Environmental Effects of Asbestos + 8 Ways to Limit Exposure
The mineral asbestos, renowned for its resistance to heat and corrosion, has been mined worldwide for more than 100 years. Whether through nature, the mining process or its once-common use in a wide variety of products – such as building materials, car brakes and makeup – asbestos lingers in the environment, often with deadly consequences.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral. The fibers can be tiny and invisible to the naked eye, especially after being processed. Once airborne, these fibers sneak into the body when inhaled or ingested, leading to serious health issues such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. With low levels of asbestos consistently found in our air, soil and water, everyone is exposed to at least some level of the toxic mineral.
This post will provide an overview of asbestos risks in the great outdoors and tips for limiting your exposure to asbestos.
Where Is Asbestos in Our Environment?
Asbestos naturally forms underground in certain kinds of rocks, often close to fault zones. Some rocks feature visible veins of asbestos running through them. This can look like white or yellowish patterns cutting through the rock.
Asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries. Although it is highly regulated in the United States, it is not completely banned. Praised for its durability, strength and resistance to deterioration, asbestos has been used in a broad spectrum of products since the 1800s. Asbestos can still be found in some consumer products today.
Mining is the primary way of extracting asbestos from the earth. Although asbestos mining is no longer allowed in the U.S., waste from former asbestos mining operations creates ample opportunity for the air to carry miniscule asbestos fibers into surrounding environments.
Asbestos dust has been acknowledged as a health risk since at least 1932, when the U.S. Bureau of Mines stated in a letter to an asbestos manufacturer, “It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.” That dust is now referred to as asbestos tailings, defined as “any solid waste that contains asbestos and is a product of asbestos mining or milling operations.”
Environmental asbestos exposure can occur through the disturbance of natural asbestos deposits, the processing of asbestos ore and through improper disposal. Natural disasters pose another risk in the spread of dangerous asbestos fibers. Strong winds, floods or rainwater can easily carry the fibers into communities and local drinking sources. Sudden destruction or damage to buildings constructed with asbestos-containing building materials can also release the harmful contaminant into our air and waterways.
Who Is at Risk?
When it comes to asbestos in the environment, people living near former asbestos mines and natural deposits of the mineral are at increased risk of exposure. Children face heightened risks if exposed because their lungs are still developing. Their young age creates ample time for asbestos fibers to damage their health. Asbestos-related health issues take approximately 20 years to become detectable.
Overall, due to low levels of asbestos present in air, water and soil across the country, we are all exposed in our lifetimes. Most people don’t typically get sick from their limited exposure. But, globally, asbestos is estimated to cause more than 250,000 deaths a year. According to one study, for every 20 tons of asbestos mined and used, one person dies somewhere in the world.
There is some evidence that environmentally caused mesothelioma cases have been on the rise in certain geographic regions. Researchers believe the higher proportion of women developing the rare cancer over men is meaningful, but the issue requires additional geological and environmental investigations.
Asbestos in the United States
Naturally occurring asbestos deposits are located in many regions of the United States, especially in the East and West. States such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts were all home to asbestos mines at one time. The Western U.S. was home to mining operations in California, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. The U.S. Geological Survey has created an interactive map you can use to see if there are natural asbestos deposits near you.
Asbestos mining no longer takes place in the U.S. The last American producer of asbestos shuttered its operations in 2002. Consumption of asbestos as a whole in the U.S. has shrunk considerably over the past 50 years, from 803,000 tons in its heyday in 1973 to less than 800 tons each year since 2016. The decrease in asbestos producers means fewer opportunities for new contamination.
Currently, the chloralkali industry is the only remaining domestic consumer of the material in mineral form in the United States. These manufacturers use asbestos fibers to make semipermeable, fireproof diaphragms.
Monitoring and mapping asbestos mines and deposits around the country creates broader awareness of the risks, according to leading experts.
“It is important to know where asbestos is in the environment so that future urban development does not encroach on it and we can prevent cancer in the future,” said Dr. Michele Carbone of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.
