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Asbestos found to lace many residential areas

July 10th, 2006

Asbestos does not only come from mines burrowed deep into the earth. It can also be found on or near the ground in many places around the United States. Left alone, these carcinogenic fibers are fairly harmless but where human beings live, work and play, things tend to get stirred up—and that is when asbestos is most deadly. Controversy has grown over just what risks these mineral deposits pose, and who has chosen to be on which side is proving fairly predictable.

Janet Raloff wrote an article entitled “Dirty Little Secret” in the July 8 issue of Science News. In it, she describes how new data from the Environmental Protection Agency show that asbestos fibers from near-surface deposits can be lifted into the air by such wholesome acts as playing baseball, hiking or even gardening. They kick up what Raloff calls a “personal storm” of fibers that can easily be inhaled by adults and children alike.

El Dorado County, California, has gained some notoriety for its naturally occurring asbestos. But, writes Raloff, “it’s really only the poster child for a problem that’s national in breadth.” Another well-known spot for naturally occurring asbestos is Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital.

Those with a financial or political stake in the matter almost inevitably cast doubt on the seriousness of these charges about asbestos exposure. Governmental officials in El Dorado County downplay any suggestion that the toil there is toxic. The National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association voiced strong objections to the EPA’s findings. It even hired a consulting firm to refute those findings, which brought a point-by-point rebuttal by the EPA. And when a man walking on a nature trail in Mendham, New Jersey, identified a deposit of blue fibrous crocidolite (a very toxic form of asbestos), he brought it to the attention of the city’s mayor. Expecting gratitude, he was chased out of the mayor’s office instead.

Scientists can honestly differ about what fibers’ chemical makeup do and don’t constitute asbestos (in fact, the term describes any of more than a dozen fibrous minerals), and how much asbestos exposure people can live with. Despite asbestos’ long history of commercial use and its regulation, controversy continues to simmer about which fibers truly constitute asbestos.

Some critics insist that if residents put a six-inch overlay of clean, stable material, such as dirt, sod or asphalt, around their homes they are safe—or at least safer. And that if residents are cautious enough to keep their homes clean and limit such dusty activities as tilling the garden, they will be all right.

Whether people should have to restrain from such simple and pleasurable things as gardening or put asphalt around their houses is debatable. But pathologist Jerrold L. Abraham is not sanguine about places like El Dorado County. “It’s only a matter of time until we find mesotheliomas there,” he said. Residents of that and similar locales who do get a mesothelioma diagnosis are sure to be looking for mesothelioma attorneys who can help them with a mesothelioma lawsuit.

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