Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral that was mined for over a century for use in thousands of products. The use of asbestos products was severely restricted in the late 1970s because it became well-known that asbestos causes a variety of ailments including a cancer called mesothelioma. Although many Californians are exposed to asbestos in occupational situations, several studies of mining town populations are revealing links between asbestos and many diseases other than mesothelioma.
One of the most thorough studies into the risks of asbestos exposure is being conducted in Australia. A 30-year study of individuals living in the Western Australian mining town of Wittenoom has found that children in the town suffer statistically significant levels of a variety of ailments including brain cancer, leukemia, prostate cancer, and ovarian cancer. Researchers are also considering whether the townspeople are developing higher levels of heart disease related to their asbestos exposure.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also examining asbestos exposure levels in the Montana town of Libby. This small community of 3,000 near the Canadian border was declared a Superfund site after it was discovered that the town's vermiculite mine was contaminated with toxic asbestos fibers. The town's soil and buildings are covered in asbestos dust that has been linked to 400 deaths and 1,700 illnesses.
Since 1999, the EPA has spent $447 million on asbestos abatement operations in the town. The mine operator has settled its claims with the EPA for $250 million and responsible for cleaning up the asbestos in the old vermiculite mine.
Source: The Conversation, "Asbestos still haunts those exposed as kids in mining towns," Oct. 10, 2012