The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 125 million people around the world are exposed annually to asbestos in the workplace, and the International Labour Organization says more than 107,000 workers die each year from a related disease. In addition, several thousand people die from asbestos in the environment each year.
Despite the fact that health concerns have prompted more than 50 countries to restrict or ban the use of asbestos since the early 1970s, others continue to mine and consume the toxic mineral in alarming quantities. Supported for decades by aggressive industry campaigns, the popularity of asbestos is currently rising in developing nations where affordable, mass-produced building materials are in high demand.
Pro-asbestos lobby groups have spent nearly $100 million in public and private funds since the mid-1980s to keep the industry alive in Canada, Brazil and India.
But the affordability of asbestos does not come without costs — namely in human lives. Although supporters contest the toxicity of chrysotile (white) asbestos when used under controlled conditions, countless studies have linked exposure of any type or dose to an increased risk for asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma.
WHO argues that the best way to eliminate these diseases is to stop mining and using the mineral.
In 2013, Russia led the world in asbestos exports by a massive margin. The nation shipped off 618,037 metric tons of the toxic mineral, more than the next four leading countries combined. While China and India exported significantly less asbestos than Russia, Kazakhstan and Brazil, in 2013 these countries were the two largest asbestos importers.
India led the world in asbestos imports in 2013, with China and Indonesia not far behind. Despite the availability of similar and far less dangerous substitutes for asbestos, these five nations welcomed a combined total of nearly 750,000 metric tons of the toxic substance into their borders in 2013 alone.
According to United Nations data, Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan mined the bulk of the world’s asbestos supply in 2013. Rates of asbestos-related disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, are highest among in industries that handle asbestos directly. Most sources cite mining as the most dangerous of all asbestos-related occupations.
In 2013, the top consumers of asbestos were developing nations and newly industrialized countries in need of affordable building supplies, including China, Russia, India, Brazil and Indonesia. While 55 nations have banned asbestos completely, its use continues in the developing world, where knowledge of its health risks and safe work practices are far too scarce.
In 2010, more than 60 nations reported statistics on the number of mesothelioma deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO), but experts warn these figures may not be completely accurate. In 2005, one study estimated as many as 43,000 people worldwide die from this aggressive cancer each year. Despite signs of an increased incidence of mesothelioma in a wide range of countries, fewer than 15,000 deaths were reported to WHO in 2010. Many nations do not document mesothelioma deaths, and one commonly cited article on the global burden of mesothelioma estimates one case may be overlooked for every four to five recorded.
As of January 2014, 55 nations have banned asbestos, with an additional 16 nations placing restrictions on its use. Although all 28 countries of the European Union have banned the use of asbestos, the toxic mineral remains legal in the U.S. and Canada.
The American Public Health Association joined the call of at least three major international health organizations in asking for a global ban on asbestos use in 2010. The World Federation of Public Health Organizations, the International Commission on Occupational Health and the International Trade Union Confederation earlier recommended such a ban.
Since 2005, the World Health Organization has urged its members to work toward eliminating mesothelioma and other cancers caused by avoidable exposures to carcinogens at work and in the environment. In 2007, the World Health Assembly asked WHO to launch a global campaign to eliminate asbestos-related disease, primarily by targeting countries that still use chrysotile asbestos.
At the 66th World Health Assembly in 2013, WHO presented a global action plan for 2013 to 2020. It described a comprehensive set of policies and actions to help the organization’s 190 nations and member states prevent and control noncommunicable diseases, including those caused by asbestos.
WHO aims to completely eliminate asbestos-related diseases through a number of important steps:
End the worldwide use of all types of asbestos
Help countries replace asbestos materials with safer substitutes
Improve early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related conditions
Create registries of people who have been exposed to asbestos and offer medical surveillance
In addition, WHO will continue to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos-containing materials and inform its members that asbestos-contaminated debris should be treated as hazardous waste.
Get help accessing trust funds and other forms of compensation available to mesothelioma victims.
Hoping to minimize the harmful effects of asbestos worldwide, many countries have voted to add chrysotile asbestos to the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances list. This United Nations treaty requires countries that export any substances on the list to ensure receiving countries are fully informed of their health risks.
Five of the six types of asbestos have made the hazardous substances list, but some countries argue against scientific consensus and claim chrysotile can be used safely. At the 2015 Rotterdam Convention, held in Geneva, Switzerland, seven nations voted against adding chrysotile to the list: Cuba, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia and Zimbabwe.
Despite an overwhelming majority of nations voting in favor of classifying chrysotile as a hazardous substance, the Rotterdam requires a unanimous consensus for a vote to pass.
