ranking in U.S. for mesothelioma & asbestosis deaths
Although Alaska is currently one of the lowest ranking states in the U.S. for asbestos-related deaths, environmental and occupational exposure to the toxic mineral is still common. The state's complex and active geology creates massive deposits of ultramafic and serpentine mineral ore, two rock types in which naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) is formed. Processed asbestos has also been widely used by Alaskan industries for commercial materials such as insulation, pipe and furnace wraps, roof shingles, floor tiles and textured paints. Despite the associated health risks, many Alaskan companies used the toxic mineral as a building material before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to regulate its use in the 1970s and '80s.
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Whether occurring naturally or found in buildings, homes or worksites, asbestos poses a health risk when the mineral’s fibers are released into the air. Exposure to airborne asbestos is known to cause a variety of respiratory diseases including lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural effusion and a rare cancer called mesothelioma.
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*The CDC database suppressed these numbers to protect the privacy of patients.
The mineral’s natural resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage has inspired many industrial uses. Alaskan industries with the highest risk of asbestos exposure include shipbuilding, mining, milling, oil refining and power generation.
The state’s abundant natural deposits of asbestos have been known to form alongside other minerals that are frequently mined and processed. If minerals at any of these sites are contaminated with asbestos, mining can release airborne fibers, putting miners and surrounding populations at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Further, the unknowing end users of any contaminated materials are also at risk. This is a growing problem for Alaska’s construction industry because a high demand for gravel is complicated by asbestos contamination at many local sources.
The discovery of naturally occurring asbestos has slowed, and in some cases even stopped, the progress of various construction projects in Alaska. In 2000, for example, a project to resurface 20 miles of the Dalton Highway was halted after NOA was found at the material site. This discovery delayed the project and significantly increased its overall cost.
In Ambler, the construction of a sewage lagoon and an airport project were delayed for years after a similar discovery prompted the closure of a local gravel pit in 2003. Gravel from the asbestos-contaminated pit supplied city roads and became a public health issue when vehicle use generated clouds of airborne dust. This dust is particularly dangerous for drivers of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) that frequent these roads. Efforts to find a nearby gravel source free of naturally occurring asbestos were unsuccessful. Some locations in Alaska do not have access to gravel sources free of NOA, a challenging obstacle for upcoming construction projects like a proposed new gas pipeline that will require 50 to 60 million cubic yards of gravel to complete.
Four major locations in Alaska’s panhandle contain deposits of asbestos, including the cities of Juneau and Ketchikan. The City and Borough of Juneau predicts that asbestos is present in the majority of the region’s high-quality rock deposits. Southeast Alaska also contains asbestos deposits throughout Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and along the Yukon River near Kobuk Valley.
In Central Alaska, natural asbestos deposits and historic asbestos prospects can be found along a northeast-trending ridge of the Yukon-Tanana Upland Terrane. Included in this area are portions of the Yukon River and the Dalton Highway. West Alaska features asbestos deposits on the Cape Newenham peninsula near Bristol Bay. To the north, the mineral-rich mountains of the Brooks Range contain large deposits of jade, copper and NOA. Other notable areas with naturally occurring asbestos in the Arctic Circle include the cities of Kobuk and Ambler as well as Shungnak and nearby Dahl Creek. Experts believe that over time more deposits will be documented, specifically in mineral-rich locations
Arctic Surplus is a former Alaskan salvage yard covering 24-acres of land in southeast Fairbanks. The site contained salvaged materials and scrap that accumulated for more than 40 years, including asbestos rolls, bricks, pipe wrapping and insulation. Also known as Arctic Salvage and McPeak Salvage, the site was deemed a public health hazard after an investigation revealed contaminated soil and groundwater as well as past exposures of workers to asbestos, lead and other harmful on-site contaminants. In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency surrounded the site with a fence and removed 22,200 pounds of asbestos. The following year, Arctic Surplus was placed on the National Priorities List as a Superfund site. Cleanup efforts and safety evaluations continued for decades until the site was deleted from the National Priorities List in 2006.
In February 2010, state Rep. Reggie Joule, R-Ala., introduced House Bill 333, which would allow the use of gravel contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos in private and state-run construction projects. In addition, it set out to give immunity to landowners and people who supply or use the contaminated gravel, essentially blocking any litigation stemming from injury, illness, death or any other damages related to asbestos exposure.
The bill died in committee, but the high demand for gravel remained. With major projects facing stalls and setbacks from a lack of access to uncontaminated gravel, the bill was revived two years later as House Bill 258. This time, it passed into law, and went into effect on May 5, 2012.
Asbestos-containing materials are strictly regulated by several federal agencies in the U.S., but the regulation of naturally occurring asbestos is growing in popularity. California and Virginia have been regulating the use of NOA for years, and several other states are currently considering similar measures.
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