The town is one center of Russia’s asbestos industry, which is stubbornly resistant to shutting asbestos companies and phasing in substitutes for the cancer-causing fireproofing product.
In the United States and most developed economies, asbestos is handled with extraordinary care. Until the 1970s, the fibrous, silicate mineral was used extensively in fireproofing and insulating buildings in America, among other uses, but growing evidence of respiratory ailments due to asbestos exposure led to limits. Laws proscribe its use and its disposal and workers who get near it wear ventilators and protective clothes. The European Union and Japan have also banned asbestos. (A town called Asbestos in Quebec, Canada, has stopped mining asbestos, though it hasn’t changed its name.)
But not here, where every weekday afternoon miners set explosions in a strip mine owned by the Russian mining company Uralasbest. The blasts send huge plumes of asbestos fiber and dust into the air. Asbest is one of the more extreme examples of the environmental costs of modern Russia’s deep reliance on mining.
“Every normal person is trying to get out of here,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver, explained. “People who value their lives leave. But I was born here and have no place else to go.”
Of the half-dozen people interviewed who worked at the factory or mine, all had a persistent cough, a symptom of exposure to what residents call “the white needles.” Residents also describe strange skin ailments. Doctors interviewed at a dermatology ward say the welts arise from inflammation caused by asbestos.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is a branch of the World Health Organization, is in the midst of a multiyear study of asbestos workers in Asbest. Because of the large number of people exposed in the city, the researchers are using the location to determine whether the asbestos causes ailments other than lung cancer, including ovarian cancer. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans,” the group said.
Standing on the rim of the world’s largest open pit asbestos mine provides a panoramic scene. Opened in the late 1800s, it is about half the size of the island of Manhattan and the source of untold tons of asbestos. The pit descends about 1,000 feet down slopes created by terraced access roads. Big mining trucks haul out fibrous, gray, raw asbestos.
The Uralasbest mine is so close by that a few years ago the mayor’s office and the company relocated residents from one outlying area to expand its gaping pit.
So entwined is the life of the town with this pit that many 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.”
The class-action lawsuits that demolished asbestos companies in the United States are not possible in Russia’s weak judicial system, which favors powerful producers. Russia, which has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos, mines about 850,000 tons of asbestos a year and exports about 60 percent of it. Demand is still strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is used in insulation and building materials. The Russian Chrysotile Association, an asbestos industry trade group, reports that annual sales total about 18 billion rubles, or $540 million. And the business is growing, mostly because other countries are getting out of the business. Russian output rose from 875,000 tons in 2005 to a million last year.
The mine and the factory Uralasbest owns are the principal employers. The town depends on the jobs that mining asbestos and making asbestos products bring. Nationwide, the industry employs 38,500 Russians directly while about 400,000 people depend on the factories and mines for their livelihood, if supporting businesses in the mining towns are counted. About 17 percent of Asbest residents work in the industry.
Asbest is a legacy of the philosophy known as gigantism in Soviet industrial planning. Many cities wound up with only one, huge factory like this town’s sprawling asbestos plant. The cities, known as monotowns, were an important engine of the economy. A Russian government study counted 467 cities and 332 smaller towns that depend on a single factory or mine. A total of 25 million people out of Russia’s population of 142 million people live in towns with only one main industry that cannot close, even if it is polluting.
In a sign of just how scarce other employment options are in Asbest, a guard requires cars leaving the factory to open their trunks, lest anyone try to steal scrap metal for resale. That is about the only other way to make a meager living in Russia’s old industrial towns.
The trade association says that the type of asbestos mined in Russia, called chrysotile, is less harmful than other types. The United States, though, has tightly restricted its use. The country imports about 1,000 tons of asbestos, mainly from Brazil, for use in aerospace and automotive industries for items like clutch pads. “They consider it dangerous but we consider it safe,” said the association’s spokesman, Vladimir A. Galitsyn. Russia has three research institutes dedicated to studying uses for asbestos.
“As a representative of the industry, I don’t see any problem,” he said. Properly handled, asbestos is safe, he said, and it saves lives in fires. “We are not the enemy of our workers. If they died, then people would be afraid to work for us.”
Valentin K. Zemskov, 82, worked at the mine for 40 years and developed asbestosis, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in asbestos fibers, which scar lung tissue. “There was so much dust you couldn’t see a man standing next to you,” he said of his working years. For the disability, the factory adds 4,500 rubles, or about $135, to his monthly retirement check, which would be enough to cover only a few restaurant meals.
Still, he said the city had no other choice. “If we didn’t have the factory, how would we live?” he said, gasping for air as he talked in the yard of a retirement home. “We need to keep it open so we have jobs.”
A monument to residents who died was made, grimly, of a block of asbestos ore, with the inscription “Live and Remember.”
“Of course asbestos dust covers our city,” said Nina A. Zubkova, another resident of the retirement home. “Why do you think the city is named Asbest?”