Asbestos Mining Continues Around the World
More than 50 countries have restricted or banned the use of asbestos since the early 1970s. Others continue to mine and consume the toxic mineral in alarming quantities.
The popularity of asbestos is currently rising in developing nations. Affordable, mass-produced building materials remain in high demand.
But the affordability of asbestos does not come without costs in human lives. Supporters say chrysotile (white) asbestos is safe when used under controlled conditions. But countless studies show all types of asbestos cause diseases, including mesothelioma.
A 2021 study compared mesothelioma mortality rates to asbestos use in several countries. It found that continued asbestos use correlated with an increase in asbestos-related illnesses.
WHO argues that the best way to end these diseases is to stop mining and using the mineral. According to reports from the U.S. Geological Survey, Russia, Brazil and China have led asbestos mining production in recent years. But, Brazil announced a ban on asbestos in 2017.
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Global Efforts to Ban Asbestos
Respected health organizations asked for a global ban on asbestos in 2010. Among them were the American Public Health Association and international organizations.
The World Health Organization has worked to end mesothelioma since 2005. In 2007, the World Health Assembly asked WHO to launch a global campaign to end asbestos-related diseases. It targets 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 set of policies and actions to prevent non-communicable diseases. This includes the diseases caused by asbestos.
WHO continues to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos-containing materials. It believes that asbestos-contaminated debris is hazardous waste.
Many countries want to add chrysotile to the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances list. The list developed from a United Nations treaty. Countries that export toxins must ensure receiving countries understand the health risks.
Five of the six types of asbestos have made the hazardous substances list. Some countries argue against scientific consensus and claim chrysotile is safe. At the 2015 Rotterdam Convention, seven nations voted against adding chrysotile. The included Cuba, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia and Zimbabwe.
Most nations voted in favor of classifying chrysotile as a hazardous substance. But, the Rotterdam requires a unanimous consensus for a vote to pass.
Worldwide Production and Use
The recent world leaders in asbestos production were Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan and India. Brazil announced a ban of asbestos in 2017.
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% of all asbestos used worldwide.
Canada’s last asbestos mines closed in 2012. The Canadian government banned asbestos in 2018.
Canada’s asbestos mining efforts started around 1850. 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.
Russia, which is the largest country in the world in terms of land mass, also leads the planet in asbestos production.
Russia’s high production numbers stem from the city Asbest, located about 900 miles northeast of Moscow. People call it “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 comes from the mine each year — roughly 20 percent of the world’s supply.
Uralasbest and Orenburg Minerals are the two largest asbestos producers in Russia. They maintain that controlled use of chrysotile asbestos is not harmful to human health.
Russia is the world’s second-largest consumer of asbestos, trailing only China. Russia has used the mineral in roofing materials, automobile brakes and insulation. The Chief Sanitary Officer of Russia labeled about 3,000 asbestos-containing products as safe.
China is one of the world’s largest producers of asbestos. The country mined more than 450,000 metric tons in 2000. This total placed it behind only Russia’s production. Since then, Chinese production has fallen a little. Its mining total fell to 400,000 metric tons in 2016.
Chinese manufacturers and builders consume large amounts of the mineral. They use it for roofing materials, walls, brake pads, gaskets and cloth. Jukka Takala is the director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. He believes the Chinese death toll from asbestos could reach 15,000 each year by 2035.
In November 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court voted to ban asbestos. It includes the production, commercialization and use of asbestos in the country.
Before the ban, Brazil was a leading consumer of the toxic mineral. Brazil was the world’s third-largest producer of asbestos in 2016, producing 311,000 metric tons. The country used 181,168 metric tons as recently as 2013, ranking it No. 4 among the world’s consumers.
In 2019, Colombia joined the growing list of countries that have imposed a complete ban on asbestos, a ruling passed unanimously in a plenary session of Congress.
The Ministry of Labor has been tasked with overseeing the transition away from the toxic mineral.
The ban includes the production, commercialization and distribution of asbestos. Industries adapted their processes to nonharmful compounds by 2021. A five-year transition period is in effect.
As of 2016, Kazakhstan was the fourth-largest producer of asbestos, mining 215,000 metric tons. Since 1965, Kostanai Minerals has mined asbestos. The source is 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 asbestos it mines, it does consume some. Houses, apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, commercial buildings, brakes and other products contain asbestos.
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 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 and activists. It condemns the use of the mineral and pushes for an immediate ban. BANI draws 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 increased. It placed workers at a higher risk of contracting mesothelioma and related diseases. By 1968, lower exposure levels reduced 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. A mesothelioma diagnosis almost always comes with a short life expectancy.
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.