Global Asbestos Trade Flourishes Amid Health Concerns

Asbestos related fatalities in the UK have been rising for a number of years, although the death rate is expected to reach a peak in the near future before dropping markedly on previous years. According to the Health and Safety Executive, in 2007, 2,156 deaths were caused by mesothelioma – a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal lining that is almost exclusively associated with asbestos – and an untold number of related lung cancers also resulted in fatalities (asbestos related lung cancer is virtually indistinguishable from other types of lung cancer but can be identified by the presence of asbestos fibres on the lungs). Asbestosis and pleural plaques also lie at the heart of many personal injury claims brought by sufferers. Although asbestos was outlawed in the UK in 1999 and some 50 or so other countries have banned the material, the global asbestos trade is thought to be flourishing.

China, India, Russia, Brazil and, perhaps surprisingly, Canada, all mine and distribute asbestos on a large scale. Following a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), it has been revealed that asbestos – chiefly white asbestos or chrysotile – remains a multi-million dollar industry that spans four continents. The ICIJ report claims that more than one million metric tons of asbestos was produced, consumed and exported by Russia in 2008. During the same year, Canada produced nearly 200,000 metric tons. In 2007, China had mined, distributed or used in excess of 600,000 metric tons of asbestos, whilst Kazakhstan also produces a large quantity of the material.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 125 million people encounter white asbestos in the workplace and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that approximately 100,000 workers die from asbestos related diseases each year. These shocking figures correlate with those revealed by the ICIJ report, which has implications for the whole world and not merely those nations that are directly exposed to asbestos. Although banned in the UK for over a decade, asbestos continues to pose a significant hazard for construction workers and people who live in older properties. In fact, according to the TUC, which is one of Britain’s most popular trade unions, asbestos is the country’s biggest industrial killers, accounting for as many as 10,000 deaths in the UK each year. The TUC also claims that up to six million tonnes of asbestos could exist in schools, offices and residential properties across Britain.

People in the UK may also be surprised to learn that white asbestos is still used legally in the United States; indeed, the US continues to use chrysotile products in the automobile and aviation industries. The US, however, has endured an estimated $70 billion worth of personal injury claims relating to the use of asbestos, so the material is not as widely used today as it once had been. Notions that white asbestos is significantly less dangerous than blue or brown asbestos have been refuted by many leading scientists. Alex Burdorf, a professor of public health at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, said: “What we have shown is that chrysotile is as dangerous as crocidolite [blue asbestos] for contracting lung cancer and is also linked to mesothelioma. I don’t think there is safe way of working with asbestos, so I would support a global ban on asbestos purely because of public health risks”.

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