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Asbestos in Nature: A Concern for Mesothelioma Risk

Asbestos is a word commonly associated with the rare cancer, malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the linings of the lungs, heart, abdominal cavity and—in extremely rare instances—the testes. It’s primarily caused by inhalation or ingestion of fibers from the carcinogenic mineral, asbestos, which was (and in some parts of the world, still is) commonly used in a variety of industrial ways. For example, vinyl flooring often contains asbestos, as do automotive parts and home insulation materials. People who worked with these materials over the long term are at the greatest risk of developing mesothelioma cancer. However, asbestos is also found in nature, right under the ground we walk on.

Natural Asbestos Deposits: Do They Pose a Risk?

Natural asbestos deposits are areas within the earth’s crust where asbestos is produced. In some places, these deposits are abundant. Natural asbestos deposits, when buried deep beneath the surface of the earth, do not pose a risk to people. However, when these deposits are unearthed, they are given the opportunity to erode, thus dispersing asbestos fibers into the air around them. This may pose a risk for getting mesothelioma or other forms of cancer for people who breathe the asbestos-containing air near these eroded deposits.

How Prominent are these Natural Deposits?

According to geology professor Rodney Metcalf, natural deposits of asbestos are reasonably common, occurring under specific geologic conditions that give rise to the fibrous mineral. Thus, natural asbestos deposits are like other deposits that people mine for, in that they can be found anywhere that the geologic conditions were right for creating asbestos. Although some areas of the earth’s crust lack asbestos completely, other areas are peppered by it quite prominently, with varying amounts of asbestos found at various depths beneath the surface of the earth.

Where are these Deposits Found?

According to information published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, within the United States, the coastal areas, Rocky Mountains, and the central part of the country seem to house the most naturally-occurring asbestos deposits. Recently, a large deposit of naturally-occurring asbestos was discovered within the construction path of a proposed major highway in Nevada.

What are the Risks to People Living near these Deposits?

There is a great deal of concern that people who reside near these asbestos deposits may be at a greater risk of developing mesothelioma or other health problems as a result of unwittingly inhaling or ingesting the carcinogenic fibers and dust. Since asbestos can easily become airborne or be carried into well water when eroded by wind or precipitation, discoveries of large natural deposits very close to the earth’s surface can be quite troubling to the people who live near them.

Long-term exposure to asbestos particles is associated with a host of health problems, including the development of malignant mesothelioma—and because mesothelioma’s latency period (the time from first exposure to a carcinogenic material to the time of diagnosis) is so lengthy, many residents near these asbestos deposits live in fear of one day receiving a diagnosis due to living in a place that was unsafe to inhabit due to the close proximity of asbestos.

What is being done to Mitigate Risks in areas where Asbestos Deposits are seen?

In Nevada, where a large outcropping of naturally-occurring asbestos was recently discovered, all construction on the proposed highway has been stopped while geologists test the ground in the area in order to determine the potential risks to area inhabitants.

Although many countries in the developed world—including the United States—have strict laws regarding the production and processing of asbestos for industrial purposes, U.S. laws regarding how naturally-occurring asbestos deposits are handled are sparse. This leads to much concern over public safety in areas where natural asbestos is abundant.

More Action is Called for

More research is needed in order to determine what “best practices” should be instituted with regard to the handling of newly-discovered natural deposits of asbestos. If scientists could help to produce a cohesive guideline for the safe handling of natural asbestos, federal laws could be built up around those guidelines—and many lives might be saved. Since malignant mesothelioma can be quite difficult to treat once it becomes symptomatic, an ounce of prevention really is worth far more than a pound of cure.

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