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City in Russia unable to kick asbestos habit

ASBEST, Russia — This city of about 70,000 people on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains is a pleasant enough place to live except for one big drawback: When the wind picks up, clouds of carcinogenic dust blow through.

Asbest means asbestos in Russian, and it is everywhere here. Residents describe layers of it collecting on living room floors. Before they take in the laundry from backyard lines, they first shake out the asbestos.

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“When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” said Tamara A. Biserova, a retiree. So much dust blows against her windows, she said, that “before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.”

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. Laws proscribe its use and its disposal and workers who do get near it wear ventilators and protective clothes.

The European Union and Japan have banned asbestos because its fibers cause lung cancer and other respiratory ailments. (A town called Asbestos in Quebec 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.

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“Every normal person is trying to get out of here,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver, said. “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 the residents call “the white needles.”

Residents also describe skin ailments. Doctors interviewed at a dermatology ward in town 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. It said no additional research was needed to determine that the dust is harmful. “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. 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 that a few years ago the mayor’s office and the company relocated residents from one outlying neighborhood 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.

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 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. “We need to keep it open so we have jobs.”

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