Asbestos is a dangerous mineral that has been banned in most countries across the world. But could asbestos have made its way into the environment before manufacturing stopped?
In the late 20th century, asbestos was banned in most countries because of the terrible lung conditions it caused in those who breathed in its fibers.
Conditions such as asbestosis and asbestos-related lung cancer drove this industry into the ground. That said, the mineral still exists in houses built before the 2000s, and in the natural environment too.
In this post, we’re going to focus on the latter by discussing where asbestos exists in the environment and whether you should be worried about exposure to it.
Before we do that, we’re going to briefly go over what asbestos is and the conditions it causes. So, to find out if you’re at risk, read on…
What Is Asbestos And What Conditions Can It Cause?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is fire, sound, water, and chemical resistant. It’s made up of millions of microscopic fibers that bind together and create a near-indestructible material.
Due to its durability, people have mined asbestos for centuries and processed it into a large number of products. Whole industries came to rely on the material until they realized the downsides.
Once it was discovered that inhaling asbestos fibers could lead to conditions such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, it was quickly banned in most countries and the industry fell apart.
The main conditions caused by inhaling asbestos are described in more detail here:
This is a rare form of cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs, hearts, abdomen, or testicles. Asbestos is the only known cause of this type of cancer.
This is a lung disease where asbestos fibers scar the lungs and cause breathing problems. Asbestosis has no cure, worsens over time, and can be fatal.
The fibers get trapped in the lungs and can cause the formation of cancerous tumors.
If you’ve been exposed to asbestos, and you feel like you either have one of these conditions or could develop one, you can take legal action and receive compensation.
Remember, these conditions can take 20 to 30 years to display symptoms.
Different Types Of Asbestos Exposure
Before we dive into our risk of asbestos exposure within our natural environment, let’s first talk about the different types of exposure.
There are four types, and these pose different rates of threat:
1. Occupational Asbestos Exposure
This is mostly concentrated in people who work in industrial and commercial job sites.
It also extends to those who work in high-heat environments such as steel mills, breweries, and oil refineries where asbestos-containing materials are still found.
This type of exposure makes up 70 percent of mesothelioma deaths.
2. Secondary Exposure
This affects family members of workers who are exposed to the mineral on a daily basis.
Workers bring asbestos fibers home on their clothes, skin, and hair which can be transferred to family members when they get home.
This type of exposure makes up around 20 percent of mesothelioma deaths.
3. Product Exposure
Product exposure from hair dryers, heating, toasters, and others manufactured before the 2000s can cause you to come in contact with asbestos particles.
These products are largely discontinued, so the chance of exposure is much less likely than occupational or secondary.
4. Environmental Exposure
Environmental exposure has less chance of giving you an asbestos-related condition than these other types.
That said, it can still happen if you are in an environment where the soil or water has been contaminated.
Where Can You Find It In The Environment?
Most people associate the exposure of asbestos with people who work on construction sites.
However, as the mineral is naturally found in the environment and was used in heavy industry for so long, you can be exposed to it outside the construction yard.
Here are the main places asbestos exists in the environment:
Asbestos is found naturally as a silicate substance in soil and rocks across the world. In this form, the fibers are safely contained underground unless they’re disturbed by human activity.
If asbestos dust builds up in one place due to construction activity or illegal dumping, it can mean that the soil is disturbed. Then, these dangerous fibers are kicked up into the air and can be breathed in.
The dust that forms on top of the soil from construction or renovation in the immediate area can be blown by the wind to another nearby area and settle there. This increases the overall environmental impact and health risk to humans.
Depending on how much heavy asbestos industry took place in the area you live in, or surrounding areas, you could be at risk of exposure. This is particularly prevalent if the soil around your home is covered in asbestos dust.
A Case Study: Poland
One example of this kind of asbestos exposure is a small town in Poland called Szczucin. In a 2004 paper, Dr. Neonila Szeszenia-Dabrowska described the asbestos industry in the town:
“Asbestos has been a way of life here since the asbestos cement factory opened.
Mothers knitted sweaters for children from asbestos cloth. The cloth was used for rugs and slipcovers.
Many residents routinely kept piles of asbestos handy for little projects around the house. The piles would often be left uncovered sending dangerous fibers aloft with every gust of wind.”
The total volume of asbestos waste and contaminated soil in Szczucin was estimated by the Institute of Environmental Protection as 0.8 – 1.0 million m3.
The town had high cases of mesothelioma between 1987-2003, and the age of death from lung cancer dropped by 10 years.
Asbestos wasn’t only used for constructing buildings. It was also used to reinforce cement pipes and drainage systems both inside and outside buildings.
This exposed water quality to the risk of contamination, as fiber deterioration can be hastened by fast-flowing water and end up in your water supply.
This means that bathing, cleaning, and drinking the water in your own home or office could cause you to ingest the dangerous fibers.
The fibers also have a low biodegrading rate which means they can stay in your system for a long time once they’re ingested.
It also means as we explained with the soil example, the asbestos particles can spread over vast distances and contaminate lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.
Thankfully, asbestos doesn’t tend to bind to the solids naturally found in water systems. But it does bind to trace metals and organic compounds that could be in the water.
A Case Study: Japan
A good example of this kind of environmental damage is in Japan. Here a large volume of asbestos-contaminated soil and waste was found at the Kubota Corporation’s Kanzaki factory.
The contamination was caused by the leakage of asbestos-contaminated water from the factory seeping into the soil and spreading the fibers.
Is Asbestos In The Environment Cause For Concern?
Now that we know what asbestos is, and where we can find it in the natural environment, it’s time to decide whether it’s something to seriously worry about.
Low levels of exposure to asbestos fibers are less likely to lead to a serious illness or condition, so being aware of the threat will probably be enough.
If you’re aware of environmental asbestos in your area, take precautions to prevent exposure. This can be as simple as knowing where it might be deposited.
You can also make sure to check the ingredients in any products or soils you use, wet any ground that might have asbestos in it before you work in the garden, or allow your kids to play in it, and even pave over any soil you feel has asbestos in it.
Thankfully, exposure to asbestos in the environment is relatively unlikely in comparison to occupational exposure, secondary exposure, and product exposure, as described previously.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In this post, we’ve managed to give you an overview of what asbestos is, how it gets into the environment, and where you might find it.
We’ve also shared some advice on whether you should be worried about it or not.
As we said in the last section, environmental exposure is much less likely to happen than occupational, secondary, or even product exposure.
That being said, it’s a good idea to check if your area is known for being contaminated with asbestos and make the necessary precautions.
Also, if you’re doing any work on your house and you come across what you think might be asbestos, be vigilant.
If you’re really worried, you can buy a test kit online and send off a sample to your local authority, or call in an expert to deal with it.
Thank you for reading this post, be vigilant, and hopefully, asbestos-related conditions will become a thing of the past.