Asbestos is recognized as the primary cause of malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that grows on the membranes surrounding the lungs or lining the abdomen.
Because of its connection to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other chronic conditions, asbestos has been banned in 55 countries and is highly regulated in many others (including the US).
But an article in the Annals of Italy’s Institute of Health suggests that tens of thousands of people who work with a mineral called feldspar may be unknowingly exposed to mesothelioma-causing asbestos without the protections they need to keep from getting sick.
Asbestos Contamination at Feldspar Sites
Feldspar refers to a group of minerals that make up as much as 60 percent of the earth’s crust.
Over 21 million tons of feldspar is mined and marketed around the world to make glass and ceramic items such as tile, pottery, and sinks. It’s also used as a filler in some paints, plastics and rubber.
According to Fulvio Cavariani of Italy’s Central Regional Asbestos Center, although feldspar itself has never been connected with mesothelioma, a “significant presence” of amphibole asbestos fibers has been found in mineral powders made from the milling of feldspar rocks extracted from a Sardinian mine.
New Set of Workers at Risk for Mesothelioma?
The contamination of feldspar with asbestos raises questions about the safety of thousands of workers routinely exposed to feldspar dust.
To prevent mesothelioma, people who work with asbestos, such as those involved in asbestos abatement, have to wear protective gear, including special negative pressure respirators. But feldspar workers are not routinely given the same kind of protection.
“Until now, the presence of tremolite asbestos in feldspar has not been described, nor has the possibility of such a health hazard for workers involved in mining, milling, and handling of rocks from feldspar ores been appreciated,” observes Cavariani.
Minimizing the Mesothelioma Threat
In light of this newfound potential connection between feldspar handling and mesothelioma risk, Cavariani’s article encourages better education about the problem, especially among mineralogists and industrial hygienists.
“In fact,” Cavariani concludes, “both disciplines are necessary to plan appropriate environmental controls and adequate protections in order to achieve safe working conditions.”
People who work in – or have ever worked in – an industry that could put them in contact with asbestos should be aware of the symptoms of mesothelioma, which can occur 10 to 40 years after exposure.
Cavariani, Fulvio, “Asbestos contamination in feldspar extraction sites: a failure of prevention?”, Jan-Mar 2016, Annali del Instituto Superiore di Sanita, pp. 6 – 8