Report finds asbestos risks in 15 states

Naturally occurring mineral is focus of study

324 locations charted in East

22 Md. sites may contain well-known carcinogen

July 31, 2005|By Andrew Schneider | Andrew Schneider,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Federal geologists have identified 324 sites in Maryland and 14 other Eastern states that may contain naturally occurring asbestos, a well-known carcinogen that can also cause fatal lung disease.

The report by the United States Geological Survey comes at a time of growing medical concern about quarries, mines and other places where asbestos may be present.

Asbestos has long been identified as a hazard in workplaces where there are heavy concentrations in the air. But there's evidence that former mines, inactive quarries and ground containing asbestos might be hazardous if rocks and soil are disturbed.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported that quarries in White Hall and Elk Mills were among those identified by the United States Geological Survey as possibly containing naturally occurring asbestos.
The Sun regrets the error.

People living near the 22 sites in Maryland are not in danger, says Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment. But McIntire acknowledged that the agency doesn't examine the sites, which include former mines, quarries and places where prospecting has occurred.

"Maryland does know where the naturally occurring sites are, but they are not monitored, as the material poses no health or safety threat as it is trapped in the rock formation," McIntire said. "As long as the rock is not hammered, crushed, mined, broken down, etc., it poses no threat."

But federal geologists and physicians specializing in asbestos diseases said state and local agencies should inspect the sites for risk of exposure.

Though naturally occurring asbestos is not a health risk if it is not disturbed, says the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, potentially dangerous fibers can be released into the air by "weather processes" and "routine human activities." Activities include working in the yard or running, hiking or bicycling on unpaved surfaces where asbestos is present.

Asbestos is a natural mineral, sometimes found in pure form, but its fibers are most often found in rocks and other minerals. For decades, people have been sickened and killed by exposure in the workplace, mostly to chrysotile, the type of asbestos most often used for commercial purposes.

The risk from naturally occurring asbestos is mostly unknown. There are no federal regulations dealing with it, and little research has been done on the risk until recently.

California study

Dr. Marc Schenker and colleagues at the University of California, Davis just completed a study that examined 3,000 California cases of mesothelioma - a fast-killing cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos - diagnosed between 1988 and 1997. It is the most extensive study of its type in this country.

Schenker, a lung specialist and epidemiologist, and his team documented that the closer people lived to sites with asbestos, the more likely they were to get the disease. The incidence dropped 6.3 percent for every 10 kilometers from a site.

The Maryland sites are spread from Harford County in the north to Montgomery County in the south, with the largest number in and around Baltimore County.

Some old mines and quarries have been given new uses, McIntire said, including Soldiers Delight park near Owings Mills, which is famous for its serpentine rock. Asbestos is found in serpentine rock.

There is only one actively worked quarry in the state, McIntire said. The Rockville Crushed Stone Co. quarry in Montgomery County is regulated by the state, McIntire said, and watched by the county.

Self-report at quarry

However, McIntire said, the state does not monitor the site for release of asbestos, relying on the company to provide air monitoring data four times a year "and let us know immediately if there's a serious release of asbestos."

"Government should never agree to trust any mine or quarry operator to monitor their asbestos emissions and report itself for excessive release," said Barry Castleman, a former Baltimore County air pollution control officer and an international authority on issues of asbestos and the law. "This is ridiculous for any agency charged with protecting public health."

"This is not a problem" to have the company do its own monitoring, McIntire said. "If we get a bunch of people calling and saying asbestos is being released, we'll send inspectors out immediately."

Asbestos fibers are invisible to the naked eye and can be seen only with powerful microscopes.

Castleman said Schenker's study "emphasizes the need for health officials to search local medical records to see if there are deaths from mesothelioma among long-term residents in areas where quarrying activity has been going on for 30 years or more."

The Rockville and Soldiers Delight quarries, a quarry in White Hall and another in Elk Mills in Cecil County - all on the USGS list - were the focus of state and county investigations in the late 1970s. Asbestos was found in the rock they were selling for road construction.

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