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Naturally Occurring Asbestos Creates Risk of Mesothelioma

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral known to cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that affects the lining of the body’s internal organs.  While the dangers of asbestos in commercially manufactured products have been debated for decades – with the Enivronmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally stepping in and adding asbestos regulation to the Clean Air Act in the 1980s – asbestos can occur in the natural environment as well.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way to regulate asbestos in nature and many folks who frequent contaminated areas may not even know they are in danger.

The U.S. Geological Survey has just released an updated map of areas in California known to contain asbestos.  The areas are some of the same regularly used by recreational enthusiasts – hikers, bikers, ATV users – and while the background levels of airborne asbestos fibers may be minimal in some spots, others have been officially closed to the public to mitigate the danger.

Asbestos, especially airborne asbestos, is so dangerous because the fibers can easily be inhaled or ingested.  Once inside the body those fibers can irritate the sensitive tissues which line the lungs and body cavity and surround the vital organs.  This irritation can cause the growth of tumors which can turn cancerous leading to mesothelioma, lung cancer, esophageal cancer and more.

The risk of inhaling or ingesting these carcinogenic fibers is unfortunately multiplied by the activities that people engage in these naturally occurring danger zones.  Studies have found that using ATVs and other off-road vehicles in such places drastically increases the user’s exposure to harmful levels of asbestos. 

The U.S.G.S. map was co-sponsored by the California Geological Survey and encompasses the entirety of the state.  Officials have marked 290 locations with confirmed deposits of natural asbestos.  These 290 locations are spread across 45 of California's 58 counties.  In addition, eight more counties have been found to contain certain types of rock (ultramafic rocks, serpentinite, or fibrous amphibole) which commonly contain or are contaminated by asbestos. 

Unfortunately, the map is based on data the agencies had previously collected and does not identify any newly discovered areas of asbestos contamination.  Additionally, no attempt was made to judge or rate the variable risk of exposure or degree to which exposure at these sites creates a risk of developing mesothelioma.

While it is impossible to completely isolate oneself from asbestos, staying out of danger zones and seeking alternative locations to engage in recreational activities is definitely worth the extra effort.  The EPA’s official stance is that no level of exposure to asbestos can be deemed safe.  Mesothelioma strikes nearly 3,000 people in the United States every year and, unfortunately, the disease is a death sentence.  Though mesothelioma treatment options have expanded exponentially in the last 30 years, there is still no cure for the disease.

The U.S.G.S. pamphlet can be found here: ftp://ftp.consrv.ca.gov/pub/dmg/pubs/ms/59/MS59_Pamphlet.pdf