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Since Asbestos is a Mineral, How Can it Be so Dangerous?

asbestos is a mineralAs part of their fight to keep their profitable asbestos products on the market, industry lobbyists have come up with several clever marketing campaigns to promote the fibers as “safe.” One such technique involves promoting asbestos as a wholesome material, made of nothing more than a naturally fireproof mineral.

Technically, that’s what asbestos is – a naturally occurring material that just so happens to be extremely durable and heat-resistant. But in reality, that’s only half the story.

While many people associate toxins with chemicals and man-made substances, asbestos is among several carcinogens that come straight from the earth. If you recall the peanut butter recall of 2011, or the arsenic-in-rice scare of 2012, you can thank two other “natural” toxins -- aflatoxin, a fungus that grows on stored nuts, and arsenic, which is leeched into rice from water and soil.

Clearly, asbestos is far from the only health-threatening substance that has a natural origin. But how exactly does a centuries-old mineral cause cancer?

Microscopic Fibers, Major Complications

Like talc, which is made up of many small flakes, asbestos is made up of many small individual fibers. Serpentine fibers (aka chrysotile) are curly; amphibole asbestos (the class that includes amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite fibers) are straight and thin.

The fibers are often found interspersed with other minerals. For instance, several limestone and vermiculite deposits have been contaminated with asbestos. These deposits appear all over the world – including South Africa and Australia – but they’re especially common in mountainous climates. North American sites such as Libby, Montana, and El Dorado Hills, Calif., are among the most notorious naturally occurring asbestos deposits

When asbestos miners (or miners extracting the co-existing mineral) pull the fibers from the earth, the individual threads are released into the air. At this point, they can be inhaled.

The fibers are so small that people don’t even know they’re inhaling them. (Many people who came into contact with large quantities of asbestos describe the substance as a thin, snow-like white powder.) And because they’re so small, they can travel throughout the body and get stuck in precious places, like the lining of the lungs and cause mesothelioma of the pleura.

Ill-equipped to break down such foreign substances, the surrounding tissues often become inflamed and scarred. (Contrary to another asbestos industry lie, chrysotile asbestos isn’t “easier for the body to process.”)  In some cases, this damage can cause healthy cells to turn cancerous. If this step occurs, tumors can begin to develop.

Avoiding Contact with Asbestos in its Mineral Form

It’s one thing to avoid asbestos products in the home and in the workplace, but avoiding asbestos in its natural environment is a different situation. There are rarely signs denoting its presence, and your guard is rarely up when you’re enjoying a peaceful hike or a summer picnic.

When you’re in a location that’s known for its mineral deposits, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Stay on paved trails when biking, hiking, or riding an off-road vehicle.
  • Avoid uncovered ground. (Terrain covered by mulch or rubber chips is often safe).
  • Reschedule activities to avoid windy conditions (gusts can pick up the lightweight fibers and carry them away from the original deposits).

Naturally, always keep an eye out for cautionary guides that mention asbestos in the area. Just because it comes from seemingly-innocuous environmental origins, it can still do a world of harm once it enters the body.

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Faith Franz writes for The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. She encourages patients to consider the benefits of alternative medicine.