July 27, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 4Comment

The Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists mounted a nine-month investigation into the global trade on asbestos, and teamed up with the BBC’s International News Services to document the asbestos industry’s activities in Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, Russia, and the United States. What they found is deeply troubling:

Our investigation concluded that the industry has spent nearly $100 million since the mid-1980s to keep asbestos in commerce. The team’s reporting reveals close relationships among the industry, governments and scientists, and cites predictions from health experts that new epidemics of asbestos-related disease will emerge in the coming decades. Some experts believe that by 2030, asbestos will have taken as many as 10 million lives around the world.

The series – Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade – examines the trends and tolls of asbestos use in India, Brazil, the US, Russia, and Mexico. Highlights (lowlights?) from the articles include:

Exporting an Epidemic: Human Toll Reaches Millions as Asbestos Industry Expands Worldwide” by Jim Morris – Canada uses almost no asbestos, but it has assumed the role of “primary booster” of the mineral. The Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute receives funding from federal and provincial governments and from the asbestos industry, and it promotes the “controlled” use of asbestos – but protection measures are spotty in developing countries where Canadian asbestos ends up.

A Toxic Embrace: India’s Wide Use of Asbestos Brings Dire Warning” by Murali Krishnan and Shantanu Guha Ray – In India, asbestos is widely used, but asbestos products have no warning labels, and information about potential health effects is not widely circulated. A bill to ban the use and import of asbestos was introduced in 2009, but its chances of passage seem slim.

The Brockovich of Brazil: Fernanda Giannasi Fights a Potent Asbestos Industry” by
Jim Morris – Four of Brazil’s 26 states have enacted asbestos bans; Fernanda Giannasi, an inspector with Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment, is pushing for a federal ban. Meanwhile, Brazil is the world’s third largest exporter of asbestos, and its fifth largest user. The industry-funded Brazilian Chrysotile Institute promotes asbestos use across the country.

America’s Asbestos Age: A Toxic Legacy May Leave Behind a Half-Million Deaths” by Jim Morris – An industry lawsuit stopped the EPA’s attempt to ban asbestos in 1989; since 2002, Senator Patty Murray has been pushing legislation to ban it, but hasn’t yet succeeded. Use of asbestos has declined, but workers exposed in the past are still developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

The World’s Asbestos Behemoth: Vast Amounts Shipped Overseas, Used at Home” by Roman Shleynov – In 2008, three Russian mines produced more than nearly half the world supply of asbestos; Russia exports large quantities of the mineral to Asian countries, and is also a large consumer. Prime Minister Putin has promised to support Russian asbestos producers, who are finding themselves under pressure as the global anti-asbestos movement grows.

A Growing Death Toll in Mexico: Asbestos Casualties Mount Amid Weak Enforcement and a Powerful Lobby” by Ana Avila – Barrio San Lucas, a working-class neighborhood in a Mexico City suburb, is home to five preschools, seven elementary schools, and an American Rolls factory that makes asbestos brake linings. Residents have been complaining about pollution from the factory, and a man who lived 150 meters away from it died of mesothelioma at age 58.

A Ravenous Appetite for Asbestos: Top User China Faces Epidemic of Cancer” by Jim Morris and Te-Ping Chen – China is the world’s top asbestos consumer, and although it has tightened its asbestos exposure limits, evidence suggests controls in many factories are insufficient.

People raising concerns about an emerging public health threat sometimes warn that it might be “the next asbestos” — meaning, something that isn’t widely acknowledged as dangerous until it’s already in widespread use and causing extensive harm. But that suggests that the asbestos threat has come and gone. From the perspective of countries like China and India, asbestos is the next asbestos. In the US, a lot of people probably think it’s banned, but it’s still used in brake pads and roofing materials. We’re not done with asbestos, or asbestos-related diseases and deaths.

4 thoughts on “The Asbestos Toll Goes Global

  1. It’s appalling that many peoples’ lives are going to be blighted by something we know is so hazardous… and it’s galling to know it will effect the poorest the most – such terrible injustice.

  2. It’s great to see the world’s asbestos problem get so much coverage lately. There are programs like BAN – http://www.BanAsbestosNow.com – that strive to raise awareness within each country’s borders, but it’s clear we need some sort of action worldwide. Hopefully these studies and figures aren’t “hollow” and meaningful regulations actually come as a result from them.

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