New Study Links Asbestos Exposure and Off-Roading

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

A new study has linked asbestos exposure and off-road vehicle (ORV) use, identifying California to be at especially high risk. ORV use is a popular activity in the U.S. with about 44 million Americans engaging in it each year.

Fifteen previous studies and reports relevant to off-roading and asbestos exposure were used to investigate the relationship. Only reports and manuscripts with quantitative data regarding off-roading on unpaved road were reviewed. Speed and whether riding in a group or not were frequent determinants of measured asbestos concentrations.

Asbestos is now strictly regulated as exposure to this toxic mineral can be directly and scientifically linked to a number of lung and respiratory conditions, including mesothelioma cancer.

From 1999 to 2015, 4,295 California residents died from mesothelioma, making California the state with the highest number of mesothelioma deaths. Yuba and Siskiyou counties were ranked in the top 50 counties in the U.S. with the highest mesothelioma death rates.

Asbestos has been used throughout California’s history in its shipyards, oil industry, power plants, and mines. Bethlehem Steel, San Diego Naval Base, Long Beach Naval Base, and San Francisco Naval Base are noteworthy shipyards for their asbestos use.

Most off-road trails (about 80%) are within 20 miles of naturally occurring asbestos deposits located along the Appalachian Mountains and ranges in the West and Southwest. Nearly a third are located within one mile. Asbestos deposits can be found in 45 out of California’s 58 counties, and dust from these places can easily blow into other areas of the state.

“This puts riders—particularly children—at risk of inhalation,” stated the study’s lead author Chris Wolfe, an epidemiologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicles “have been designed to operate in rugged, unpaved terrain, and they can produce copious amounts of dust. Naturally occurring asbestos and other mineral fibers can become airborne in the dust generated while off-roading,” said Wolfe.

In 2008, these risks resulted in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issuing an emergency closure of a part of California’s Clear Creek Recreation Area because it has the biggest asbestos deposit in the country. A recent bill to reopen the site for ORV use was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, but still not the Senate.

The study’s authors suggest ongoing monitoring of those individuals who off-road near the deposits. Public health initiatives should focus on increasing awareness of the hazards and limiting the dangers when possible.