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Looming Epidemic: Deadly Asbestos

July 23, 2010

An epidemic is looming in countries like India, China, Mexico, Brazil and Russia where asbestos, the deadly white fiber,  is being abundantly used for construction purposes. 52 countries, mostly European Union countries, have already banned the usage of asbestos or restricted it’s usage. Asbestos is commercial name given to a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals which comes in many types- blue, brown, white etc. While blue and brown asbestos have been universally banned, white asbestos or chrysotile is still being extracted and used. It’s mostly used in construction and heat resistant applications, but owing to serious health hazards caused by the asbestos fiber, most of the countries have banned it. Asbestos can cause various kinds of diseases including lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis etc to name few and is considered a serious health hazard.

But the story is completely different in India, China and Mexico, where the demand and use of asbestos is all time high. Sadly, India is second largest consumption market for asbestos after China and it’s demand has risen by 83% since 2004. It’s not like people are not aware of the harmful effects of the fiber, but since it’s much cheaper than other alternatives, it’s being extensively used for construction purposes. Profit making at the risk of public health, that’s what is going on. Powerful lobbying is another reason for continued use of asbestos in developing countries. Asbestos lobbying is even being  compared similar to powerful tobacco lobbying which was well coordinated and even used bogus scientific results to bolster their claims. Same pattern is seen here as well. There is well coordinated efforts by the asbestos industry and lobbying centers exist in different parts of the the world, especially in India, China and Mexico to strengthen asbestos lobbying and build it’s PR with the government and businesses of these countries. Canada has emerged as the the 5th  largest exporter of asbestos and promoter of asbestos trade; half of it’s export goes to India. Interestingly, Canada doesn’t allow use of the deadly fiber within it’s own territory.

No country has defended chrysotile as vigorously, and for as long, as Canada. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule banning asbestos in 1989, the government of Canada participated in an industry lawsuit that overturned the rule. When France banned asbestos a decade later, Canada teamed up with Brazil in an unsuccessful World Trade Organization challenge. And when a United Nations chemical review committee recommended in 2008 that chrysotile be listed under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention — a treaty that requires exporters of hazardous substances to use clear labeling and warn importers of any restrictions or bans — Canada, India, and a few other nations kept the recommendation from winning the unanimous support it needed to pass. []

In the pictures below you can see world’s largest exporters and consumers of asbestos. Also you can see the countries which have completely banned asbestos marked in red.

Despite all damning evidences and scientific studies about harmful effects of asbestos, the asbestos trade is booming and so are asbestos related health issues. India and China are going to be worst hit with this health disaster which is in the making.

Researchers in India have estimated that deaths from asbestos-related cancers could reach one million in developing nations by 2020, while an Australian researcher has predicted five to 10 million deaths from cancers caused by asbestos exposure by 2030.Finnish researchers estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people will die in China each year by 2035 of asbestos-related ailments. Currently, the death toll from asbestos-related diseases is estimated by the International Labor Organization to be 100,000 worldwide. [AFP]

All the above mentioned facts and statistics are based on a 9-month study conducted on asbestos industry by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and BBC and was published this week. I hope this leads to some positive actions by governments of concerned countries to look deeper into the issue and hopefully ban this deadly fiber. You can read the whole report and findings in detail here. Kudos to journalist Steve Bradshaw and Jim Morris for bringing into light this under-reported topic. For further detailed read on this topic visit following links:

  1. Dangers in the Dust— Public
  2. Inside the global asbestos trade — BBC
  3. Bradshaw interview
  4. CDC NIOSH asbestos page

Picture credit: BBC,  ICIJ,

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