Dirt roads in California demonstrate the dangers of gravel roads that permeate the Western states and mountainous areas around the country. On April 14, 2005, California recommended that its country roads either be paved or coated in tar. This was to prevent asbestos dust from being released into the air every time a car or road grader drives over the gravel road.. The recommendation came after asbestos detectors were able to measure substantial amounts of asbestos in the air almost 200 feet from the road, even when there was no visible dust being raised. The measurements indicated levels at roadside close to those experienced by asbestos workers in mining and brake repair shops. Serpentine, the rock that is causing the problem, is California’s state rock, and is found in 44 of 48 counties. In an April 2005 news release, California studies showed a significant increase in the likelihood for developing asbestos-related cancer for any people regularly within 190 feet of the road.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans, even the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, had their own uses for asbestos. The Greeks also recognized the dangers of asbestos. They realized that slaves who worked with asbestos the most had trouble breathing properly and tended to die young. Studies done in the United States confirmed what the ancient people had known: people who worked with asbestos died younger than the general population.
The first person diagnosed with asbestosis was a young woman who had been working with asbestos since her early teens. The year was 1924. Studies in England then confirmed that 25% of the asbestos workers showed some signs of asbestos disease in their lungs. In the early 1930s legislation was passed to increase the ventilation in asbestos work areas. By the mid-1930s medical journals published articles indicating that asbestos causes cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. The dangers and the warnings were ignored as asbestos use continued to rise. It wasn’t until the 2000s that regulations were put in place to limit the amount of asbestos in gravel roads. As a result, people who drive road graders have been exposed to potentially large amounts of asbestos for many years.
When asbestos is inhaled it gets embedded in the lungs and the tissue around the lungs. It causes many health problems, but most of them don’t develop until decades after exposure, making it difficult to determine when and where the person was specifically exposed. Asbestosis and lung cancer are two of many illnesses associated with asbestos, but the most serious disease caused by asbestos is mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane surrounding the lungs and lining the chest cavity in its most common form, pleural mesothelioma, and other organs in rarer forms. The first symptom of mesothelioma is shortness of breath while exercising. The symptoms get worse and include severe chest pain as the cancer progresses. If mesothelioma is caught in the early stage, doctors are sometimes successful in preventing further growth by surgically removing the tumor and the surrounding tissue. If the asbestos cancer has already metastasized, surgery is less effective. For later stages of cancer, doctors rely on a treatment combining chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes in conjunction with surgery. Mesothelioma is highly resistant to most anti-cancer drugs currently available, although there are new drugs being developed on a regular basis. There is no cure for mesothelioma and few people live more than two years after initial diagnosis.