Xinjiang Asbestos



On the border of Xinjiang and Qinghai in China there is a remote small hamlet called Yitunbulake. Yitunbulake is located in a remote, high-altitude (3200m) desert. There are some houses, shops, and very basic accommodation available.

The area around Yitunbulake is called “Shimiankuang” (石绵矿). Shimiankuang is a cluster of large, surface-level asbestos mines.

At the mines bulldozers push asbestos filled ore into shafts. Conveyor belts then transport the ore to stone crushers. Here the ore is crushed to a mix of raw asbestos and sand/gravel. Vibrating screens separates the crude asbestos fibers from the sand, gravel, and other residues. The dust resulting from this process is pumped straight into the environment.

The grey-white asbestos dust is everywhere. Sometimes it is just like a fog. The dust covers hair, face, and clothes.

The workers wear face masks, but sometimes you can see them remove the mask when taking a rest (or when having a smoke!). The workers typically work 12 hours a day. They live and work in the asbestos mines for a couple of years before moving on to other opportunities in China. This means that the long-term effects of asbestos exposure may not be observed in Yitunbulake.

The workers live in living quarters near by the mines. Up to 4 couples shared cubicles of around 10 square meters.

Worldwide asbestos production reached a peak of 4.8 million metric tons in 1978, before declining rapidly in the 1980s and 90s. In 2015, 2 million tons of asbestos were mined worldwide and in 2019 an estimated 1.1 tons where produced worldwide. In 2019, the Russian Federation was the largest producer with about 68% world share followed by Kazakhstan (%18) and China (11%). More than 60 countries had enacted bans by 2020.

All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials [WHO].

See also the image captions for some additional information.

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