Asbestos: How it endangers human health and why a worldwide ban is needed
According the World Health Organization, about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos at the workplace, resulting in roughly 107,000 occupational exposure deaths annually.
The numbers are staggering and hide the fact that mesothelioma, caused by asbestos exposure, is one of the world’s leading occupational cancers and is likely to stay that way in the near future.
Iceland was the first country to ban all uses of asbestos in 1983, and since then more than 60 countries have also taken action, preventing new applications and uses of the mineral. In the face of a slowly growing worldwide movement, there is a growing divide between countries still using the mineral and those that are not.
Asbestos is a silicate mineral known for its high tolerance to heat and tensile strength. Although people have been mining the mineral for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the industrial boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s that asbestos use soared. In the years since, the mineral has been added to building materials and consumer goods that may come into contact with high heat.
But asbestos poses a variety of health burdens that countries are still dealing with today, despite some having bans in place for two decades or more. While prohibiting the mineral’s application has prevented future uses, it doesn’t do much of anything to address the millions of tons of asbestos still housed in building materials and other products around the world. It’s likely that the industrialized world still hasn’t seen a peak in cases, mainly due to the disease’s 10-50 year latency period.
Despite calls from asbestos producers that it be can mined and used safely and responsibly, their actions and words don’t address the underlying fact that mesothelioma is still a problem for the general public and for those working with the mineral. In the United States alone, where asbestos use has fallen to only about 300 tons in 2017, there are still an estimated 2,400 to 2,800 people who will be diagnosed with mesothelioma annually.
For countries still mining, producing and importing the mineral, the costs could be even more catastrophic. Russia, China, and Kazakhstan produced more than one million tons of asbestos in 2017, while other countries like China and India have increased imports due to the need for more infrastructure and buildings. These countries also tend to keep poor mesothelioma registries and may underreport the number of case they diagnose each year, providing inaccurate and incomplete data. While mesothelioma incidences are expected to peak before the year 2030 in developed countries, others still producing and using the mineral will see cases continue for much longer.
Sweden was one of the first countries to ban the use of asbestos in 1983, and as a result has seen mesothelioma rates decrease over time. The problem is that although the developed world has taken steps to limit the mineral’s use or discontinue it altogether, developing countries are relying on it in greater amounts to bolster their emerging infrastructure.
In the United Kingdom, where asbestos has been banned since 1999, the Health and Safety Executive cited more than 2,500 mesothelioma deaths in 2015. The number is expected to hold steady for several more years before dropping near the year 2030.
Last year, signatories for the Rotterdam Convention came together to discuss the future of chrysotile asbestos, the only form of asbestos not currently banned by the treaty. Although a resounding majority of countries involved with the treaty agreed to a full ban, several holdouts, including Russia and India vetoed the measure. Even with resounding support, a single veto is all it takes to derail a measure. The result is that producers and users alike will continue exposing workers and the general public to a known carcinogen, eventually leading to a disease for which there is no known cure.
Sustainable Development Goal 3 seeks to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” and target 3.9 looks to “by 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.”
An effective worldwide ban on asbestos would do a lot to achieve that goal.
There is no denying the fact that asbestos exposure isn’t good for human health, and we’ve known about the health risks it poses for decades, but with so many viable alternatives entering the market in recent years there is no real need to rely on it today. More countries are walking away from its use, including Canada, which has promised a full ban this year, and Brazil, which issued a full ban of its own late last year, removing two producers from the global market.
Sustainable Development Goal 3 seeks to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” and target 3.9 looks to “by 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination.” An effective worldwide ban on asbestos would do a lot to achieve that goal.
There is a global need for some kind of action to protect our own well-being and the lives of future generations. Mesothelioma is likely to remain a leading cause of occupational cancer in the near future, but even if new applications of asbestos are prohibited the world will still have to contend with the countless tons of the mineral already in use. Although it’s unlikely a global ban of the mineral’s use will have an immediate impact on asbestos-related disease rates, as we move into the future the results will come into focus. Early adopters like Sweden are already seeing declines, and other countries are expected to see similar results in the coming years.
There are cost-effective alternatives on the market today having many of the same attributes as asbestos but are much safer to handle. The hope is that as more countries take action, pressure will mount on other developed and developing nations to do the right thing and be mindful of the dangers exposure causes. While it’s impossible to prevent all asbestos exposure in the environment, we can all take steps to drastically reduce the number of people dying from this rare and debilitating disease.
This is a guest article from the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance—a trusted information resource for individuals who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and for their families.