Every state is home to numerous job sites where asbestos was prevalent because the toxic mineral was widely used in industrial, commercial and domestic settings.
Some heavily affected states — including Pennsylvania, California and Washington — have high rates of exposure. Asbestos-related deaths in those states extend into the thousands.
- More than 100 million Americans have been exposed to asbestos, according to a report from the American Academy of Actuaries.
- Every year, 1.3 million American workers in construction and general industry alone are exposed to asbestos on the job, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Occupational exposure is the primary source of asbestos exposure in every state, but Americans may also be exposed through urban environments and naturally occurring asbestos deposits.
Although occupational exposure occurred at job sites in every state, high-risk sites were extremely prevalent in industrial states such as Michigan and New Jersey.
Employees in certain industries such as manufacturing, mining and shipping, were at high risk of being around asbestos, making it more likely that they could inhale it and eventually get sick.
Examples of high-risk job sites are found in every state in the country, including:
- Construction sites
- Industrial sites
- Manufacturing facilities and mills
- Power generation plants
- Chemical plants
- Auto repair shops
Some states are home to a high number of industrial and manufacturing facilities such as Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana.
Shipyards were also sources of frequent exposure. States featuring big shipyards include California, Washington, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York.
Refineries were another source of dangerous exposure. Many of them are located in Texas and Louisiana.
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When people are exposed to asbestos in urban settings, health officials call it environmental exposure. This kind of exposure can happen in public buildings and neighborhoods near facilities that processed or used asbestos.
In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated 20 percent of public buildings in the U.S. contained friable asbestos materials.
Friable means the asbestos is damaged and may become easily airborne. In 1989, New York City estimated 68 percent of existing buildings contain asbestos and 81 percent of that was friable.
In 1984, the EPA performed an assessment of asbestos in public schools. They determined more than 8,500 schools contain friable asbestos. The agency estimated more than 3 million children were at risk of exposure at the time. This was the first and last time the EPA assessed the risk asbestos poses in U.S. schools.
News reports of asbestos in schools reveal a nationwide problem. For example:
- Asbestos was improperly removed from several schools in Huntington Beach, California, in October 2014.
- A school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, was temporarily shut down in February 2011 after asbestos was found in floor tiles.
- In 2013, inspectors found friable asbestos in 184 schools throughout Chicago. As of 2015, only 11 schools had complied with recommendations to abate the asbestos.
Neighborhood Exposure Near Asbestos Facilities
Elevated rates of asbestos-related diseases are widely documented in neighborhoods around facilities that processed asbestos ore or used asbestos in manufacturing.
The EPA identified 262 sites in 40 states that received shipments of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore from Libby, Montana. A number of these sites were exfoliation facilities, which posed a higher risk of environmental exposure than facilities that only stored ore. The exfoliation process expanded the vermiculite and caused asbestos fibers to become airborne.
While Vermont received only two shipments (the fewest of all states), California and Texas both received millions of tons of vermiculite. Some of the vermiculite was used to make Zonolite insulation, which found its way into an estimated 35 million homes across the country.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry studied 70 of these sites in 23 states. The agency reported elevated rates of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma around the neighborhoods of 17 sites.
This kind of exposure is far less common today than in the past. The primary source of this kind of exposure in the U.S. today is chlor-alkali plants.
Nearly all of the asbestos imported into the U.S. in recent years is used by the chlor-alkali industry to manufacture chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen. Asbestos is incorporated into filtration membranes in the production of these chemicals.
Safer options than asbestos membranes are available such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Many chlor-alkali plants in Europe have converted to safer methods to comply with asbestos bans in European countries.
U.S. chlor-alkali plants are known to release asbestos into the environment. The following occurred between 2012 and 2015:
- A chlor-alkali plant in Ingleside, Texas, released 80 pounds of asbestos into the air. It was more than all other U.S. chlor-alkali plants combined.
- A plant in Convent, Louisiana, released 3 pounds of asbestos into the air and dumped 23 pounds of asbestos into landfills.
- A plant in Taft, Louisiana, dumped 40,492 pounds of asbestos into landfills.
- A plant in Plaquemine, Louisiana, imported 1.3 million pounds of asbestos. Between 1987 and 2015, the plant dumped 9.2 million pounds of asbestos into an on-site landfill.
- A plant in Deer Park, Texas, dumped 123,049 pounds of asbestos into a Houston landfill.
- A plant in La Porte, Texas, dumped 11,010 pounds of asbestos into landfills.
- A plant in Proctor, West Virginia, dumped 77,472 pounds of asbestos into landfills.
