U.S. Asbestos Sites Made Risky by Some Remediation Strategies, According to Stanford Researcher


Efforts to prevent human exposure to asbestos may be mobilizing the cancer-causing mineral so that it can reach water supplies, based on new findings about how the fibers move through soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) largely remedies Superfund sites containing asbestos by capping them with soil to lock the buried toxin in place. But new research suggests that this may actually increase the likelihood of human exposure to the cancer-causing mineral.

“People have this idea that asbestos is all covered up and taken care of,” said Jane Willenbring, who is an associate professor of geological sciences at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “But this is still a lingering legacy pollutant and might be dribbling out pollution, little by little.”

Willenbring has published several studies about asbestos behavior and, most recently, turned her attention to the lack of information about how asbestos may move through the soils where it is stored. Through lab experiments with asbestos fibers, which were detailed in a paper published Jan. 27 in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters, she and colleagues determined that the soil’s organic material actually enables the asbestos to move through the ground and potentially into nearby water supplies.

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