The century-long reign of asbestos as a commonplace building material may be over in most parts of the world, but its devastating ecological and environmental impact is likely to last for generations to come. That’s because asbestos fibres are found in our homes, our schools, and our government buildings, and can contaminate our soil and our drinking water. Prolonged exposure to asbestos is linked with fatal diseases—mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Let’s take a closer look at the consequences that this hidden killer has on our environment.
The environmental consequences of asbestos are particularly high in places where this known carcinogen has been mined and produced—countries like Canada, England, Poland, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. Asbestos materials are harvested from rock formations, which means their tiny fibres get released into the air during the mining and production process, contaminating the air and settling into the local soil and water supply. That means that in addition to asbestos miners and workers, local residents in asbestos mining and factory towns have been exposed to and affected by the carcinogen. For example, the incidence of mesothelioma has been found to be 125 times the national average among citizens who lived near an asbestos cement plan in Szczecin, Poland, and 9.5 times the national average among those who lived within 500 metres of an asbestos cement pipe factory in Japan.
An interesting case study is that of Herve Rousseau and his farm in Thetford, Quebec. His home was situated very close to a mountain of asbestos tailings and wastage. An analysis of soil samples from his farm revealed an alarming chrysotile (common form of asbestos) content of 10%. Indeed, in 2003, an asbestos specialist notified Herve that his home was far too contaminated for human occupation. Asbestos levels were over four times the maximum of US levels that were deemed acceptable. Obviously, living close to a mine makes such findings less surprising, but if we consider that impoverished areas of Brazil has led to many homeless people living in and around the asbestos sites it makes the dangers very real.
Asbestos and Natural Disasters
As long as asbestos is left inside of houses, offices, and public buildings, there is risk of it being disturbed by several circumstances, including maintenance and repair work and natural and manmade disasters. The latter can wreak particular havoc on the environment, as asbestos fibres from destroyed buildings contaminate the local soil and are disseminated into the air we breathe.
In the UK, a fire at Catherine Junior School in Leicester this autumn caused asbestos stock from the building to be released into the air. In Japan, samples taken at 16 points after The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995 in Japan showed that 26.4kg of 3,740 tons of sprayed-on asbestos stock were emitted into the environment from buildings damaged in the quake. Just months after the 2001 New York City World Trade Centre Attack, the NYC Department of Health and the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that a high percentage of dust samples taken from residential areas around the disaster site contained greater than 1% asbestos by weight, a level that is considered dangerous to a person’s health. A former EPA environmental scientist, Dr. Cate Jenkins, said that the incidence of cancer for people living and working in this area could be anywhere from one-in-a-thousand extra cancers to one-in-ten, a potentially devastating statistic.
The fallout from these disasters has potential long-term consequences, as the fibres are likely to be disturbed and redistributed into the air, exposing even more people to the deadly carcinogens.
From Buckingham Palace to public schools and personal properties, more and more efforts are being made to monitor the condition of asbestos—or remove it altogether. But where does all the asbestos waste go, and how is risk managed once asbestos materials are out of sight? After all, asbestos fibres are not bio-degradable, nor can they evaporate into air or dissolve in water. While many countries have developed extensive regulations regarding safe removal of asbestos—including who can do it and where it can be dumped—there are still far too many examples of companies and employers taking shortcuts with the process. An alarming case filed in the UK in late 2010 against the Derbyshire County Council claimed asbestos materials were not kept separate from other waste and burned in a local incinerator, thus making the carcinogenic fibres airborne once again and putting the incinerator employers—and the local public—at risk. More recently, there continue to be a number of cases in which asbestos materials are left kerbside or otherwise improperly handled and disposed of by unlicensed workers looking to make quick cash or companies trying to get around the guidelines.
When asbestos is discarded properly, it is specially bagged and shipped to a secured landfill to be monitored. Still, some concerns have been raised about these landfills reaching their maximum capacity, especially in the event of a natural or manmade disaster, when asbestos-related materials would need to be disposed of in a quick and efficient manner.
Asbestos Cases on the Rise
The UK opened the world’s first asbestos mill in Rochdale, England, in 1879, and used the building material ubiquitously in new projects and renovations throughout the 20th century. Unfortunately, this rampant production and usage of asbestos products has correlated with an increasingly high number of asbestos-related deaths and illnesses in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive figures show that in 2010, 2,347 people died from mesothelioma, and approximately 2,000 more died from asbestos-related lung cancers. Present and future cases could cost the UK insurance industry about £4-£10b in long-term asbestos compensation payouts.
In the U.S., a cumulative total of 10,000 asbestos-related deaths are reported each year, with mesothelioma accounting for about 2,500 of them. In Japan—which began heavily importing asbestos materials after World War II—the mesothelioma death toll is projected to reach 66,327 by 2050, not peaking until the year 2027. Of course, the worldwide death toll really depends on developing safety practices to manage the risk of asbestos exposure in the home, workplace, and natural world. Until these practices are implemented and sustained worldwide, this deadly carcinogen will continue to claim new victims.
On the final note, I would like give you a link to the WHO report “Asbestos in drinking water” published in 2003. The conclusion is terrifying and can summarised that there is “no consistent, convincing evidence that ingested asbestos is hazardous to health, and it is concluded that there is no need to establish a guideline for asbestos in drinking-water”.
Full report can be found here on the WHO website.