Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in the ground. There are six types of asbestos, a fibrous silicate mineral that produces long, thin crystalline fibers in large deposits, and they are often found as contaminates in minerals, such as vermiculite and talc. Asbestos’ ability to resist heat, electricity, and corrosion made it an ideal building material for much of the 20th century as an insulator. The mineral can also be added to cement, cloth, plastic, paper, and other materials in order to make them stronger, and many consumer products contained asbestos until the mid-1970s.
In addition to its versatility, asbestos is extremely hazardous, particularly when inhaled. Its fibers are composed of many microscopic fibrils that break apart during processing or other use and release into the atmosphere as a dust. When inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers become permanently trapped in the body, causing inflammation, scarring, and can lead to mesothelioma. No amount of asbestos exposure is safe and is particularly dangerous when exposed to intense concentrations or long-term exposure.
Asbestos is particularly damaging to the lungs, frequently resulting in mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. In fact, mesothelioma is only caused by asbestos exposure. With every exposure, asbestos accumulates in the body over time, and there is currently no method to reverse the damage and risk of cancer.
Recognizing the dangerous public health hazard of asbestos, the federal government enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, in 1980. Spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Superfund program identifies and addresses the clean-up of abandoned hazardous waste sites to reduce the public danger and environmental damage they cause and compels those responsible to cover the cost.
Manufacturing and processing facilities, factories, shipyards, mines, and other industrial sites commonly contain asbestos and other asbestos-contaminated substances, such as vermiculite. The EPA created a National Priorities List (NPL), identifying such areas, their level of contamination, and the priority for clean-up. Over the past four decades, the EPA has led clean-up efforts in numerous Superfund sites across the country.
According to the EPA, 51 active Superfund sites contain asbestos waste as of last year.
The EPA largely addresses asbestos-contaminated sites by burying the waste and capping it with layers of organic matter and soil, based on a 1977 scientific report that found the shape of asbestos fibers causes them to adhere and prevents them from moving through soil.
It was widely believed that burying the toxin would keep it in place and pose no further threat to the public and those living near Superfund sites or areas with naturally occurring asbestos. Additionally, the EPA regulations state asbestos removal from non-Superfund sites, such as building remodels, must be taken to an asbestos qualified landfill for burial.
New research, however, shows the practice of burying asbestos waste may actually increase the risk of human exposure.
Asbestos burial under layers of organic material and dirt has been practiced for decades, based on previous research determining the shape of asbestos fibers prevent them from moving. A 2021 Stanford University study, however, disproves this theory and that fibers may have been moving through the soil where waste is stored into water supplies for decades. Asbestos exposure could occur through the water during irrigation, bathing, and use of water-dispersing items such as humidifiers.
The team studied soil samples collected from the BoRit Superfund Site in Ambler, Pennsylvania before it was capped in 2008. The BoRit site is adjacent to a reservoir and streams that provide water for the city of Philadelphia.
The study showed that asbestos fibers become less sticky during contact with dissolving organic material, such as manure and organic sludge. Tests showed that the electrical charge of asbestos particles is altered by dissolving organic matter, allowing the fibers to move through small openings in the test soil with water. During the experiments, water carried the fibers completely out of the test soil samples.
Discover of this phenomenon suggests the same process could be occurring at Superfund sites and landfills, potentially exposing millions of people to asbestos. However, during the experiments, researchers found that not all organic materials alter asbestos fibers in this way and facilitate their movement.
Comparing how asbestos reacts to various potential disposal conditions, they found that the fibers moved more easily through soil containing fully soluble organic matter. When introduced to partially soluble organic matter, the fibers were less likely to move. This suggests that Superfund sites and landfills may be remediated by replacing the type of organic matter utilized.
As part of their ongoing research, the team is studying whether the association of fungal and vegetation remediation can reduce the toxicity of asbestos. Some Superfund sites have been planted with vegetation on top of the soil to prevent erosion, which could allow the asbestos to escape. Iron within asbestos fibers has been identified as causing DNA damage that leads to cancer. The research team is currently studying whether the planted vegetation may be able to extract the iron, thereby reducing the toxicity of asbestos to humans.
The EPA announced redevelopment plans for 31 Superfund sites across the country, including Libby, Montana, where decades of vermiculite mining caused one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Hundreds of Libby residents have died from asbestos-contaminated ore leeched from dozens of mines containing dangerous amphibole asbestos that surround the Libby area for miles. Amphibole asbestos was found in soil, water, dust, and animal and fish tissue across the entire area.
Exposure to asbestos is extremely dangerous and can lead to mesothelioma. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, one of our experienced Philadelphia mesothelioma lawyers at Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler can help. Call us at 215-569-4000 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia County.