The Asbestos Controversy

Hoover, Earl G. ; Znamensky, V. S.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 4
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1986
For most geologists and miners the term asbestos refers to a group of highly fibrous silicate minerals that readily separate into long, thin, strong fibers of sufficient flexibility to be woven; these fibers are heat resistant and chemically inert, and possess a high electric insulation and therefore are suitable for uses where incombustible, nonconductive or chemically resistant material is required. The US Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) specifically refers to the naturally occurring minerals chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, termolite asbestos, anthophyllite asbestos, and actinolite asbestos as asbestos if the individual crystal fragments have the following dimensions: length-greater than 5 µm; maximum diameter-less than 5 µm; and a length to diameter ratio of 3 or greater. Since asbestos has been identified as one of the ten most carcinogenic substances (a cancer-causing agent), it has become, for many government regulatory agencies, a major issue concerning banning emissions to the environment. Very few recent issues have caused as much concern for the crushed stone industry as asbestos. Complicating the problem is the fact that several federal and state bureaus have greatly compounded the confusion because each has become involved in the asbestos dilemma. Simple solutions to a very complex problem have been proposed by these various governmental groups. In addition to governmental bungling is the fact that public interest groups have been able to use federal and state laws that have been enacted with a strong environmental bias to foment even greater complexities. Such is now the state of the asbestos problem. No con- firmed health risk has been associated with low-level exposure, namely crushed stone in an unbound form; a methodology for sampling and analyzing for asbestos has not been developed; a precise definition of what is asbestos does not exist, nor does a concensus among the various government groups as to what course of action to pursue. Pure asbestos as it is mined for commercial purposes does not exist in the properties mined by the crushed stone industry. Where the six asbestiform minerals do appear (to date we've been referring mainly to chrysotile in serpentinite formations in Maryland) the amount of the asbestiform mineral present is generally quite small. They generally appear in scattered, miniscule amounts. In the case of Rockville Crushed Stone in Montgomery county, Mary- land, the chrysotile is less than 1/2 of 1% of the rock deposit. No health risk has been identified with such minute quantities of asbestos minerals. MSHA standards for the occupational health and safety of quarry workers are being met; and there is every indication that normal background levels of asbestos, throughout the surrounding countryside, are as high or higher than levels measured on roads where the rock is used in pavement or base. The problem and the controversy lie with improper terminology on the part of so-called public interest environmental groups, aided and abetted by some governmental agencies who, to be charitable, we can best describe as uninformed. The news media frequently has fanned the issue, unintentionally we'd like to think, by quoting these misinformed authorities and not bothering to question the facts or adequately report balancing information handed to them. It is much better copy to talk about an asbestos cancer scare, than to deal with rather mundane measurements and descriptions that are hard to understand. At the heart of the issue is the improper use of the word asbestos. Instead of being confined to the geological description of the six asbestiform minerals-chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, termolite asbestos, anthophyllite asbestos, and actinolite asbestos-the word asbestos is also wrongly used, but too-frequently to identify many other minerals that happen to have elon-
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