Asbestos Found in Lungs of Half the Thailand Population

Asbestos Exposure & Bans
Crowded market in Bangkok, Thailand

Almost 50% of the general population in Thailand will die with at least traces of asbestos fibers in their lungs, based on one recent study.

Asbestos fibers were discovered in the lungs of 48.5% of those who were part of a one-year, post-mortem analysis done by the Department of Pathology at Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University in Bangkok.

The toxic mineral was found during 97 of the 200 autopsies that were performed at the hospital without regard to occupation, age, sex or cause of death.

A two-year-old infant, who died of congenital heart disease, was the youngest to have asbestos identified in the lungs.

“The prevalence [of asbestos] is increasing compared to our past study in Thailand,” Dr. Pimpin Incharoen, who co-authored the study, told The Mesothelioma Center at “Yes, [the percentage] was surprising.”

Asbestos Use in Thailand Remains High

A similar study in Thailand in 1985 identified 33% of the general population with asbestos in lung tissue. The percentages in other industrialized countries, using similar post-mortem measurements, varied widely in the past.

The most recent comparative study was done in Italy, where asbestos was found in 16.4% percent of those tested.

Thailand has been one of the world’s largest importers and users of asbestos for several decades, trailing only Russia, China, India and Kazakhstan in annual consumption.

Thailand keeps no standardized, nationwide database to effectively track asbestos-related disease.

Only a few cases of mesothelioma, which is caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure, are reported each year.

Thailand did finalize a partial ban on certain types of asbestos in 2001, following numerous worldwide studies documenting the relationship between the toxic mineral and respiratory diseases.

Thailand, though, still uses vast amounts of chrysotile asbestos for industrial purposes. Much of it is used to produce asbestos cement, roofing and other building materials, along with automobile brakes and clutch pads.

According to the study, Thailand has used an estimated 60,000 to 180,000 metric tons of asbestos annually through the past 30 years.

The United States, by comparison, imported 750 metric tons of asbestos in 2018. All of it went to the chlor-alkali industry to help make chlorine.

Thailand’s population is one-fifth of that in the U.S.

No Amount of Asbestos Is Safe

Although many among the 48.5% had only small amounts of asbestos in the lungs, the World Health Organization contends that no amount of asbestos inhalation is considered safe.

Occupational asbestos exposure is responsible for the vast majority of asbestos-related diseases, particularly mesothelioma.

Even in an occupational setting, though, only a small percentage of those exposed to asbestos develop serious health issues.

More than 60 countries have opted for a complete ban of asbestos.

“We want people to know that asbestos will remain in the human lung for a long period of time,” Incharoen said. “And we’ve seen mesothelioma in people who are not exposed to high levels of asbestos.”

Among the occupations of those found with asbestos in their lungs included housewives, students, government officers, police officers, salesmen and stewards.

Only 4.5% of the deaths were attributed to respiratory failure and 5.5% were tumor-related, according to the cause of death listings in the study. Others included drowning, drug abuse, epilepsy, homicide, liver failure and hanging.

None listed mesothelioma.

The study showed small amounts of asbestos do not automatically lead to serious health issues, but it also illustrated that nonoccupational exposure and inhalation of asbestos can happen to almost anyone.

“The banning of asbestos in our country is not possible now due to the cost effectiveness of substitute material,” Incharoen said. “But the risk of asbestos disease will not decrease if all asbestos containing products are not totally replaced. Finding an asbestos substitute material is important.”

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