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Natural Asbestos Contamination in Mining


When asbestos is brought up in a discussion today, negative news about the effects of human exposure seems to be the dominant topic conjured up in conversation or publication ‘time and time again.’ Asbestos and the dangers of its exposure are nothing short of anything we haven’t seen even in the last twenty to thirty years. The awful statistics from the severe aftermath of asbestos exposure are just as pressing now as they were the first time anyone discovered the terrible side-effects resulting from contact with the asbestos mineral fibers.

Documented studies show that the harmful effects of asbestos not only originate from a known source of mineral rock deposits but also reside naturally in other forms of mineable mineral resources, which are otherwise unknown or less likely to be ever-present with contaminated traces of asbestos mineral fibers.

Asbestos Described

Asbestos is a group of mineral fibers found naturally in the earth inside of mineral rock deposits or sometimes naturally in other minerals or substances as a possible trace contaminant. There are only two types of listed asbestos groups, which are the amphibole mineral and the serpentine mineral.

These two asbestos groups are broken down into six different types of mineral fibers, which are: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite fibers. The Chrysotile mineral fiber is the only type that belongs to the serpentine asbestos mineral group, and the rest of the five mineral fibers belong to the amphibole asbestos mineral group. All of the asbestos groups, along with the six fiber types, are all carcinogenic.

Asbestos Danger and Side-Effects

In effect, the buildup of carcinogens from asbestos mineral fiber exposure inside someone’s body can lay dormant and become more hazardous to a person’s health over time. Serious illnesses associated with long term exposure to asbestos are lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma.

It is not uncommon for someone who was exposed to asbestos ten to forty years ago with no recent exposure to have the unfortunate ability to become diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and or abdominal area.

The chance of knowing whether someone will contract mesothelioma is practically unpredictable. Although there is no set determinant for the contraction of mesothelioma, the odds may exponentially increase for anyone who has ever worked extensively in certain occupations that extracted, employed, or have dealt extensively with asbestos.

Asbestos Disturbed

Asbestos is not naturally conducive to become airborne unless the area where the deposit or contaminated area is disturbed. For instance, natural mineral rock deposits found in the earth are typically not considered harmful unless extracted or broken up from the ground.

Once the area is pierced, or in this case, mined or extracted from the earth, the asbestos fibers or dust particles are then subject to become airborne, which ultimately exposes the risk for the particulates to be inhaled and then settle in and around the atmosphere at large. Therefore, asbestos deposits or natural mineral rock areas do not typically become dangerous unless they are mined or extracted from the ground.

Here, where the asbestos mineral deposit or contaminated area is exposed, the asbestos fibers can enter the lungs when inhaled and then subject an individual to either lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma. 

Asbestos can be a contaminant in other minerals.

Mining for other minerals can be subject to the hazards of asbestos exposure. Although more commonly found and exploited in more extensive mineral rock deposits, the asbestos minerals also exist naturally as a contaminant in other minerals. Other mineral rock deposits, ores, and natural resources may also contain asbestos minerals. For example, asbestos is a natural contaminant within areas of vermiculite, talc, and coal mineral deposits.

Vermiculite is a flaky mineral that is similar in texture and available for many uses that coincide with asbestos. Similar to asbestos, vermiculite is used for mixtures in certain potting soils, packing material (for the absorption of spills or hazardous materials); automotive products like brakes or clutches; and construction materials which include lightweight concrete, loose-fill insulation, and various manufactured plasters.

At one point in time, a mine near Libby, Montana, was one of the largest vermiculite sources in the nation. The mine was strictly used for vermiculite extraction. The Libby mine was found to be contaminated with large traces of naturally existing tremolite fibers of amphibole asbestos within the mineral ore of the vermiculite deposits.

The asbestos contamination of the mined vermiculite near Libby, Mt devastated and wreaked havoc on the town’s health and economic future. The thousands recorded cases of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and disease because of the contamination. The environmental work is still on-going, and the United States Government has just now authorized the State of Montana to take control of the affected area, which began in 1999 and ended in January of 2020.

 In comparison, the asbestos contamination found here turned out to be the root of one of the most significant environmental remedial cleanup projects in the history of the United States. Today extensive testing is done before, during, and after any type of mining to prevent a disaster similar to the one that happened in Libby, Montana.

Talc Mine Contaminated

Talc is another mineral found with mining sites that have been contaminated with natural traces of asbestos. Talc is a silicate mineral associated with the natural product or substance of talcum powder widely used in products such as the main ingredient of baby powder and for use in other personal cosmetic applications.

