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Report Finds 22 Asbestos Sites in Maryland

Jul 31, 2005 | AP

A recent report finds that 22 places in Maryland, including former mines and quarries, may contain naturally occurring asbestos, a carcinogen that can also cause fatal lung disease.

Federal geologists identified a total of 324 locations in 15 East Coast states, according to the report by the United States Geological Survey.

Asbestos has long been identified as a possible workplace hazard. But there's evidence that former mines, inactive quarries and ground containing asbestos might be hazardous if rocks and soil are disturbed.

The Maryland sites aren't a danger to the people living near them, says Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment. But McIntire said the agency doesn't examine the sites.

"Maryland does know where the naturally occurring sites are, but they are not monitored, as the material poses no health or safety threat as it is trapped in the rock formation," McIntire said. "As long as the rock is not hammered, crushed, mined, broken down, etc., it poses no threat."

But federal geologists and physicians said state and local agencies should inspect the sites for risk of exposure.

Naturally occurring asbestos isn't a health risk if it's not disturbed, says the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry. But potentially dangerous fibers can be released into the air by "weather processes" and activities including working in the yard, or running, hiking or bicycling on unpaved surfaces where asbestos is present.

The risk from naturally occurring asbestos is mostly unknown. There are no federal regulations dealing with it. Little research has been done on the risk until recently.

The Maryland sites are spread from Harford County in the north to Montgomery County in the south, with the largest number in and around Baltimore County.

Maryland has only one actively worked quarry. The Rockville Crushed Stone Co. quarry in Montgomery County is regulated by the state, McIntire said, and watched by the county.

The report was based on historical documents, mining reports and records listing mines and quarries, asbestos sites identified by prospectors but not rich enough to mine and other occurrences of asbestos sightings going back to the 1800s.

Tom Sinks, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said the USGS report "tells us where asbestos has been found in the past. It does not tell us if asbestos is still present in these locations or if people are being exposed to asbestos fibers at these sites.

The number of potentially hazardous sites in the 15 states surveyed range from a low of one in Connecticut to 28 in Virginia, 37 in New Jersey, 41 in Pennsylvania and 52 in Georgia.

"Families will want to know what level of risk this asbestos exposure poses when compared to death by swimming pool drowning or auto accident," said Dr. Michael Harbut, one of the nation's leading authorities on asbestos disease. "These are gruesome but necessary questions because the potential impact of this study could be quite socially and economically disruptive."

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