According to Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, authors of Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival, “Asbestos is still mined and used in the developing world, where the problems that were experienced in America and Europe in the 20th century are now being duplicated in China, Russia, India and other countries in the Far East.”
The world leaders in asbestos production for 2013 include Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan and India. With their massive exports, these and other nations are threatening millions of lives in the developing world.
China, the world's leading asbestos consumer, used 570,006 metric tons of it in 2013. That's about 765 times the amount consumed by the U.S. that year. Although China has yet to match the incidence of related diseases experienced in Europe and the U.S., researchers expect the gap to soon close. This is because consumption in China remained low well into the 1970s.
The world's second largest asbestos consumer is Russia. Although the country banned only the amphibole type of asbestos in 1999, today it supplies 60 to 75 percent of all asbestos used worldwide.
Canada's asbestos mining efforts started around 1850 when chrysotile deposits were discovered in Thetford. By 1876, approximately 50 metric tons of asbestos were being mined in Quebec. By the 1950s, the annual mining haul was more than 900,000 metric tons.
In early 2011, the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec, received scrutiny after the Canadian government proposed a $58 million grant to reopen the mine. Because private investors failed to raise $25 million by the July 1, 2011, deadline to purchase the mine, the grant from the Quebec government has been delayed for an unknown amount of time. This delay is intended to give investors more time to raise funds.
As recently as June 2011, Canada again decided not to support adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous substances in the Rotterdam Convention. That year, Canada was the only G8 country that did not vote to include asbestos in the treaty. In 2013, Russia, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Ukraine all opposed the listing, while Canada remained neutral for the first time.
Despite its hard-line position, Canada actually uses very little asbestos. It exports 96 percent of the mined mineral to Asian countries.
Russia, which is the largest country in the world in terms of land mass, also leads the planet in asbestos production. In 2000, production reached approximately 700,000 metric tons, much more than Canada and China. In 2008, mining in Russia produced more than 1 million metric tons of asbestos. In 2013, the country produced 1,050,000 metric tons.
Russia's high production numbers stem from the city Asbest, located about 900 miles northeast of Moscow. Once known as “the dying city” because of its high rates of mesothelioma and related diseases, Asbest is home to a mine that measures seven miles long, one-and-a-half-miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep. The company operating the mine is Uralasbest, the world’s largest producer of chrysotile asbestos.
About 500,000 metric tons of asbestos is gathered from the mine each year — roughly 20 percent of the world’s supply.
Uralasbest and Orenburg Minerals, the two largest asbestos producers in Russia, maintain that controlled use of chrysotile asbestos is not harmful to human health.
Unlike Canada, Russia has remained a large user of asbestos. It is the world's second-largest consumer, trailing only China. Russia has widely used the mineral in roofing materials, automobile brakes and insulation. About 3,000 asbestos-containing products have been labeled as safe by the Chief Sanitary Officer of Russia.
China is one of the world's largest producers of asbestos. The country mined more than 450,000 metric tons in 2000, a total that placed it behind only Russia in terms of production. Since, Chinese production has fallen slightly. Its mining total fell to 420,000 metric tons in 2013.
Chinese manufacturers and builders consume large amounts of the mineral, using it for roofing materials, walls, brake pads, gaskets and cloth. Jukka Takala, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, believes the annual Chinese death toll from mesothelioma and related diseases could reach 15,000 by 2035.
While data on the incidence on mesothelioma in China is not available, the number of cancer registries in the country has increased in recent years. In 2011, however, researchers estimated the registries only covered 13 percent of the population.
At the 2009 Asian Asbestos Conference, a “Hong Kong Declaration towards a Complete Ban on all forms of Asbestos” and asbestos processing was recommended. The declaration asked for asbestos use to be phased out and recognized the need of assistance for those suffering from related diseases.
Brazil is the world's third-largest producer of asbestos, producing 307,000 metric tons in 2013. It is also the third-largest exporter, shipping primarily to Asia, Mexico and Colombia. Although exporting brings in a significant amount of revenue for exporters, Brazil keeps a large share of the mineral within its borders. The country used 181,168 metric tons as recently as 2013, ranking it No. 4 among the world's consumers.
There are 11 Brazilian companies that continue to mine asbestos and produce products with it, including SAMA and Eternit S.A. The production generates about $1.3 billion annually for the country's economy. While these companies employ nearly 3,500 people, the industry claims that mining the toxic substance creates about 200,000 jobs.
Estimates predict the rate of mesothelioma and related deaths will continue rising in Brazil's future. Dr. Ubiratan de Paula Santos, a pulmonologist at the University of São Paulo Medical School, treats about 20 mesothelioma cases a year, and he says that number is slowly climbing. The majority of his patients are current or former asbestos plant workers.