The following chlor-alkali plants continue to use asbestos diaphragms.
- OxyChem in Niagara Falls, New York
- Westlake-Natrium in Proctor, West Virginia
- Olin in McIntosh, Alabama
- OxyChem in Convent, Louisiana
- OxyChem in Taft, Louisiana
- Olin in Plaquemine, Louisiana
- Westlake in Plaquemine, Louisiana
- OxyChem in Wichita, Kansas
- OxyChem in Deer Park, Texas
- OxyChem in Ingleside, Texas
- OxyVinyls in La Porte, Texas
- Olin in Freeport, Texas
The OxyChemo plant in Geismar, Louisiana used asbestos diaphragms until 1993.
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Exposure to Naturally Occurring Asbestos in the US
Naturally occurring asbestos deposits are located across the U.S.
Hilly, mountainous ranges can contain asbestos deposits, and any area with large concentrations of host rocks, such as serpentine, may be laced with asbestos. Residents that live near deposits face an elevated risk of asbestos exposure, especially if the naturally occurring asbestos was commercially mined.
According to the United States Geological Survey, 60 asbestos mines were once in operation throughout the eastern U.S.
These mines varied in size and were active at different times. The first asbestos mining operation began in 1894 at the Sall Mountain region of Georgia. The mines produced anthophyllite asbestos, which was also mined in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Amphibole asbestos was mined in Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. Chrysotile asbestos, recognized as the most commercially-used type of the mineral, was mined on Belvidere Mountain in Vermont until 1993.
Three chrysotile asbestos mines in Wyoming included the Fire King deposit, the Smith Creek deposit and the Casper Mountain deposit. The asbestos was used for chimney construction in 1920 and was shipped to flooring manufacturers in 1912.
Libby, Montana, was one of the most heavily asbestos-polluted cities in the nation. The town’s asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine — operated from 1919 to 1990 — is the source of the pollution.
More than 400 deaths in Libby are attributed to asbestos exposure, and more than 1,750 town residents have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma.
The EPA added Libby to the National Priorities List in 2002, and in 2009 declared the town a Public Health Emergency. After nearly 20 years, the EPA’s cleanup efforts concluded in 2018.
Another Montana site includes the Karst mine in southern Montana, where small amounts of anthophyllite asbestos were extracted in 1923, 1928 and from 1933-1935. Asbestos from this mine was used to make wall and ceiling insulation, roofing compound and insulation at oil refineries.
The Rocky Mountains are home to several small asbestos deposits. Five areas were mined for asbestos. One site, the Kamiah anthophyllite deposit in Idaho, operated from 1909 to 1925. Asbestos from this mine was used to make pipe insulation, boiler covers, wall plaster and paint. It was also used as a binding agent in cement and asphalt.
Washington is home to dozens of asbestos deposits. Two of the deposits were mined in the years 1891 and 1921. A deposit of chrysotile in Sumas Mountain, located in Whatcom County, drains into the Sumas River. The asbestos is so concentrated that the river runs white. USGS tests from 2011-2013 revealed chrysotile asbestos makes up 0.27 to 37 percent of the river’s sediment.
California has many naturally occurring sources of asbestos because serpentine rock, from which chrysotile originates, is common in the state.
Experts are watching El Dorado County in Northern California, a community built on top of a large asbestos deposit. Air samples gathered by the EPA in 2004 raised concerns about exposure from stirred up dirt in county parks.
Another site for concern in California is the Clear Creek Management Area, which sits on one of the largest naturally occurring asbestos deposits in the world. This 31,000-acre serpentine deposit is frequently visited by thousands of off-road motorcyclists, hikers and campers each year. The Clear Creek Management Area was once home to the Atlas Asbestos Mine, which is now a designated Superfund site by the EPA.
The central part of the U.S. has fewer asbestos deposits compared with other regions, according to the USGS. Although 26 natural asbestos occurrences are documented, only five sites in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma were evaluated for mining or commercial production.
As of 2002, approximately 730,000 individuals filed asbestos lawsuits in the United States. More than 8,400 companies contributed to related injuries.
Asbestos use was rampant across the U.S. until the 1980s. Estimates of mesothelioma deaths between that time and 2001 are unclear because the government did not officially track mesothelioma deaths until 1999. However, from 1999 to 2010, about 32,000 people died in the U.S. from asbestosis or mesothelioma.
Some states, such as Florida, have a high mortality rate because they attract more retirees and because their population is older. Others have elevated mortality rates because they have more occupational and environmental sources of exposure such as California.
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Last Modified January 17, 2019
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