Asbestos was once considered to be a “miracle mineral” for its heat resistance and durability. This fiber-like mineral has been mined because of these useful properties since early Greek civilization.
Yet even as early as the Roman Empire, slaves at these mines were noted to have a higher incidence of illness and early death. Regardless, mining of asbestos continued for centuries, peaking during the Industrial Revolution when it was regarded as the perfect insulator for newly emerging factories.
Eventually, the mineral was refined and incorporated into a number of building materials, fabrics and other products. Despite its seemingly desirable properties, it is a carcinogen, and mining the mineral puts miners at a high risk of developing a related disease.
Before asbestos mining came to the United States, it was already commonplace in Canada. Quebec was a large mining area, though mines operated in cities all across Canada. At one point, Canada had several dozen mines in operation and was the largest exporter of asbestos to the United States and many other countries. Today, only one mine remains in Canada, but plans were recently introduced to increase production at this Quebec mine.
In the United States, asbestos mining began just before the turn of the 20th century. The first mine opened in the Sall Mountain area of Georgia. Eventually, about 60 mines were operating in the eastern United States, while many others were thriving in California, Oregon and Washington. The last operation to close on the East Coast was the Lowell chrysotile quarry, which ceased operations in 1993. On the West Coast, one California location continued mining until 2002.
U.S. asbestos mining peaked around 1973, a few years before the federal government issued warnings about the mineral and began to regulate its use. Unfortunately for most of the miners, many were already exposed, and the restrictions came much too late.
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Vermiculite is a member of the phyllosilicate group of minerals and is found in many parts of the world. Vermiculite can contain many other minerals, including asbestos. However, not all vermiculite is contaminated.
One prominent vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana was tainted with asbestos and became one of the largest environmental disasters in the United States. The W.R. Grace vermiculite mine saw countless workers become ill and pass away, while more than 1,000 residents in the town also were affected by the toxic dust.
The mine was designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2002. Then in 2009, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson declared a public health emergency in Libby. This was the first time the EPA had declared a public health emergency, which to many public health officials signaled the severity of the exposure risk in the town.
A number of taconite mines came under fire for the high prevalence of asbestos-related diseases in their workers. One such mine, the Iron Range in Minnesota, is noted for a mesothelioma incidence rate that is twice as high as the general population.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website.
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