Does asbestos harm the environment?

In our last CCSN article, my colleague Tim Povtak wrote about the damage that asbestos can do to your body. Today, Jackie kindly opened the floor for me to discuss the damage it can do to the earth.

It’s ironic to think that a mineral that originates in the earth could actually end up hurting it. But that’s exactly the case with asbestos.

The naturally occurring fibers are found in various environmental deposits. They’re often intertwined with rock formations and other minerals, such as quartz and limestone. Unfortunately, mining these co-existing minerals can release the nearby asbestos into the air. (Asbestos itself is no longer mined in Canada, but the fibers that were released during the process may still be present in the environment.)

Even if it’s already been mined and processed, construction or building demolition can re-introduce asbestos back into the environment. For instance, if construction crews bulldoze an asbestos-containing building without addressing the asbestos products beforehand, the contaminated debris becomes an exposure hazard.

What Happens after Asbestos is in the Air?

Like dandelion florets, asbestos fibers can float through the air for long distances. Even if they land, another gust of wind can pick them back up and send them elsewhere. This allows them to travel long distances and eventually settle far from the original deposit.

Asbestos can settle in rivers or streams, which then contaminates the area’s water supply. One Minnesota study found 2.6 million asbestos fibers per liter of drinking water sourced from Two Harbors, and 1.9 million fibers per liter of Beaver Bay water. Those levels are more than high enough to cause illness if ingested.

The fibers can also settle in a thin layer on top of soil. It doesn’t sink into the ground, and it’s not bio-degradable. It’s even impervious to fire.

That durable, hard-to-destroy quality is exactly why so many companies once mined the fibers for industrial use. Unfortunately, because it was so widely used, there’s now a “background level” of asbestos in the environment, which everyone is exposed to.

That ambient asbestos level is low enough that most people will only inhale a fiber or two throughout their lifetimes, and will never develop health effects. But for the unlucky few – for instance, those who developed peritoneal mesothelioma from swallowing asbestos-contaminated water – that fure is still a serious environmental problem. Once diagnosed, the life span for a mesothelioma patient is usually up to one year.

Faith Franz is a researcher and writer for The Mesothelioma Center. She advocates for alternative medicine and encourages patients to explore all of their treatment options.

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 Horvitz, J. S. (1974). Asbestos and its Environmental Impact. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review; 3:1. Retrieved from Asbestos Harm the Environment?

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