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Originally published July 13, 2013 at 3:59 PM | Page modified July 13, 2013 at 5:51 PM

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Russian city’s anthem: ‘Asbestos, my city and my fate’

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: It’s the center of Russia’s asbestos industry.

The New York Times

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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. “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” said Tamara 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, 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,” said Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver. “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 strange 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.

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.

The Russian Chrysotile Association, an asbestos industry-trade group, reports that annual sales of asbestos 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.

Valentin 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,” Zemskov 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?”

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