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Asbestos is a natural mineral that has been and still is used in many applications, especially in ships and building construction. We get asbestos from the ground, like other minerals, and people working in and around mines are at risk for exposure to it and later developing mesothelioma. Even those people working in mines that are not actively looking for asbestos can be contaminated by naturally occurring deposits and trace amounts found within other mineral deposits.

Mining is a dangerous job, but workers are supposed to be protected from asbestos exposure by regulations set by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Employers are required to follow the regulations and take all reasonable precautions to protect workers from exposure. When they fail to meet the requirements, people may suffer the consequences of working around asbestos and inhaling its fibers.

Asbestos Mining

Asbestos has been mined from the earth for hundreds and probably even thousands of years. People in ancient times recognized the unique properties of this mineral: resistance to heat and fire, resistance to chemical reactions, and strength. It has long been a desirable material for use in fireproofing, insulation, and other types of construction and ship building materials. To meet the demand for asbestos, mining for it was a big business at one time.

Mining asbestos in the U.S. halted in 2002. Until the 1970s asbestos was heavily used in the U.S., but increasing concerns about its health effects led to limitations on its use, and eventually the phase out of mining it. Asbestos is not completely banned in the U.S. There are still plenty of materials and products that contain asbestos. To get asbestos for these uses, it has to be imported from other countries that still have active asbestos mines. Some of the biggest asbestos-producing countries are Russian, China, India, and Kazakhstan.

Long before the dangers of asbestos were realized, the U.S. and Canada were two large producers of the mineral. At the industry’s peak, there were more than 60 active asbestos mines in the U.S. California, Oregon, Washington, and the states with the Appalachian Mountains—Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia—were big producers of asbestos in the past. The U.S. Geological Survey records over 900 sites in the U.S. where there were either active mines or where asbestos is known to be in the ground in significant quantities.

Miners Exposed in the Past at Risk Today

Asbestos mining may have shut down, and in fact mining for it in the U.S. slowed way down starting in the 1970s, decades before a total ban, but for workers in those mines the damage was already done. Decades after being exposed to and inhaling asbestos fibers from working in mines, many of these men and women developed illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma.

Those who continued working in asbestos mines through up to the closing of the mines in 2002 are still at risk of getting one of these diagnoses. Mesothelioma has a long latency period, so there are workers who may still be facing illness in the future. The MSHA and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) have both set standards for acceptable exposure levels, which have been in place since the 1970s, but workers were still exposed and are still at risk of getting sick today.

Mining Asbestos Exposure Limitations

The U.S. Department of the Interior created the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (now MSHA) to protect mine workers. One of the concerns was asbestos exposure and the agency set an initial exposure limit in 1974 of five fibers per cubic centimeter of air. Just two years later the agency tightened that limitation to two fibers per cubic centimeter over an eight hour period. In 2008, that limit was lowered again to 0.1 fibers. This limit matches the same limit set by OSHA and is applied to all underground and surface mines for metals, nonmetals, and coal.

Asbestos Exposure at Taconite Mines

Any kind of mining has the potential to expose workers to asbestos. The mineral may be found in small quantities in many areas of the earth, so it may be disturbed and contaminate the air even when a mine exists to find a different kind of mineral. Taconite mining in Minnesota is a good example of how miners can be exposed to asbestos without actually mining asbestos.

Minnesota has mines that produce the mineral taconite, from which iron can be extracted. A study from 2003 found that mesothelioma was more common in the region of the state with heavy taconite mining than in other parts of the state. Further research was done to determine if the miners affected developed mesothelioma from inhaling taconite dust or if they had been exposed to asbestos. Most of the sick miners were found to have been exposed to asbestos through the commercial processing of taconite.

Vermiculite Mining and Libby, Montana

Asbestos exposure can be an issue in all types of mining, but vermiculite is particularly risky. It is a group of minerals of several types and often contains contaminating minerals, including asbestos. Vermiculite is used in insulation, fireproofing materials, growing material for plants, and a range of construction materials.

For decades, a large vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana was the source of the majority of vermiculite used in all kinds of materials in the U.S. The mining site also had a deposit of asbestos and the vermiculite was heavily contaminated with it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually declared the area a superfund site, but not before thousands of people were affected. Miners and residents of nearby towns were sickened by the particles of asbestos in the air, ground, and water. The problem was so bad that the EPA declared it the agency’s first designated public health emergency in 2009.

Mining always has and will continue to be a dangerous job. There are many physical hazards and potential for accidents, but the minerals in the ground, like asbestos, can also do a lot of damage. If you were a miner and you later developed an asbestos-related illness, you have a right to seek justice and compensation for your suffering through a mesothelioma lawsuit or asbestos trust fund.

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