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City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit

City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit

Olga Kravets for The New York Times
Every weekday afternoon in Asbest, Russia, miners set explosions in an asbestos strip mine, sending out clouds of carcinogenic dust. 

ASBEST, Russia — This city of about 70,000 people on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains is a pleasant enough place to live except for one big drawback: when the wind picks up, clouds of carcinogenic dust blow through.
Olga Kravets for The New York Times
Retirees living in Asbest, including Tamara A. Biserova, center, and Nina A. Zubkova, right.
Asbest means asbestos in Russian, and it is everywhere here. Residents describe layers of it collecting on living room floors. Before they take in the laundry from backyard lines, they first shake out the asbestos. “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” said Tamara A. Biserova, a retiree. So much dust blows against her windows, she said, that “before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.”
The town is one center of Russia’s asbestos industry, which is stubbornly resistant to shutting asbestos companies and phasing in substitutes for the cancer-causing fireproofing product.
In the United States and most developed economies, asbestos is handled with extraordinary care. Until the 1970s, the fibrous, silicate mineral was used extensively in fireproofing and insulating buildings in America, among other uses, but growing evidence of respiratory ailments due to asbestos exposure led to limits. Laws proscribe its use and its disposal and workers who get near it wear ventilators and protective clothes. The European Union and Japan have also banned asbestos. (A town called Asbestos in Quebec, Canada, has stopped mining asbestos, though it hasn’t changed its name.)
But not here, where every weekday afternoon miners set explosions in a strip mine owned by the Russian mining company Uralasbest. The blasts send huge plumes of asbestos fiber and dust into the air. Asbest is one of the more extreme examples of the environmental costs of modern Russia’s deep reliance on mining.
“Every normal person is trying to get out of here,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver, explained. “People who value their lives leave. But I was born here and have no place else to go.”
Of the half-dozen people interviewed who worked at the factory or mine, all had a persistent cough, a symptom of exposure to what residents call “the white needles.” Residents also describe strange skin ailments. Doctors interviewed at a dermatology ward say the welts arise from inflammation caused by asbestos.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is a branch of the World Health Organization, is in the midst of a multiyear study of asbestos workers in Asbest. Because of the large number of people exposed in the city, the researchers are using the location to determine whether the asbestos causes ailments other than lung cancer, including ovarian cancer. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans,” the group said.
Standing on the rim of the world’s largest open pit asbestos mine provides a panoramic scene. Opened in the late 1800s, it is about half the size of the island of Manhattan and the source of untold tons of asbestos. The pit descends about 1,000 feet down slopes created by terraced access roads. Big mining trucks haul out fibrous, gray, raw asbestos.
The Uralasbest mine is so close by that a few years ago the mayor’s office and the company relocated residents from one outlying area to expand its gaping pit.
So entwined is the life of the town with this pit that many newlyweds pose on a viewing platform on the rim to have their pictures taken. The city has a municipal anthem called “Asbestos, my city and my fate.” In 2002, the City Council adopted a new flag: white lines, symbolizing asbestos fibers, passing through a ring of flame. A billboard put up by Uralasbest in Asbest proclaims “Asbestos is our Future.”
The class-action lawsuits that demolished asbestos companies in the United States are not possible in Russia’s weak judicial system, which favors powerful producers. Russia, which has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos, mines about a million tons of asbestos a year and exports about 60 percent of it. Demand is still strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is used in insulation and building materials. The Russian Chrysotile Association, an asbestos industry trade group, reports that annual sales total about 18 billion rubles, or $540 million. And the business is growing, mostly because other countries are getting out of the business. 

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 18, 2013

An article on Sunday about Asbest, a Russian city that remains dependent on the mining of asbestos despite the health perils, misstated Russia’s asbestos output in one reference. It is about a million tons a year, as the article noted at one point, not “about 850,000 tons,” the figure used in another reference. (The lower figure was from the Russian trade association’s Web site; the higher one from a more detailed year-by-year breakdown from the United States Geological Survey.)
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