Could the ‘wonder material’ that became a deadly curse ‘come good’ after all?

One simple word strikes fear into the heart in the hearts of many: Asbestos.

This week the Canadian town of Asbestos – formerly home to one of the world’s largest asbestos mines – voted to change its toxic name to Val-des-Sources, referring to its location at the confluence of three lakes.

In Russian, the deadly material is called Асбе́ст (Asbest) and, like Canada, a town in the Urals near what is now the world’s largest asbestos mine (11km long, 2.5km wide and 300m deep) is called Asbest.

Asbestos was – and remains – a naturally-occurring ‘wonder stuff’ that is highly heat-resistant, with widespread multiple uses.

Indeed, archaeologists found asbestos being used in the Stone Age to strengthen ceramic pots.

The word asbestos, first used in the 1600s, ultimately derives from the Ancient Greek ἄσβεστος, meaning ‘unquenchable’ or ‘inextinguishable’, reflecting its use for oil/candle wicks that would never burn.

When large-scale mining started at the end of the 19th century it was widely used for insulation – from heat and noise – in buildings and equipment, such as trains (to lag steam locomotive boilers and insulate carriages, until the 1960s), industry for gaskets and road vehicles for brake shoes. Indeed anything involving heat, usually involved asbestos.

Hand-specimen of asbestiform serpentine ore, also known as chrysotile (white asbestos), one of six minerals currently regulated as asbestos.

Then came the 1970s, when public recognition of the carcinogenic health hazards of asbestos dust led to its prohibition a decade later. Despite this it was still widely used, especially as sprayed insulation.

For example, Japan’s asbestos production peaked in 1974. Australia continued to use brown asbestos in construction until the mid-1980s.

Most notably, New York’s World Trade Centre (built by the local authority and opened in 1973) contained roughly 1,000 tons of asbestos that was released in the 9/11 attacks, causing high rates of cancer in rescue workers.

Anyone involved in construction today will be well aware of the costs and delays that the unexpected discovery of asbestos can have.

Many developing countries still support the use of asbestos in building materials, which is why asbestos mines are still open. Asbest’s mine produces one-million tonnes a year, for example.

“Archaeologists found asbestos being used in the Stone Age to strengthen ceramic pots”

While the mines at Asbestos, near Montreal, Canada, closed in 2011, Russia remains the world’s largest asbestos producer (53%), followed by Kazakhstan (16%), China (15%), and Brazil (11.5%).

Asia consumes 70% of the asbestos produced in the world with China, India and Indonesia the largest consumers.

Mines in places such as Northern Italy, South Africa and Saten Island (New York, USA) are now closed.  

This isn’t the place to go into much more detail, or to talk about the differences between white, brown and blue asbestos, and where it’s found, but by now you’ll have gathered that there are big open holes where asbestos was mined.

The question has now arisen: Could asbestos be used to fight climate change?

Scientists are investigating the possibility of using asbestos mining waste to fight climate change. 

Researchers have determined that closed asbestos mines have the potential to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) on a global scale. 

By acting in a similar way to forests, a report suggests that asbestos can be used as a ‘carbon sink’ to absorb atmospheric CO2 and therefore may be a new method to alleviate climate change. 

Scientists are exploring ways of making use of the hazardous material’s fibrous stands to absorb CO2 from the air. 

Асбе́ст (Asbest), Russia, at the foot of the Ural Mountains, remains the world’s largest asbestos producer. The typically Soviet entrance sign translates as: ‘Asbest – My city and destiny’

A report in MIT Technology Review says: “The vast surface area of certain types of fibrous asbestos, makes them particularly good at grabbing hold of the CO2 molecules dissolved in rainwater or floating through the air.” 

Asbestos in old sites does not have to be touched to absorb carbon, so scientists can avoid unnecessary exposure to the mineral. Asbestos broken up inside disused mines does have to be removed from the site in order to capture carbon.

When naturally-occurring asbestos compounds encounter CO2, they react and form minerals called magnesites that are stable and inert. 

In a pilot project in 2019, diamond company De Beers (which once mined asbestos in South Africa) and Natural Resources Canada measured how much CO2 mining sites can potentially capture.

In one asbestos site in Vermont, USA, it was estimated that about 30m tonnes tons of waste can potentially absorb 12m tonnes of atmospheric carbon.

“Many developing countries still support the use of asbestos in building materials, which is why asbestos mines are still open. Asbest produces one-million tonnes a year, for example.”

Yet that amount is just a tiny fraction of the billions of tonnes of CO2 that must be captured to meaningfully address climate change.

Additionally, it can take years for most of the materials to react with CO2 and the cost of managing these projects would be a major hurdle to overcome.  

Most observers believe it will take aggressive public policies that put high prices on carbon pollution or create generous incentives for removing it, to pay for such schemes.

The next steps include researchers testing the material to improve the efficiency of its carbon absorption and finding suitable asbestos sites to evaluate ways of accelerating carbon uptake. 

Investigating whether these methods could clean up these areas, could also lead to a solution to remediate these toxic sites. 

Many believe that developing these methods further could lead to a climate-friendly way to make use of the mining waste in closed asbestos mines across the globe. 

And that would be a good outcome.

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