Asbestos used to be mined in countries around the world, including in the United States. However, many asbestos mines have closed because of the health risks associated with this toxic mineral.
Miners have one of the highest risk occupations when it comes to asbestos-related diseases. Other professionals who often encounter asbestos on the job, like railroad workers, shipbuilders, factory workers and construction workers, share this elevated risk. As a result of this knowledge, many countries have limited this mineral’s use, while others have banned its use entirely.
The last asbestos mine in the United States closed in 2002. However, asbestos is still being used in the United States and some other countries. The asbestos that is still being used must come from somewhere, so where does asbestos mining still occur?
Most asbestos now comes from four countries.
All the asbestos imported into the U.S. in 2019 came from Russia, which mines and exports more asbestos than any other country in the world. In 2019, Russia mined 750,000 metric tons of the toxic mineral. The U.S. imported and used about 100 metric tons.
However, Russia mined less asbestos in 2019 than it did in the middle of the decade. In 2015 and 2016, it mined 1,100,000 metric tons each year.
China also had large asbestos mining operations, particularly at the beginning half of the decade. In 2010, China mined 400,000 metric tons of asbestos, but by 2019, it only mined 125,000 metric tons.
Other countries that lead in asbestos production include Kazakhstan and Brazil. Like Russia and China, Brazil’s output seems to have decreased over recent years. It went from mining 311,000 metric tons in 2016 to just 15,000 metric tons in 2019.
This trend seems to make sense when considering that the use of asbestos is now banned or limited in most countries, contributing to a decreased demand for the substance. In the U.S., the demand for asbestos seems to be fluctuating with a downward trend. In 2016, 747 metric tons were imported. In 2017, only 332 metric tons made it into the country. 2018 saw a jump back up to 681 metric tons, but that amount decreased significantly in 2019, with only 100 metric tons being imported.
Although the other major asbestos-producing countries seem to be ramping down their asbestos mining operations, Kazakhstan’s production has remained roughly the same throughout the decade. It mined between approximately 200,000 metric tons of asbestos a year during that time.
Mining operations can have long-term consequences.
Although the U.S. does not currently mine asbestos, those who worked in U.S. mines could still develop an asbestos-related disease because it can take decades for these diseases to develop. Even miners who did not specifically mine asbestos could be exposed to the substance because asbestos can form alongside other desirable minerals, like talc, vermiculite and others.
Asbestos is still a risk for many other U.S. workers as well. The asbestos that is imported is used to manufacture semipermeable diaphragms. Other asbestos-containing products, such as brake blocks, are also imported, and old asbestos products still linger in U.S. communities.
While not everyone who encounters asbestos will get sick, no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe. Anyone who may have been exposed to asbestos may benefit from working with their doctor to develop a plan for monitoring their health.