearly the size of Manhattan and produces half a million tons of asbestos a year.
Asbestos from these mines is then sent to factories in developing countries like India and Mexico. Products like cement sheet and automobile brakes are made and exported.
The Move to Make Asbestos Green
Despite asbestos’ continued use in some products in the United States, companies now offer a variety of chemical-free, non-flammable, non-toxic and chlorofluorocarbon-free alternatives to asbestos.
Among these eco-friendly products is a soy-based, spray-on insulation that is non-toxic and provides the same benefits of asbestos, and a recycled denim-based insulation is an option for attic insulation. Waste management companies also offer asbestos recycling options for commercial companies, preventing asbestos from ending up in landfills.
With the green movement on the rise, asbestos use may decline in developing countries.