Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that’s found in mountainous regions throughout the world. It is fibrous, strong, and resistant to chemicals and heat. These properties make it an excellent insulator and fireproofing material.
These same properties make it resilient once inside the human body. The immune system has a difficult time removing asbestos fibres, causing many of the fibres to remain lodged after inhalation or ingestion.
Once imbedded in human tissue, such as lung tissue, compounds in asbestos — including ferrous iron — cause inflammation and can result in genetic damage that causes life-threatening diseases.
Concerns about the risks of asbestos exposure dwindled in the 1980s when tighter regulations were implemented throughout the world. However, these regulations lead people to believe they are completely protected from potentially dangerous asbestos exposure.
The truth is the asbestos industry pushed back hard on regulations and this led to looser restrictions on how much asbestos exposure is considered safe. Public health officials continue to raise flags about the risks of asbestos and push for tighter controls on its use and removal to keep workers safe.
Occupational asbestos exposure
The Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass produce asbestos products, making them widely available in industrialised nations. Thousands of products have contained asbestos, and some estimates suggest more than 5,000 different products were made with the mineral.
The people most at risk of developing an asbestos-related disease are those who worked with it regularly on the job. Repeated, heavy exposure increases the risk of contracting a health condition, but even infrequent, low-level exposure can cause a related disease in some people.
Industries that presented the highest risk of exposure include asbestos mining and processing, insulation installation, power generation, construction, textile production, shipbuilding, firefighting and boiler maintenance.
Other fields of work expose people to moderate or low levels of asbestos, including agriculture, chemical production, railroad maintenance, oil refinery and metal works, HVAC maintenance, electrical work, engineering, plumbing and paper milling.
Exposure’s health effects
Asbestos fibers cause inflammation and damage cells in ways that lead to cancer and pulmonary disorders. Health effects range from benign lung conditions, such as pleural plaques and asbestosis, to cancers such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.
High concentration and long duration of exposure increases the risk of developing a disease later in life. It can take 20 to 50 years for asbestos fibres to cause mesothelioma . Asbestosis can develop 10 years after exposure. Exposed persons who smoke are at exponentially higher risk of developing lung cancer because asbestos and cigarette smoke work synergistically to damage cells more than either alone.
Approximately 20 percent of those who work with asbestos will develop a disease later in life. Persons with greater lifetime exposure are at higher risk. Those exposed early in life live long enough to be at risk of developing an asbestos-related cancer. While those exposed later in life may pass away from other health conditions before mesothelioma has a chance to form.
Current research suggests that certain genes put people at greater risk of developing a disease after asbestos exposure. While genetic predisposition is a factor, the concentration and duration of exposure plays a larger role in the risk of developing a disease.
Asbestos was once known as the ‘magic mineral’ because of its numerous applications. It is heat-resistant, excellent at fireproofing, chemically inert and easy to mix into products.
Its diverse uses and affordability meant it was incorporated into thousands of products across the globe.
Conditions at certain jobs put workers at more risk of exposure. Miners, insulators, factory workers, construction workers and those who worked in hot conditions, such as boiler workers, are among the jobs that presented the highest risk. These workers often carried out their tasks in small spaces with little to no ventilation for asbestos fibres to escape the workplace.
The United Kingdom has one of the world’s highest rates of asbestos-related disease. This high rate is largely caused by former rampant use of asbestos products and reluctance to totally ban the mineral’s use until the late ’90s.
The UK primarily used asbestos in home and building construction, chemical plants, industrial factories, power plants, refineries and shipyards. People who worked in any of the following jobs were at risk of exposure:
- Chemical workers
- Power plant workers
- Boiler workers
- Asbestos plant workers
- Textile mill workers
By the 1970s public health officials realized that asbestos-related diseases were becoming more common. As a result they began passing laws in the 1980s to regulate asbestos.
By 1999, the UK had banned the importation and use of all forms of asbestos.
Today, the nation’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) oversees the use and abatement of asbestos and maintains tight regulations to protect workers.
