For decades, asbestos remediation experts have believed that capping asbestos waste piles by covering them with soil would prevent exposure to the toxic waste, but a group of scientists have recently discovered that this may not be the case at all. In fact, they’ve found that asbestos fibers can perhaps move through soil, allowing for human exposure in instances where it was believed that this “capping” was a final solution.
According to a report from the University of California, San Diego, researchers have found that asbestos is not locked in place after being capped with a few feet of topsoil, which is a method used at many Superfund and other sites where the EPA has deemed it necessary to handle contamination in this manner.
Instead, notes the report, researchers found that “dissolved organic matter contained within the soil sticks to the asbestos particles, creating a change of the electric charge on the outside of the particle that allows it to easily move through the soil.”
“Asbestos gets coated with a very common substance that makes it easier to move,” explains Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego scientist, Jane Willenbring. “If you have water with organic matter next to the asbestos waste piles, such as a stream, you then have a pathway from the waste pile and possibly to human inhalation.”
That’s scary for many individuals who live or work near these sites where contamination was handled in such a manner. The notion that the EPA’s long-time method of handling toxic waste too vast to move has been faulty is alarming.
Asbestos exposure can cause a variety of diseases, including mesothelioma, a form of cancer that most often attacks the lungs but can also affect other organs within the body. Individuals who develop mesothelioma rarely live more than a year after diagnosis, even with aggressive treatments.
There are many asbestos-related Superfund sites in the United States and many are considered among the most polluted areas in America. Some are former military bases while others are places where chemicals or other toxins were manufactured.
Some of these places once housed textile mills or other factories that made rampant use of asbestos. One – in Libby, Montana – was the site of a vermiculite mine owned by W. R. Grace and Company, a place where Zonolite® insulation was manufactured and distributed to households all around the U.S. and Canada. Many W.R. Grace workers and Libby-area residents have already died of asbestos diseases.
The new finding will no doubt have many questioning the EPA’s tactics and, eventually, new and different methods may need to be devised when it comes to protecting the public from large amounts of asbestos waste. In the meantime, the best advice is to avoid any sites where asbestos contamination was once a program, lest one be exposed to residual toxins that have remained or are circulating through the soil.