Study Finds Asbestos Fibers Can Move in Soil, Challenging Current Clean-Up Strategy

At asbestos waste sites, burying the toxic asbestos fibers has been a common clean-up strategy. A recent study from University of California San Diego researchers has found evidence that strategy may leave these areas unprotected.

Jane Willenbring, a geologist and researcher at the University of California San Diego, recently presented findings that counter long-held beliefs about asbestos waste clean-up. Traditionally, organizations like the EPA have theorized that asbestos fibers are locked in place when buried by dirt or sand.

Yet, Willenbring and her research team found that burying the waste might not be enough.

Using advanced soil monitoring techniques, the research team found that asbestos fibers that were coated with organic acids – which can be created by plants, fungi and bacteria – can move through soil and sand easily. Therefore, when plants or foliage grow on top of a buried asbestos waste or the soil used to bury the waste contains organic acids, the fibers that are buried underneath aren’t properly secured and may eventually travel into the air or ground water below.

This completely counters the traditional belief of asbestos clean-up, and many asbestos waste sites that have been “cleaned-up” may still pose health risks long after remediation. Just the act of walking over waste areas may stir up microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. Or asbestos located near a water source like a stream could also cause these toxic fibers to be inhaled by citizens, the study hypothesized.

New Clean-Up Methods May Be Required at Asbestos Waste Sites

Former asbestos mines around in the U.S. like in Libby, MT, have long been shuddered, and the work of cleaning up these sites has been going on for decades. The same is true regarding asbestos manufacturing hubs like the city of Ambler and Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.

In both these locations, asbestos fibers were present in the air, caused by decades of unregulated waste disposal. For example, in Ambler, once known as the “Asbestos Capital of the World,” piles of asbestos waste sometimes as tall as 100 feet were a familiar sight around town. Children even played on those piles through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, mesothelioma – a rare form of cancer caused when asbestos fibers are breathed into the lungs – is diagnosed in greater numbers in Ambler and Allegheny County.

In both Ambler and Libby, burying these waste piles has been a common remediation strategy. Now, thanks to this research, this strategy may not properly protect communities from the toxic asbestos waste.

The study will continue to investigate asbestos in soil, examining how weather patterns, the types of soil and asbestos fibers and more can impact its ability to move in the soil. Unfortunately, if the research team’s hypotheses are proven correct, many communities thought to have cleaned up may still be at risk.

Matthew Davis

Author

Matthew Davis has studied journalism at the University of Colorado and has covered civil litigation for a variety of publications. He joined Mesowatch in 2016 and covers asbestos litigation developments in the U.S., as well as newsworthy asbestos cases.