Here, in the United States, a mine operated as Imerys Talc America, in Vermont, and a large pharmaceutical company, Johnson & Johnson, were involved in a massive lawsuit awarded because the talc from the mine was contaminated with asbestos. Court documents showed that Imerys Talc America and Johnson& Johnson knew of the contamination, but did not act in warning consumers of the risk or knowledge that the talc used was contaminated with asbestos.

Recently, within the past year, Johnson & Johnson has recalled a batch of its baby powder after discovering small amounts of cancer-causing chrysotile asbestos in the product. On the safe side, the company worked with the FDA and wanted to make sure all precautions were made to ensure the product was safe for consumer use. The company is also involved with thousands of lawsuits over asbestos-contaminated talc used in their products, as the root cause of mesothelioma and ovarian cancer in several plaintiffs.

 Unregulated Talc Imports Contaminated

Here in the United States, domestic talc is tightly regulated and tested now using polarized light microscopy (PEM) and or transmission electron microscopy (TEM) applications to protect consumers from asbestos contamination within talc derived products. Although talc deposit and product testing are done here in the United States, there are currently imports of raw talc and talc derived cosmetic products from other countries such as China and Pakistan that are not screened for asbestos contamination.

In addition, there is no formal testing process, government agency, service commission, or any private entities tracking the distribution of the talc imports once they arrive in the United States. Therefore, due to the lack of regulating or monitoring talc imports for asbestos contamination, a potential consumer safety risk could be enhanced due to the risk of exposure from talc derived products sold or produced as a result of imported talc here in the United States.

Coal Mining and Asbestos Contamination

Coal is another mineral mined with the chances of natural asbestos contamination. Coal can be extracted from the earth either thousands of feet below the surface or from right on top of the ground. Equipment used to mine the coal requires extensive equipment operation and hands-on application. Some areas are tight-knit or small while others are maybe large or more open, but all account for moving parts in low lighted, dark, damp, or treacherous terrain, which makes this industry a more volatile place for workplace injury or death.

As part of the overall process of coal mining, there can be heavy involvement requiring crushing, cutting, and grinding mineral rocks or deposits for a refined product. For example, when the grinding process for coal is performed, the coal itself is being ground down into smaller pieces, which in the process produces dust or small particles. When these particulates are formed, they are inhaled and then absorbed into the body. Coincidently, if asbestos is present, as a contaminant in the coal, the same effect will occur when absorbed into the body as long as the asbestos mineral fibers exist.

 Studies from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have recently shown that roughly 15% of United States coal mines are naturally contaminated with asbestos minerals. In the past, coal miners were subject to a similar disease caused by inhalation, which was a side-effect of breathing in the ground or crushed coal dust, called ‘black lung.’ This illness was so prevalent that even today, funds from previous litigation formed to support coal miners who contracted ‘black lung.’ At the same time, mining is still available for helping victims with their recovery. Similar to ‘black lung’ from the past, mesothelioma is a dormant illness that can plague a miner long after they worked in the field. Coal mines are not always naturally contaminated with asbestos. Today, samples from projected and active coal mining sites are now tested and monitored to prevent the effects of harmful asbestos exposure. Moreover, potential mining site safety samples and regulations not only observe the immediate area in terms of the potential for contamination but also assess the region around the mining site.

Historically, the coal industry is usually littered with litigation involving safety and health issues. Anyone who has worked as a coal miner, especially over twenty years ago, should be aware of the risk posed by the severe side-effects of working in this industry. “According to the United States Bureau of Labor,, coal mining is one of the most dangerous industries to work in.” Even though safety regulations are in place today, the nature of the job still has not changed in regards to the risk taken to mine coal from the earth.

Coal mining is not the only industry or occupation which encompasses areas of the danger posed to the hardy people who work in this profession but has been one of the most prominent mining sectors involving death or illness from working on the job. The coal industry as a whole has made considerable strides in making the dangerous nature of the work more conducive in enabling health and safety initiatives to be available for mine workers to access.

Asbestos Does Not Stand Alone in the Environment

Remember, asbestos does not have to stand alone to be found in the environment and is not always bound to reside naturally inside asbestos mineral rock deposits. There are other areas in the earth where classified asbestos minerals or fibers can be found as contaminants within other mineral deposits naturally. The only way to know if a mining area is safe from asbestos contamination is to take samples at the site and have them tested.

Asbestos contamination within other minerals can be hazardous not only in close or proximate areas but also within an affected region as well. There are resources available if you work in the mining industry or have in the past, for information regarding safety or health concerns. As a reference, MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration and OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) have mining and safety guidelines in place to inform miners of their rights, and how to be safer on the job.

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