The name of this drab, dirty city tells the whole story.
Asbestos, strictly controlled as a health hazard in the United States and other Western countries, is scooped out of a sprawling open-pit mine in this Russian city, then processed at three run-down, dust-belching plants where many of the city’s 110,000 residents work.
Uncovered freight cars brimming with asbestos powder make their way slowly through town day after day, the breeze whipping up gritty, noxious clouds that waft over pedestrians and bike riders.
And whenever the cash-starved asbestos factories flick off their filters and other health-protection devices to save money on electricity, local parks, playgrounds and youth soccer fields soon are covered with a frightening gray film.
As serious as their health problems are, the residents of Asbestos actually are better off than many of their neighbors in other parts of the Ural Mountains region, where radiation and chemical pollution are out of control.
“Several areas here are considered ecological disaster zones,” said Favel Kogan, a senior scientist at the Ural Medical Research Center, which specializes in occupational health concerns. “That’s why, for example, cancer rates in Asbestos are a lot lower than in some other nearby locales.
“Asbestos is an aggressive substance, of course, and can be oncologically dangerous. But there are many other metals and chemicals that are even more menacing, and these are also found in the Urals.”
This macabre paradox - that a city so exposed to asbestos can actually be a relatively safe place to live - sums up the terrifying ecological legacy of this country’s former communist regime, hellbent for so many decades on rapid development.
It also helps explain why Russia’s horrific health crisis, which has already caused life expectancy to plunge lower than in any other developed country, has failed to spur officials into action and stirred remarkably little alarm among the public.
With the economy in such bad shape, Russian officials are loath to crack down on industrial polluters for fear of driving the country deeper into depression.
And even if the government wanted to take a more activist stance, the problem is so complicated and pervasive that just figuring out where to begin would be a mind-boggling challenge.
Most Russians, like most residents of Asbestos, are either unaware of how bad things have gotten or see no point in worrying about the inevitable.
“With life-threatening things all around you, you know you’re going to die before your time from something, so it’s hard to give a damn,” explained the editor in chief of the new Environmental and Health Atlas of Russia, Murray Feshbach of Georgetown University.
That is certainly the case with Alexei Grishagin, a 26-year-old teamster born and raised in Asbestos. He has heard that prolonged exposure to asbestos causes lung cancer and other potentially fatal ailments but says the danger has been greatly exaggerated by alarmists in the West.
“We live chocolate lives here, truly sweet lives,” he insisted. “I’m not afraid of asbestos, and nobody I know is afraid of it. We have people here who live to be 80 or 90, so how bad off can we be?”
Grishagin, who worked at an asbestos plant for several years before cutbacks cost him his job, said he would return to work there in a flash if business picked up.
In fact, city residents are so caught up in their economic woes that they have little concern to spare for potential health hazards, according to Tatyana Shreder, managing editor of the Asbestos Worker, a local newspaper.
Each week, the paper asks its readers to call in and state their major concerns at the moment.
At week’s end, it runs a long article on the issue most often raised.
“I can’t remember a single call about the ecology,” Shreder said. “And health questions tend to be very routine, like what to do when a virus breaks out here. Sure, we know that asbestos is harmful, but it’s only one of many harmful products that modern people just have to live with.”