Exposure to and prohibition of asbestos
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Scientists have discovered that the composition of the soil typically used by the US Environmental Protection Agency to seal super-asbestos sites actually increases the mobility of the toxic metal, causing it to seep into groundwater that can put people nearby at risk.
This discovery refutes the common belief that asbestos waste, once buried, is no longer a serious problem.
The Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters published the findings in early 2021. The researchers noted at least 16 federal superfund sites designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as environmental emergencies, along with several less contaminated asbestos dumping areas.
“People should be aware of what’s out there,” Sanjay Mohanty, lead study author and assistant professor at UCLA’s Samueli School of Engineering, told Asbestos.com’s Mesothelioma Center. We usually assume that once it is well established in the soil, there is no danger. But we have shown here, in some cases, that this is not the case.”
Mohnty was part of a research team that included Jane Wellenberg, associate professor of geosciences at Stanford University. Ashkan Salamatipur, MD, clinical research specialist at Midwestern University, Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The project began in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, where all three previously served. The results were based in part on samples from the BoRit asbestos Superfund site in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
Organic matter increases the movement of asbestos
Originally, the aim of the study was to measure the effectiveness of the EPA’s method of covering asbestos disposal sites with soil that includes dissolved organic matter — compost or solids — used to support and encourage vegetation.
What the researchers found is that dissolved organic matter actually increases the likelihood of exposure to more of the cancer-causing metal.
“Now we can show that exactly the thing they are [EPA] do, which is the addition of manure or other organic sludge to asbestos piles that creates the production of dissolved organic matter, is exactly what causes asbestos liberation,” Willenbring said in a recent Stanford University press release. “It actually facilitates the transport of asbestos fibers.”
Asbestos may pass into groundwater
Through extensive laboratory testing, researchers have concluded that dissolved organic matter alters the texture and electrical charge of microscopic asbestos fibers, enabling them to move more easily through soil.
Researchers believe that these fibers eventually find shallow groundwater and nearby rivers or streams, where they can be carried through the air again by irrigation, or by draining riverbeds.
“People have this idea that asbestos is covered and taken care of,” Willenbring said. “But this is still an old contaminant and may be decontaminating little by little.”
Asbestos heritage is dangerous
Asbestos is a natural mineral that was once a sought-after building material, and is used everywhere to strengthen anything it mixes with.
Unfortunately, they are also toxic, and inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers can lead to a variety of serious health problems, including malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.
Although asbestos has not been mined within the United States for 20 years, and its import and use today have declined significantly, the legacy of asbestos remains a serious problem. Asbestos landfills and the surrounding areas can be dangerous.
Fortunately, different types of dissolved organic matter have different effects on the mobility of buried asbestos.
“Not all organics have the same effect,” Mohnty said. “There are different degrees. The probability of exposure is never zero, but what we found is that the probability becomes a little bit higher under certain conditions.”
Researchers believe that areas where asbestos is buried should be subject to more careful monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency, along with soil composition.
The study concluded, “These findings may have serious consequences for the mobility of asbestos in soil and groundwater, which in turn could increase exposure to asbestos for the millions of people living near the asbestos-contaminated site.” “This alternative route of exposure to asbestos, via groundwater, should not be ignored.”
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