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Asbestos in Nature: A Concern for Mesothelioma Risk

Asbestos is commonly associated with the rare cancer, malignant mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer affecting the linings of the lungs, heart, abdominal cavity and, in rare cases, the testes. This cancer is primarily caused by inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers.

Asbestos is a carcinogenic mineral, which was (and in some parts of the world, still is) commonly used in industry. For example, vinyl flooring often contains asbestos. So does automotive parts and home insulation materials. People who work with these materials regularly are at greatest risk of developing mesothelioma cancer. However, asbestos is also found in nature, directly under our feet.

Natural Asbestos Deposits: Do They Pose a Risk?

Natural asbestos deposits exist within the earth’s crust. In some places, asbestos deposits are abundant. Natural asbestos deposits, when buried deep beneath the surface of the earth, do not pose a significant  risk. However, when deposits are unearthed, they can erode, dispersing asbestos fibers into the air around them. Once airborne, asbestos poses a risk for developing mesothelioma or other forms of cancer.

How Prominent are these Natural Deposits?

According to geology professor Rodney Metcalf, natural asbestos deposits are reasonably common, occurring under specific geologic conditions. Natural asbestos deposits are like other deposits people mine for. They can be found anywhere geologic conditions were right for creating them. Although some areas of the earth’s crust do not contain asbestos, other areas are peppered by it prominently, with varying amounts of asbestos found at various depths beneath the Earth’s surface.

Where are these Deposits Found?

According to information published by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, coastal areas, the Rocky Mountains, and the central part of the country house the most naturally-occurring asbestos. 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 serious concern that people residing near asbestos deposits may be at greater risk of developing mesothelioma or other health problems. These diseases often develop after exposure to airborne asbestos fibers. Since asbestos can easily become airborne or carried into well water when eroded by wind or precipitation, discoveries of large natural deposits close to the earth’s surface can be troubling to people who live near them.

Long-term asbestos exposure is associated with a host of health problems, including the development of malignant mesothelioma. Because mesothelioma’s latency period, the time from first exposure to the time of diagnosis,  is lengthy, many residents near these deposits fear receiving a diagnosis due to living in close proximity of asbestos.

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

When a large outcropping of naturally-occurring asbestos was discovered in Nevada, construction on a proposed highway came to a screeching halt. Progress stopped to allow geologists to test the ground in the area in to determine potential risks to area inhabitants.

Although many countries in the developed world have strict laws regarding the production and processing of asbestos for industrial purposes, U.S. laws regarding naturally-occurring asbestos are sparse. Lack of regulation leads to concern over public safety in areas where natural asbestos is abundant.

More Action is Called for

More research is necessary to determine “best practices” for handling newly-discovered natural asbestos deposits. If scientists could help produce a cohesive guideline for safe handling of natural asbestos, federal laws could be built around those guidelines. Effective guidelines could lead to many saved lives.  Since malignant mesothelioma is difficult to treat, an ounce of prevention really is worth more than a pound of cure.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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