You may associate asbestos with insulation and other industrial uses. But asbestos itself is not man-made. It is a mineral that can be found in rocks and soil. And in its natural form, asbestos can be just as deadly as the asbestos in old buildings and auto brake pads.
The mineral asbestos crumbles into small fibers, and if these fibers are breathed into the lungs the result can be tragic. Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, a particularly dangerous form of lung cancer, and asbestosis, a debilitating lung disease.
If there’s any good news to be found here, it’s that most naturally occurring asbestos is deep underground. If you’re into hiking and camping, in most parts of the U.S. you don’t need to worry about stumbling into a patch of deadly asbestos. Poison ivy is another story, of course.
There are exceptions, however, and the exceptions are of two types. There are a few places in the U.S. where asbestos is found naturally in surface rocks and in soil. The other danger occurs where asbestos has been mined or processed, resulting in the tragic asbestos contamination of communities.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) provides a map to locations where there’s a danger of exposure to surface or mined asbestos. As you can see on the map, some of these locations are near areas where people might go hiking or camping, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states.
Other areas — see Georgia and Virginia in particular — are in fast-growing communities. People in those communities might be exposed to asbestos while gardening, or the family pooch might bring it into the house after digging holes in the yard. Mesothelioma can take 30 years to develop after exposure to asbestos, so if you live near one of the sites on the map don’t be complacent just because you haven’t heard of anyone getting sick.
In the case of natural asbestos deposits, it’s most important to leave it alone, because the fibers become airborne when the mineral is disturbed. ATSDR has an online pamphlet with asbestos safety tips for limiting your exposure to asbestos if you think it’s near your home. Tips include staying on pavement as much as possible, pre-wetting gardens before digging in the soil, and clean carpets frequently using a vacuum with a high efficiency HEPA filter.
The tragedy of Libby, Montana, shows us the worst that can happen where asbestos has been mined and processed. Libby was the site of a vermiculite mine, and the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos. Although the mine has been closed for years, at least 50 new cases of asbestos-related disease are diagnosed every year in a community of about 3,000 people. At least 200 Libby residents have died of asbestos-related disease. The EPA recently declared Libby “public health disaster.” Asbestos-related diseases are extremely dangerous, and if you think you may have been exposed in the past, or if you develop symptoms of lung disease; see one of our nation’s top doctors such as Dr. Harvey Pass promptly.
— Barbara O’Brien