How Dangerous Is Natural Asbestos When It's Blowing in the Wind?

Illustration for article titled How Dangerous Is Natural Asbestos When It's Blowing in the Wind?

Most of us, when we think of asbestos, think of the insulation in old buildings up for demolition. But asbestos fibers are naturally occurring minerals, and their natural habitats are deposits that meander all over the U.S., concentrated especially in the West. When wind blows asbestos off the hills, exactly how dangerous is it?

That's the question at the heart of a controversy in Nevada, where geologists are locked in a battle with the state's health department. In the New York Times, Deborah Blum reports on the work of geologists Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, who have mapped Nevada's naturally occurring asbestos in more detail than ever before.

In the past, when we still used asbestos, the fibrous minerals were mined from large deposits in the West. In Libby, Montana, the site of a former asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine, one-fifth of the residents ended up with asbestos-related lung disease. The long, skinny shape of asbestos fibers means they are easily lodged in the lungs, and a type of cancer called mesothelioma is often associated with asbestos exposure.

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Illustration for article titled How Dangerous Is Natural Asbestos When It's Blowing in the Wind?

The asbestos mine in Libby, Montana. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Are Nevada's asbestos deposits, abundant but unmined, harming people? When an epidemiologist Francine Baumann conducted a preliminary analysis that she says found an unusual number of mesothelioma cases, Nevada responded by shutting down her access to the state cancer registry. The state health department says they've conducted their own analysis finding no danger and Baumann's research was simply misguided. The Times has much more detail on the controversy.

Cancer clusters are rarely as clear-cut as Hollywood portrays it in Erin Brockovich. More often than out, it comes out to an unglamorous arguments over statistics. But naturally occurring asbestos is more prevalent than we previously thought. Geologists are finding them in the midwest and on the east seaboard. Asbestos have been around us all along, but we're only now beginning to figure out exactly how dangerous they are. [New York Times]

Top image: A sample of tremolite, a type of asbestos. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

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DISCUSSION

When I was a kid growing up in the '50s my mom had an asbestos iron rest just like the one pictured below. I vividly recall playing with it, and probably licked it at some point. I'd be six foot two and have curly blond hair if I hadn't done that (hint: I'm not, and I don't).

Asbestos was once the Wonder Material of the Futureā„¢. There was an entire exhibit dedicated to this "magic mineral" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The statue in the second picture is supposed to be a guy wearing an asbestos suit stepping unharmed out of a flaming pit.