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Asbestos is The Way of Life for Russian Mountain Population

It is unbelievable that there is a place in today’s world where a person’s daily routine could involve shaking asbestos dust off laundry hanging on a clothesline or sweeping asbestos dust out of a window sill to let in the morning light. In the eastern slopes of Russia’s Ural Mountains, such a place does in fact exist.

In the recent New York Times article, City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit , author Andrew Kramer gives a detailed description of life in the mountain city of Asbest. With a population of 70,000, Asbest is home to the largest open pit asbestos mine in the world. The mine it is about half the size of Manhattan and descends about 1,000 feet down into the earth. The city’s anthem is, “Asbestos, my city and my fate.” The image on the city’s flag is white lines (to symbolize asbestos fibers), passing through a ring of flame. A billboard in Asbest proclaims “Asbestos is our Future.”

Most residents of Asbest have a persistent cough and strange welts on their skin due to repeated exposures to asbestos. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, is conducting a study of residents in Asbest to determine whether asbestos causes ailments other than lung cancer.

Russia’s trade association claims that the type of asbestos mined in Russia, chrysotile, is less harmful than other types of asbestos. Vladimir A. Galitsyn, the association’s spokesman, says they consider it safe. “As a representative of the industry, I don’t see any problem.” In February 2013, the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer called for an end to all uses of asbestos reiterating all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The story of Asbest is eerily similar to that of the town of Asbestos in Quebec, Canada, which until recently was the title-holder of home to the world’s largest asbestos mine. In 2011, we covered Daily Show correspondent, Aasif Mandvi’s visit to the town, in the post, Ored to Death. Mandvi spoke to mine and city officials of Asbestos who also claimed that chrysotile fiber is “relatively” safe, stating “you drove through our town, you can see there are no sick people.”

Up into 2012, Canadian asbestos industry officials ran a tireless campaign to get the last functioning asbestos mine back up and operational after it had shut down temporarily due to disrepair. The mine had even been promised a loan of $58 million dollars by the Canadian government. Any hopes of re-opening the mine disappeared after the newly elected Canadian government publicly acknowledged the dangers of asbestos in the fall of 2012 and withdrew its promise of a loan.

Sadly, it seems that in order for Russia to follow in Canada’s wake, the demand from other countries for chrysotile would need to diminish substantially, but demand is actually growing. Developing countries who may not be fully aware of the dangers associated with asbestos use the material liberally in building materials. Even as the knowledge of the deadly nature of asbestos spreads, developing governments are highly susceptible to monetary pressure from the asbestos industry.

Russia quickly filled the void left when Canada withdrew from the asbestos business, and attended the Rotterdam Convention for the first time with the sole purpose of keeping chrysotile off of the United Nation’s Prior Informed Consent list of hazardous substances.

It is ironic and poignant that a monument to residents of Asbest who have died has been made out of a block of asbestos ore, with the inscription “Live and Remember.” “People who value their lives leave,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, explained, “I was born here and have no place else to go.”