Living in Australia, it is all too easy to assume that asbestos is feared and strictly regulated all around the world. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality and countries like China, Cuba and India still rely heavily on asbestos based products for automotive parts, building materials and insulation. Even the US continues to import large amounts of asbestos, importing 705 metric tons in 2016, almost twice the amount imported in 2015.
So, where is all this asbestos coming from?
Although it isn’t the only country that still mines the dangerous mineral, Russia is by far the biggest miner and exporter of Asbestos, supplying roughly 60 to 75 percent of the world’s asbestos.
In Russia, the deadly health risks associated with asbestos are covered up and it is even believed that the Russian mafia is behind a powerful pro-asbestos lobby. In short, the Russian love affair with asbestos is still very much in full swing, and nothing showcases this quite as well as the Russian mining town of Asbest.
Like the name suggests, Asbest (which takes its name from the Russian word for asbestos), exists for the sole purpose of mining asbestos. The town is home of the Uralasbest mine - the world’s biggest functioning open-pit asbestos mine which is almost half the size of Manhattan! During its 100 years of operation the mine has shipped well over 384 million tonnes of asbestos all around the world.
To say the town of Asbest embraces asbestos would be somewhat of an understatement. Residents have an almost religious reverence for the stuff, seeing it as the town’s protector. Asbestos is referenced in folklore (such as stories about a girl with fibrous hair made from the mineral), billboards in town proudly proclaim ‘ asbestos is our future’, and it is not uncommon for newly weds to have their photo taken overlooking the huge Uralasbest mine .
Where Australians see the use of asbestos as a terrible mistake of the past, the Russians of Asbest view it as a sort of guiding light for the future.
Much like the now closed Australian town of Wittenoom, Asbest would cease to exist without the asbestos mining industry, of the 70,000 people who live there, 49,000 of them are directly or indirectly reliant on the Uralasbest mine for income.
To make matters worse, the company that owns the mine also owns a significant amount of the town’s infrastructure. This means that for most of the town’s residents speaking out against the mine or acknowledging the health risks posed by asbestos isn’t really an option.
As the global demand for asbestos gradually decreases, the future of Asbest looks more and more uncertain. Regardless of what the billboards in the town might say, the wide scale use of Asbestos has no place in the modern world.