For decades, Americans have worried about the presence of asbestos in old structures and buildings built before the 1980s, back when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started taking the regulation of asbestos much more seriously.
But within the last few months, a new asbestos-related health concern is on the rise – and this time, it's a little more disconcerting. Why? Because the dangerous mineral could pose dangers that affect our well-being even while it is in its natural state – not just inside of our buildings and homes.
What Is Asbestos and Who Does It Affect?
A naturally occurring group of minerals found in the ground, asbestos fibers were commonly used – because of their strength, fire retardant qualities, and their abundance in nature – in a range of products in the U.S. for most of the 20th century. Later, proven to be the only known cause of mesothelioma, a malignant form of cancer, asbestos was banned from many countries in the 1970s. Around this time, many companies were then forced to stop using the mineral in construction and manufacturing projects.
Though asbestos is not used nearly as often anymore, it is still not banned in the U.S., and traces of the deadly mineral remain in homes, ships, schools, and other structures to this day. And because mesothelioma is a long-latency disease, people who might've been initially exposed more than 40 years ago are only now falling ill.
This particular cancer tends to affect a specific demographic (construction workers, U.S. veterans and military personnel, firefighters, and shipbuilders), and this in itself is very troubling – but with new studies coming out, it appears that, due to nothing more than pure geography, no one living near the deadly mineral is really safe.
People Who Live Near Natural Asbestos Have a Higher Chance for Lung Problems
A new report indicates that there is an even greater risk of people developing an asbestos-related disease when they live near naturally-occurring asbestos deposits. This study, conducted by a team of medical researchers between 2008 and 2013 in Turkey, included 180 mesothelioma patients and 800 people with breast or lung cancer in a region called the Diyarbakir Province. The results link a higher occurrence of mesothelioma, as well as lung and breast cancer, with natural asbestos in the environment. What does this mean? Essentially: Anyone who resides within close proximity (20 kilometers) of natural asbestos in the soil is at risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease.
In the Diyarbakir Province, people who lived closest to the naturally occurring asbestos sites were at least 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma than other people in the area. “The largest concentration of malignant mesothelioma residential areas was within ±30° of the dominant wind direction,” said Dr. Abdurrahman Abakay, a doctor at the Dicle University Medical School in Diyarbakir.
So, wind, too, it seems, plays a role. Which makes sense. After asbestos goes airborne, the wind could carry the dangerous fibers towards potential victims.
Although a similar study has yet to be conducted in the United States, researchers now know that naturally-occurring asbestos have already been found in more than half of the U.S. – including large states such as Nevada, Georgia, Virginia, New Jersey, California, and Washington.
What’s Being Done to Protect Americans from Natural Asbestos in the U.S.?
Less than a year ago, a group of geologists at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas brought to light their finding that there are naturally-occurring asbestos sites both in Clark County (Southern Nevada) and in northwestern Arizona.
The UNLV researchers warned that this is a major health concern for the people who live in these areas and that their proximity to the natural asbestos could not be overlooked. “Because health effects may occur even at low levels of exposure to fibrous amphiboles, our data indicate a potential public health threat in southern Nevada,” said Dr. Brenda Buck, the geology professor who led this study.
So far, not much is being done to shield Americans from the naturally-occurring asbestos in any of these areas. Which raises the following questions: What’s next? What can we do as a country to bring awareness to this great health concern and to protect ourselves from a deadly disease that’s killing more than 15,000 people in the U.S. each year?