Russia widely uses asbestos in construction and automobile industries. Products used in roofing, insulation and automobiles regularly contain asbestos. The Chief Sanitary Officer of Russia claims approximately 3,000 asbestos products are safe.
In addition to construction and auto industry jobs, mining asbestos is the occupation that puts Russians at the greatest risk of exposure.
According to Russia’s Chrysotile Association, Russia has three asbestos mines, 24 asbestos cement combines, nine asbestos factories, two asbestos board factories and three asbestos research institutes.
Russia mines about 1 million tons of asbestos a year and supplies more than half of the raw asbestos used worldwide. More than 38,000 people are employed by Russia’s chrysotile industry.
Russia is home to the world’s largest asbestos mine, located in the Central Ural Mountains. The mine is 7 miles long, 1.5 miles wide — nearly the size of the island of Manhattan — and plunges 1,000 feet deep. Uralasbest is the company that operates the mine and processing plant.
On the edge of the mine is the town of Asbest, Russian for asbestos. Half a million tons of asbestos are extracted annually using dynamite, which sends asbestos fibers into the air and neighboring town. About 70,000 people live in Asbest, a town often called “the dying city” because of its rates of lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
Near the border of Kazakhstan resides the Kiembaevskoye chrysotile mine, owned by Orenburg Minerals, which produces more raw asbestos than Uralasbest. Kostanai Minerals owns a neighboring asbestos mine in Kazakhstan, the world’s fifth-largest asbestos deposit.
Starting in 2003, Orenburg and Kostanai were managed by a British company, United Minerals Group Limited, now called Eurasia FM Consulting Ltd. While the British government doesn’t condone asbestos use, British companies are profiting from asbestos use in other countries.
The third asbestos mine, located in Ak-Dovurakskoye, Tyva Republic, is owned by Tuvaasbest. A facility near the mine processes the raw asbestos before shipping. Asbestos processing plants release asbestos fibers into neighboring areas, leading to increased rates of asbestos-related disease around the plant.
While countries like Russia, China and India are adamant that asbestos is safe, the rest of the industrialized world agrees that asbestos is dangerous and tries to protect workers from dangerous exposure.
Fighting against the asbestos industry takes a united effort because they’re armed with lobbyists and plenty of financial backing. It’s courageous to speak up about asbestos as a public health issue to government officials. Making your voice heard reminds policymakers that asbestos isn’t a danger of the past and will help protect future workers.
The Mesothelioma Prognosis Network provides free information and resources to people with mesothelioma and their loved ones. Our patient advocates are available seven days a week to answer questions and provide assistance.
We help veterans with mesothelioma file VA claims, assist with filing for Social Security Disability and connect patients with expert oncologists and clinical trials. Patient Advocates can find financial aid for patients, such as travel grants and nonprofit programs. We also host a monthly online mesothelioma support group. It takes a team to support someone with mesothelioma — we’re here to help your family cope and access resources.
Chrysotile Association. (n.d.). Russian chrysotile industry. Retrieved from http://chrysotile.ru/en/site/index/Chto_takoe_chrysotile/chrysotile_promyshlennost
Health and Safety Executive. (n.d.). Asbestos healthy and safety. Retrieved from http://www.hse.gov.uk/asbestos/
Kramer, A.E. (2013, July 13). City in Russia unable to kick asbestos habit. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/business/global/city-in-russia-unable-to-kick-asbestos-habit.html?_r=0
Shleynov, R. (2010, July 21). The world’s asbestos behemoth. Retrieved from https://www.publicintegrity.org/2010/07/21/3447/worlds-asbestos-behemoth
U.S. Geological Survey. (2012). Minerals Yearbook Area Reports: International 2012. Retrieved from http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/country/europe.html
Michelle Whitmer has been a medical writer and editor for The Mesothelioma Center since 2008. Focused on the benefits of natural and integrative medicine for cancer patients, Michelle is a certified yoga instructor and graduated from Rollins College in Florida.