As of 2013, Kazakhstan was the fourth-largest producer and consumer of asbestos, mining 242,000 metric tons of it. Since 1965, Kostanai Minerals has mined asbestos from Djetygarinskoe, one of the five largest asbestos deposits in the world. Located in northern Kazakhstan, it holds 37 million tons of asbestos.
While Kazakhstan exports most of the mineral it mines, it does consume some. Houses, apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, commercial buildings, brakes and other products are manufactured with contaminated products. Recent developments, however, may turn this trend.
In 2009, 75 participants of a conference on the use of chrysotile asbestos and its health effects recommended the Kazakh government support a national program to eliminate asbestos-related diseases. Since the conference, the first of its kind in Kazakhstan, other seminars on the side effects of the mineral have pushed the notion that Kazakh citizens are ill-informed about these materials. Those leading the seminars say there is now stronger public participation in monitoring existing asbestos regulations.
The second-most populous country with more than 1.2 billion people, India's extensive use of asbestos will likely have a significant impact on the future health of the country's population. Experts predict a pattern similar to what developed in the United States over the past 50 years: A dramatic rise in the number of related diseases.
India no longer mines asbestos, but it is the top importer of Canadian asbestos. About 20 years ago, India handled 500,000 metric tons of asbestos cement roofing. Today, that number is closer to 4 million metric tons.
India changed its long-held stance and voted to add the mineral to the hazardous list at the 2011 Rotterdam Convention.
The Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) is a group of scientists, doctors, public health researchers, trade unions, activists and civil society groups that condemn the use of the mineral and push for an immediate ban. BANI has been successful in drawing attention to the hazards and toxic effects of exposure.
The United Kingdom in 1931 introduced the Asbestos Industry Regulations. At the time, the regulations determined the “safe” level of exposure. In 1960, the legal exposure limit was increased, placing workers at a higher risk of contracting mesothelioma and related diseases. By 1968, the standards for exposure levels were lowered to reduce the risk of disease.
England, though, is paying for years of higher exposure. The annual number of mesothelioma deaths has increased over the years, from 153 in 1968 to 2,360 in 2010. The total number of deaths decreased to 2,291 in 2011. The U.K. has prohibited the trade, application and supply of crocidolite and amosite asbestos since the 1980s. Chrysotile asbestos was prohibited in 1999.
Australia has a long history of asbestos production and use, although its heavy-use years are long gone. Its peak year was 1975, when the country used about 70,000 metric tons. But years of overuse impacted the long-term health of Australian citizens: There were 156 deaths related to mesothelioma in 1982, and the number increased to 666 by 2009. It is estimated that 18,000 Australians will have died from mesothelioma by 2020.
Perhaps no place in the world shows the toxicity of asbestos better than the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia. Mining began there in 1939, and eventually the predominant asbestos was crocidolite, replacing the less-toxic chrysotile asbestos. Multiple health reports indicate that exposure to crocidolite (blue) asbestos leads to an increase in the development of related diseases.
Because of Wittenoom's long history of mining and the exposure that occurred as a result of that history, Western Australia has the highest rate of mesothelioma and related diseases in the world. The mine was shut down in 1966 because of low profits and rising concerns over disease.
In 2006, officials stopped providing electricity to Wittenoom, and they stopped mail delivery the following year. Plans to remediate the highest risk sites are underway.
South Africa began mining asbestos around 1883 after a crocidolite mine was established in the Northern Cape region in Koegas. The country developed into a major producer of crocidolite, supplying Australia and the United Kingdom with the heat-resistant mineral for many years.
South Africa's mining of asbestos peaked in 1977 at 380,000 metric tons, making it the third-largest supplier in the world. But within a decade, the Northern Cape mines were closed because of the health risks involved and a growing concern over litigation.
Because the health effects of asbestos exposure were largely hidden by the mining industry, there was little public awareness of mesothelioma and related diseases until the late 1970s. Following the lead of the Northern Cape mines, several other mines in South Africa also closed, and residents of Prieska formed Concerned People Against Asbestos (CPAA), which focuses on improving access to compensation for citizens battling related diseases.
In addition to the lives lost to mesothelioma and other diseases, rampant asbestos use can cause harmful economic effects as well. For decades after the end of asbestos use, a country's economy will be left with the burden of compensating victims and paying for their health care.
Even with the mineral banned in the European Union and severely limited in the United States, research suggests that mesothelioma will cost the U.S. up to $200 billion and Europe up to $80 billion over the next 40 years. From the early 1970s to 2002, more than 730,000 asbestos claims were filed in the U.S., costing the industry approximately $70 billion.Learn More about Legal Options for Patients
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