Asbestos is a toxic mineral that has been banned in many Western nations but is widely used in developing countries, where it poses serious health threats to millions of people.
Asbestos has been used since ancient times because of its heat-resistant qualities. It gained widespread use in the 19th century in products such as fire-resistant building materials and insulating materials for pipes and ceilings.
Asbestos is a problem because it is easy to inhale as fibres of the material are so small they are invisible to the human eye.
People who inhale asbestos fibres can develop cause serious illnesses, including malignant mesothelioma (always fatal), lung cancer (usually fatal), and asbestosis (not always fatal but very debilitating) and diffuse pleural thickening (not fatal).
These diseases tend to affect people later in life and cigarette smokers are at much greater risk. The World Health Organization says asbestos kills nearly 100,000 people each year.
Although people can be affected by exposure in the home, there is a greater risk to people who are exposed to through their work, such as by producing asbestos, or using it to make products.
An entire Australian town called Wittenoom, which grew up around an asbestos mine, has closed and been evacuated because it is contaminated. In the United Kingdom asbestos it is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths.
As asbestos has come under greater control in developed nations, its producers have increasingly aimed at markets in developing nations.
In addition to these man-made risks, naturally occurring asbestos is also thought to be linked to mesothelioma.
Some countries, such as European Union member states and Australia have banned asbestos entirely, while others have imposed partial bans. Many safer alternatives exist – such as fiberglass, stone-wool and glass-wool as insulating materials.
However, some developing countries, including India and China, continue to use asbestos in millions of homes, factories and schools, etc. The most common use is corrugated asbestos-cement sheets or “A/C Sheets” for roofing and for side walls.
Five types of asbestos are included in the list of chemicals controlled by the Rotterdam Convention, which prevents the trans-boundary movement of hazardous chemicals without the prior informed consent of recipient countries.
However, chrysotile — the form which accounts for almost all of the world trade — is not on the list. In recent years there have been repeated attempts to include it but these have failed as Canada — a major exporter of chrysotile — and other governments have blocked the consensus needed to get it listed.
Don’t assume that something is asbestos just because it looks like it.
Asbestos is only a risk when its fibres are airborne – but they can become airborne when people handle the material and, especially, if there is a fire or demolition work.
Check whether national planning or building laws permit or restrict the use of asbestos, and where the burden of responsibility for upholding any safety rules lies.
Find out if there have been any legal cases involving asbestos, such as claims for compensation for injury, or to punish people who use asbestos illegally.
Find out where asbestos comes from. Is it produced in your country or exported from another nation? Some countries ban the sale asbestos, yet allow companies there to export it to developing nations where legislation is weak.
Check the Rotterdam Convention website for details of your country’s status and contact details for the designated national authority.
CASE STUDIES – Long term reporting on asbestos
In Australia, an investigative journalist called Matt Peacock has spent 30 years reporting on asbestos and human health. This page describes his findings and has an audio interview.
South African journalist Ronnie Morris, also spent years reporting on communities and workers whose health was harmed by asbestos exposure.
Awarding-winning US journalist Andrew Scheider’s ColdTruth.com website includes many stories on asbestos.
UK Health and Safety Executive: Asbestos
World Health Organization: Elimination of asbestos-related diseases
European Trade Union Institute: Special Report – Asbestos in the world [PDF]
International Ban Asbestos Secretariat