A recent study on asbestos shows that tiny asbestos fibers can move through soil and sand. The results of the new study may revolutionize the current strategies used to help prevent asbestos exposure.
The study, led by geologist Jane Willenbring, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, started out by testing the current assumption that asbestos remains locked an unable to move once its buried and capped by soil.
Yes, another researcher in the study, Sanjay Mohanty, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that if organic acids cover asbestos, the fibers can make their through soil and sand, regardless if its been capped. According to Willenbring,
“This is something that can happen in soils, where you have organic acids that are created from plants, fungi and also bacteria. These organic acids can coat the outside of the fibers and actually change the mobility of the fibers.”
Willenberg also explained that study marks the first time that researchers actually put asbestos into soil to test it.
“They [environmentalists] find it in water, and they know where the asbestos is, so they can assume transport. But this is the first time anyone has put a known amount of asbestos in the top of a soil column and actually saw some asbestos coming out.”
The findings of the study were presented this year, in August, at the at the 2016 American Chemical Society meeting, held in Philadelphia. It was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Previously, scientists and researchers spent several years working on the lab part of the study, where they tried to determine if asbestos fibers were able to travel through sand. Their conclusion was that the fibers could not move through sand, but if the sand was coated with organic matter, such as humic or fulvic acid, the fibers could easily move through the sand columns. Willenbring said,
“We found that if we coated these fibers in organic acids, we could actually get the asbestos fibers to move through the soil.”
Apparently, the long, narrow fibers that aren’t tangled together are the ones that can freely move. Researchers pointed out that tangled fibers likely can’t move through soil.
Willenbring also indicated that she and her team will continue on with the research, which including coming up with new ideas to keep testing. One proposed idea that Willenbring and her team have, is to come up with a way to regulate organic acid, which could possibly help decrease the movement of asbestos fibers. Another idea could be to find a way to keep plants living, atop the capped piles of soil.
“We could do something else to the piles to affect their geochemistry so we don’t get transport…….If you don’t have plants on the surface of the piles, then you have more erosion of that cap, and eventually, it will just have the same problem again,” Willenbring said.
However, not all soils are created equally, according to Willenbring. What this means is while one strategy may work in one area, it may not work the same in another area that has different soil. The biggest concern is the soil in Libby, Montana—a city once home to one of the biggest asbestos factories, and home to naturally-occurring asbestos.
Libby is also home to a Superfund site, meaning an area that contains an abandoned and hazardous waste site in dire need of need of immediate remediation. Libby is the largest Superfund site in United State history.
“We don’t yet have soil from Libby, but it would be great to get some,” the professor said. “Everyone is worried about Libby, and we are too.”
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