Asbestos is located in the middle of the endless forests of the Urals, not far from Yekaterinburg. And indeed: this Russian town is home to one of the largest open asbestos mines in the world.
From the vantage point on the edge of the quarry, you can see the wide terraces carved into the gray asbestos ore for decades. Tiny trucks and crane machines drive back and forth in the depths. The fine clouds of asbestos dust they produce float on the wind, but no one who works here pays attention to this. Because behind the wheel are the residents of Asbestos, and they are almost all employees of the company that has been in charge here for many years: Uralasbest, good for at least 20 percent of the worldwide asbestos production.
The company has been sending the same message to the world for decades: the curled fiber form of chrysotile is not harmful. That message comes from the Russian asbestos lobby, consisting of companies such as Uralasbest, the Russian Union for Chrysotile Producers and the Russian Asbestos Association. Workers have been lured with higher salaries and early pensions since the Soviet years: 50 years for men, 45 years for women.
The fact that more and more countries are banning asbestos is causing a shrinking market and that is bad news for Russia. The Russian asbestos sector therefore prefers not to talk about the fact that the asbestos mineral was classified as carcinogenic by the WHO in the late 1980s and has since been banned in more than sixty countries. Little research is done into asbestos-related diseases (asbestosis, cancer and mesothelioma, or cancer in the pleura) and statistics are unreliable, people say here.
‘Western anti-asbestos psychosis’
This was followed by the idea that ‘white asbestos’ (chrysotile), in contrast to the amphibole ‘blue’ and ‘brown’ types of asbestos, would be less harmful to health, but more and more countries are coming back to this. Russia, as well as asbestos producer Kazakhstan, are ignoring these warnings so as not to endanger dwindling sales markets. With a tough lobby they try to keep countries from a ban.
The Russians are actively promoting the idea that Western countries have mounted an “anti-asbestos campaign” to favor their own, more expensive building materials. “That’s why they’ve fueled a global anti-asbestos psychosis promoted by environmental groups demanding an international asbestos ban, rather than safe and well-regulated use,” the statement said. website of the Russian Asbestos Association.
A few years ago, the lobby even brought a children’s comic book on the market, in which Knight Chrysotile takes on evil forces, and his brother Amphibole ends up in a European prison. The only recent investigation into the Asbestos mine was conducted in 2016 published in the American journal Environmental Health. It speaks of ‘interesting differences’, which, however, require more research.
Russian chrysotile producers are well aware that an acknowledgment of the risks will spell the end of the industry – resulting in job losses for thousands of workers. And so dangers are downplayed, legislation is stopped and residents are appeased.
It is possible that visitors to the impressive asbestos mine receive almost five yellow stars on Google Maps. “The kids enjoyed it,” a father reported in the comments. “Beautiful sunset,” writes one woman with a photo of asbestos mountains bathed in red evening light. “A cool place, but for some reason not very popular,” writes one Anton Poepyshev. This is how the Asbestos prefer to see their city: a special attraction, not an international health risk.
“What do you actually want to know?” asks the press officer from Uralasbest in a sharp tone. The meeting on a square in the middle of Asbestos is a coincidence, because the young woman is on maternity leave and her employer did not respond to an interview request. With a whining child in her arm, she pushes a pram across the playground. She doesn’t want to say much, and she doesn’t give her name either. What she can say is that the risks of the mine are “well manageable”, the safety standards “in order”, and that the ‘white’ asbestos extracted here is ‘very different’ than the much more dangerous blue and brown varieties. “I live and raise my children here. Would I do that if it was dangerous?”
If you open a window, dust will blow in. I don’t know what’s in it
Aleksandr Kabloekov oncologist
In the center of town, a group of teenagers with sketchbooks on their laps sit in the shade of some trees. The object of their drawing exercise is a large block of asbestos-containing stone with a mine cart next to it. Concentrated, the children catch the gray stone with white veins in the black and brown of the watercolor paint.
The boulder marks the entrance to the local asbestos museum. There, guide Svetlana Michajlova routinely spoons up the rich history of the wonder material. She tells of the eighteenth-century industrialist Nikita Demidov who embraced the fibrous, refractory mineral under the name ‘mountain linen’ and had it made into protective clothing for his workers and a tablecloth for Tsar Peter. About the cosmonauts who would never have made it through the atmosphere without the protection of their asbestos suits. And about the ever-expanding mine, which can supply the world with asbestos for at least another century.
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When asked about the health risks, her pace accelerates past the asbestos-filled showcases. “I have nothing to say about that,” she says with a frown. “If we like life here, then apparently there is no problem.”
‘There is nothing else’
The only place in Asbestos where a hint of doubt resounds is the local waiting room outpatient clinic. Here are the retired Vladimir (70) and Tamara (71) waiting for the only oncologist who has Asbestos. The two worked in the city for forty years: she as a doctor, he in the quarry. Tamara saw many types of cancer in her practice, but she does not know whether they are related to the mine and she has never heard of mesothelioma. “Ah, everything is bad,” grumbles her husband, who calls the international asbestos ban “ridiculous”. “In a solid composition, chrysotile is not harmful.” According to him, the idea that asbestos is harmful is a Western “plot” to make money. When asked what’s in the dust clouds rising from the mine, he is silent, grunting.
A bench further on is the retired Lyudmila Ivanova. According to her, the mine is indeed a source of concern among the population, but they are silent about it to outsiders. “People have to work and there is nothing else.” She also worked in the quarry in Soviet years. “The salary was higher and we were proud of our work. We believed we were contributing to our country.” Now she regrets her years in the mine and fears for her health. “But if someone is ill, then of course you don’t ask for the details.”
Ivanova is not lucky. Her oncologist, the only one from Asbestos, has his last working day today. “If we look at the statistics, there is no more cancer here than elsewhere in Russia,” says Aleksandr Kabloekov at the end of his consultation. According to Kabloekov, the people themselves are the biggest obstacle. “The problem is that the population here cares little about their health. The young leave as soon as they can, the old stay behind. And they don’t like to be examined. They smoke and drink and sound the alarm so late that we have little more than palliative care.”
Not an attractive career prospect for a young doctor, which is why Kabloekov has given up on it after a year in Asbestos. “I can’t tell you if it’s dangerous here, or what the air quality is like here. But you have seen for yourself how filthy this city is. If you open a window, the dust will blow in. I don’t know what’s in it.”