Case Study: Las Vegas, Nevada
Researchers from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center discovered in 2015 that Clark and Nye counties in southern Nevada had a high ratio of women and younger residents developing aggressive mesothelioma. They determined environmental exposure to asbestos in the region was largely the result of development. The mix of construction growth, off-road recreational vehicle usage, dust storms and a dry climate created a bevy of opportunities for asbestos to become airborne and blow into the heavily populated Las Vegas area. This metropolitan community is home to 1.9 million people who are either in direct contact with naturally occurring asbestos or live downwind of a naturally occurring asbestos source. Another study from 2019 indicated that ongoing expansion and population growth in the area continues to increase the asbestos-related health risks.
Case Study: Libby, Montana
Decades of asbestos mining created toxic dust and debris that contaminated the small mining town of Libby, Montana, killing 400 residents and leaving almost 3,000 battling asbestos-related illnesses. Though the mine closed in 1990, it wasn’t until 1999 that the Environmental Protection Agency began the process of removing over a million cubic yards of dirt and building materials from the area, resulting in the biggest and longest-running asbestos cleanup in U.S. history.
The EPA transferred oversight of the project, except the mine site itself, to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in 2020. In 2021, it announced that another major section of the restoration effort had been completed.
A local newspaper reported in 2018 that asbestos-related diseases and deaths continue to come to light due to the long latency period between asbestos exposure and diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases.
Ways to Limit Environmental Asbestos Exposure
With the presence of low-level asbestos contamination in the environment, it is impossible to eliminate your exposure risks completely. But there are strategies you can use to decrease those risks.
For Americans living in the shadow of a former asbestos mining site or in an area known to have natural asbestos deposits, extra precautions may be needed to limit exposure.
Educate Yourself About Asbestos Risks
- Take the time to learn about asbestos and how it can hide in plain sight.
- Learn the appropriate methods for safely identifying asbestos in your home or surroundings and who to call when you need a professional’s assistance.
- Use the resources in this post to discover potential asbestos deposits in your area.
Pay Attention to the Unpaved Ground Around You
Because asbestos develops in rocks and asbestos tailings are so easily blown around, the likelihood of being exposed to asbestos on unpaved dirt and gravel roads is greater than when driving, walking or biking on a paved path. If you live in an area with known asbestos deposits or contamination, use these tips to stay safe.
- Drive slowly on unpaved roads to minimize dust.
- Follow construction zone regulations to reduce construction dust.
- Consider choosing a paved trail over a dirt trail on your next hike or bike ride.
Keep Dust Down
- To decrease the chances of creating a toxic cloud of asbestos dust, try wetting the ground outside before you begin gardening or any other activities.
- Invest in paving the walkways and driveways around your home to cover potential asbestos-containing rocks or soil.
- Shut your windows and doors on windy days and if there is nearby construction.
Be Mindful When Planning Outdoor Activities
- Research ahead of time to find out if natural asbestos is in your area (or areas you visit).
- If you plan to garden, use asbestos-free soil or landscape materials to safely cover the ground.
- Avoid visiting old building sites or locations with visible waste.
Stay Vigilant at Work
- Wear the protective equipment provided at your workplace and follow all safety precautions.
- Clean contaminated clothing or shoes at work to avoid bringing asbestos home.
- Use an approved respirator when working with known asbestos materials.
Be Aware of Secondhand Exposure Risks
- Prevent anyone exposed to asbestos from bringing it into your home by utilizing doormats and having them take off shoes before entering.
- Protect your floors from settling asbestos dust by laying down washable area rugs and using a wet mop.
- Wipe your pets down with a damp rag or cloth when they come inside.
Hire a Professional if You Have Asbestos Concerns
- Talk to an asbestos inspector in your area if you want your home checked for asbestos risks.
- Contact a geologist to verify any naturally occurring asbestos you may have found.
- Do not try to remove or clean up asbestos yourself.
Become an Advocate for Asbestos Cleanup
- Learn about the challenges of asbestos and how it’s handled around the world.
- Contact nonprofits and government leaders to advocate for stronger policies on asbestos removal and cleanup.
- Share what you’ve learned with others to spread awareness of the risks of asbestos.
Asbestos is a natural part of our environment, yet it poses a potentially serious threat to our health. Developing a better understanding of the mineral and exposure risks can help create a safer future.