A thousand miles east of Moscow, just north of the Kazakhstani border, there sits a small mining city proudly named after the deadly mineral asbestos. The city is named “Asbest,” and its population clocks in at just over 80,000. Seventy percent of the city’s income comes from a gigantic, open asbestos mine where dynamite is often used to release the toxic mineral. Recently, investigative journalists from VICE Reports visited the town of Asbest to learn more — and what they found is extremely disturbing.
In the recently-released episode, VICE’s managing editor Milène Larsson (of Sweden) is seen wearing standard-issue (for the United States and the United Kingdom, that is) protective gear — to the shock and dismay of the locals Asbest inhabitants. Standing on an overlook, glancing down upon the open pit of the large asbestos mine, Larsson asks 2 plain-clothed Russian men: “Are you not worried about the dust, and the asbestos fibers coming out of the mine?” To this, the locals laugh and casually reply: “No we are not worried about anything in general. What’s the point in being afraid? Things happen to you only when you are afraid of them. But if you’re not afraid, the body will heal itself.”
Where does this notion come from? In the United States, the effects of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma are devastating, but they are at least recorded, studied, and made known. There are legislative measures and important dialogues aimed at remedying past practices involving asbestos and improving future ones.
In Russia, however, there is a lot of denial — and behind this denial there is an absolutely overwhelming amount of corruption and fear.
Science vs. Money, Government, & Putin
The science is firm. Asbestos kills more than 100,000 people a year globally. Back on the home front? 11,000 Americans. Because of this, asbestos is now banned in 59 countries. While asbestos is not banned in the United States, it is heavily regulated by governmental agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are strict abatement procedures in place for building contractors to follow, as the science behind asbestos’s dangers is well-documented and no longer disputed. In Russia, however, top government and medical officials routinely deny the harmful effects of asbestos. As The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reports:
“Russian asbestos producers operate with the swagger that comes from unwavering government support. Controversy bypasses them, perhaps in no small measure because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is their ally. Nothing, it seems, is allowed to interfere with an industry.”
The amount of corruption in Russia is disturbing — and, quite frankly, chilling to the bone. Consider that when VICE’s Larsson asks Dr. Sergey Berezin, a leading oncologist at Yekaterinburg Oncology Center, whether or not he treats an inordinate amount of patients from Asbest, his smug, rehearsed, reply is as follows:
“I can’t say we get more patients from Asbest… However it needs to be mentioned that twice I did my medical residency there, and I must say I actually liked it in Asbest. In my opinion, the air was quite satisfying.”
It is outrageous to call the air — which is filled with asbestos dust — “quite satisfying.” More poignantly: it is offensive and malicious. If 11,000 Americans die from asbestos every year, one can only imagine how pervasive the issue is in an unregulated Russia where a lethal mineral is allowed to roam free. As Dr. Nicholas Ashford, of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, says: “When you deliberately disregard public and worker health, you’re committing murder. There’s no other way to put it.”
Understanding a Criminal and Murderous Industry
It was difficult for VICE’s investigative team to get any clear answers while in Russia. The team traveled to Moscow to speak to Dr. Evgeny Kovalevskiy, Head Researcher at the Research Institute of Occupational Health, who is currently collecting data for the World Health Organization.
When Larsson asks if there are dangers that people in Asbest face as a result of living next to an open asbestos mine, Kovalevskiy replies: “Life is dangerous. I cannot tell you this right now. It’s hard to measure asbestos’ role.”
Larsson then presses further. “You have been studying the effects of asbestos exposure in Asbest since 2009, what has your research found?” To this, Kovalevskiy replies: “Like in any epidemiological research, final results will take years.”
It is no wonder that, globally, medical professionals have called for Kovalevskiy’s removal from this research project over his unethical ties to the asbestos industry. Yes — the disturbing truth is that Kovalevskiy, along with many other doctors and government officials in Russia, benefits financially from the corrupt asbestos industry. And another disturbing truth? A doctor who favors his or her own finances over the health of their patient(s) is no doctor at all.
Russia’s near-totalitarian, vice-like grip on its population is as silent as it is deadly. But just how deadly? The country has stopped recording cases of mesothelioma (the lethal, asbestos-triggered cancer that affects the linings of the lungs) separately from other cancers altogether. But, as VICE reminds us: “The absence of data does not mean the absence of disease.”
The Tragedy of Libby, Montana
In order to understand the pattern of events in secretive Russia, VICE turned their investigative eye toward a more familiar place for its largely U.S. viewership: Libby, Montana. In 2009, the town was designated as a Superfund clean-up site. In other words, Libby was, and perhaps still is, a toxic place to live.
Normally-safe vermiculite that was mined in the town by the American chemical giant W.R. Grace and Company was contaminated with asbestos, and, as a result, 400 people have died in Libby alone. Resident Don Munsel never worked in the mines, but his stepfather did and brought the dust home on his clothing. Now Don Munsel has severe mesothelioma. While coughing, he says:
“I just think I’ve been cheated. They should have warned the people in this town about the seriousness of it. They got away with murder. I didn’t think I’d get it, since I never worked there. But I did.”
Another victim, Marilyn Norton, also suffers from mesothelioma. She says: “They knew it was bad for us, and they let us expose our babies and people that would come and visit us.” It is heartbreaking to hear her say: “I know it’s gonna kill me. And it’s probably gonna kill my kids and husband. They knew. They knew.”
The Importance of Fighting for Justice
By most accounts, the United States is far ahead of Russia in medical advancements, safety procedures, and legislative practices pertaining to asbestos exposure. In addition, the United States is far ahead of Russia in combatting the corporate interests and greed behind the asbestos industry.
But, of course: try telling this to Marilyn Norton and Don Munsel of Libby, Montana and they’ll both tell you that there is still a long way to go.
What highlighting places like Asbest, Russia does is remind us all that there is still so much to do, and that that we should not rest easy in knowing that there are regulations in place. American industry still imports 1,000 metric tons of asbestos every year. Given that, and given the over 3,200 new cases of asbestos-triggered mesothelioma a year, a conversation about asbestos is still very much relevant. The legislative struggle for victims’ rights has been ongoing, and the process can be extremely discouraging.
In the U.S. we can choose to honor the just politicians, leaders, advocates, and medical experts who fight tirelessly for victims’ rights. We can have hope in progress, and in the belief that all people deserve health and safety as a basic human right.