Asbest, Russia – the name says it all. This city of 70,000 on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains has one major industry: mining asbestos. While the United States and most developed economies have either provided stringent requirements for handling the mineral, or banned it outright, Russia has increased production – from 850,000 tons in 2005 to 1 million last year. The Russian Chrysotile Association reports annual sales total about $540 million.
Asbest has the world’s largest open pit asbestos mine – Uralasbest. It is enormous, comprising an area half the size of the island of Manhattan and 1,000 feet deep. Each weekday afternoon explosions are detonated sending huge clouds of asbestos fiber and dust into the air and into every home and business in the area. “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, “before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.”
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, has studied and continues to study the effects of asbestos on such a large population. They’re determining whether diseases other than lung cancers may be caused by the exposure. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans,” the group said. Residents complain of strange skin ailments and persistent coughs. The group is even studying the possibility of a link to ovarian cancer.
Unfortunately for the population of Asbest, there are few alternatives as there are limited options for relocation. This is partially due to a Soviet philosophy known as ‘gigantism.’ This means a town is established around one industry. Even though that industry may prove to be dangerous, the economy cannot allow it to close. Class action lawsuits that sent many asbestos companies into bankruptcy in the United States are not possible in Russia’s limited judicial system. One elderly gentleman who worked in the mines for 40 years and developed asbestosis, now receives the equivalent of $135 a month for his disability. Mr. Zemskov said, “There was so much dust you couldn’t see a man standing next to you.” Yet he sees no solution. “If we didn’t have the factory, how would we live?”
Perhaps the knowledge that asbestos is in Asbest for the foreseeable future drives the residents to embrace this known danger. “. . . 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.’”
For now, there is only a monument to residents who have died. It’s made of a block of asbestos ore and inscribed with the words, “Live and Remember.”