Asbestos: Still a Global & Economic Issue
A recent article has highlighted the on-going issue of asbestos use in the global and economic contexts. Asbestos, despite its known hazards, is still in use in many developed and developing countries globally. The article “The Global Spread of Asbestos” which was written and researched by Arthur L. Frank, MD, PhD and T.K. Joshi, MBBS, MS (Surgery), MSC (LSHTM) highlights many different concerns regarding the continued use of asbestos including conclusions on the reasons why asbestos use is still an on-going issue.
Asbestos is categorized in 6 different fibrous minerals, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite and chrysotile. The asbestos minerals are then divided into 2 groups, amphibole and serpentine which are both categorised based on the chemistry and fibres of the minerals. The most common use of asbestos Chrysotile which falls under the serpentine form of asbestos (the fibres appear wavy under the microscope). This form of asbestos accounts for 90-95% of asbestos use globally. It is noted in the article that an important factor regarding chrysotile asbestos is that it is regarded as “safe”. This however is a huge overstatement and doesn’t apply to different contexts such as use, protection and standards regarding the use of the material.
The Current use of Asbestos – “Developed Vs Developing”
Asbestos in the UK is now regarded as a banned and illegal substance due to the obvious health risks presented when an individual is exposed. There are still instances, due to its use many years ago, where asbestos becomes an issue such as construction on older buildings as an example. Asbestos was also used in many different products in the 1920s-1930s ranging from brake pads to ship building.
It is noted in the article that asbestos use ceased around 30 years ago when health issues became more apparent which then led to 50 countries banning the substance. A shocking fact is that the United States and India, two completely different countries relating to economic development, have yet to ban the substance.
This then presents the argument of “developed vs developing” regarding the economic situation of countries and their asbestos use. While the “developed” countries banned the substance many “developing” countries at the time such as Russia, China and Brazil still use the substance and export it on a huge scale. The argument could be made that the still legal use of asbestos in these countries is a representation of the current economic climate.
The United States on the other hand are a leading country in the developed world however they still import asbestos which doesn’t set a good example to other countries and allows the continued financial growth of asbestos as an export product. Many countries that don’t allow asbestos use still continue to export to “low and middle income countries that too often have weak or non-existent occupational and environmental regulations”.
In the article it highlights the benefits of banning asbestos “Rates of asbestos-related disease are already decreasing in Western developed countries as a results of bans on asbestos use that were imposed several decades ago and can be expected to decrease further in the years ahead.” There is however important contrasts to make in low and middle-income countries where asbestos use is still prevalent. In the “developing” countries research regarding asbestos use is inadequate, with the government to blame. This can be seen in India were “no official recognition of mesotheliomas has occurred, but one hospital in Mumbai alone has documented more than 30 cases of mesothelioma treated at that hospital in a single year”.
Controversies Regarding Asbestos
One hugely important issue that the article presents is the struggle between corporate interests and the alignment with governments to further financial gain. An example of this type of relationship can be seen within the tobacco industry which used public relations firms to generate sceptical scientific facts that allowed the continued use and sale of tobacco. One of the ways in which asbestos is related to this is the way in which the “potency of various-size fibres to cause disease is still unknown”. Essentially this means that due a lack of a copious amount of evidence, lobbyists are presenting the argument that asbestos use in certain quantities is acceptable. This type of argument is often funded “in the tens of millions of dollars” and follows a changing of hands from industry heads to scientists who then create a scientific body of literature that will benefit the further use and apparent safety of asbestos.
An example of the claims made are presented in the article-
“Claims that have little or no scientific basis are that only fibres greater than 5 microns can cause disease, that chrysotile cannot cause mesothelioma, or only does so with extraordinarily large amounts of exposure”.
This couldn’t be further from the truth and many different studies have highlighted that even a small amount of exposure such as washing clothes with asbestos on them can lead to lung cancer or in more severe cases mesothelioma. This type of exposure is often regarded as “Bystander” exposure which categorises individuals who haven’t directly used asbestos but have instead been in surrounding areas or who have had contact with the substance through contamination of everyday objects. There is also “neighbourhood” exposure in which just residing near a factory can lead to health issues relating to asbestos.
Another argument presented to the false concept of the safe use of asbestos is that “regulations” particullay relating to the use of asbestos prevent health issues. It is however noted that regulations are often not met especially in certain countries were proper guidelines are not developed or enforced. When developed countries such as Canada a huge exporter of asbestos cannot follow the proper regulations how are less developed countries expected to adhere to the proper regulations. One crazy claim noted in the article, which originates from India, is that “Westerners in the developed world have a genetic makeup that leads to the development of disease, and that Indians are genetically protected from getting asbestos-related disease”.
Conclusions (The Change in Asbestos use)
In several of the countries that have banned asbestos there is startling evidence to show that it decreases asbestos related health issues. Many different countries are attempting to prevent the use and sale of asbestos, through awareness and guidelines. “Public health professions in developing countries have stated that it is hard to ban the use of asbestos when this has not yet happened in the United States”. There are many other cheaper and alternative materials now being introduced and used in situations such as construction which present an even stronger argument for the complete banning of asbestos on a global scale.
The article notes that to truly combat asbestos use and its eventual health issues the “science for sale” element of corporations and their relationship to governments need to be addressed and dismissed by proper official independent industry and science leaders. This along with other circumstances such as proper education, health and safety guidelines and awareness of the asbestos related disease will eventually lead to the complete dismissal of asbestos as a material to be used.
For more information on the article please use the following link below. “The global spread of asbestos”, http://www.annalsofglobalhealth.org/article/S2214-9996(14)00319-1/fulltext
 “The global spread of asbestos”, Arthur L Frank, MD, PhD and T.K. Joshi, MBBS, MS (Surgery) MSc (LSHTM), http://www.annalsofglobalhealth.org/article/S2214-9996(14)00319-1/fulltext
 “Asbestos: An on-going challenge to global health”, Medical Express, http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-12-asbestos-ongoing-global-health.html
 “New article describes current state of asbestos use worldwide”, News Medical, http://www.news-medical.net/news/20141208/New-article-describes-current-state-of-asbestos-use-worldwide.aspx