Cancer Crisis Looms as Asbestos Use Continues
In the run-up to World Cancer Day 2024, an article in The Guardian newspaper reverberated a World Health Organization (WHO) warning of an impending cancer tsunami:
Latest figures from the WHOs cancer arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), makes plain the growing burden of cancer, rising from 14.1 million new cases and 8.2 million deaths worldwide in 2012 to 20 million new cases and 9.7 million deaths a decade later. The IARC predicts there will be more than 35 million new cancer cases by 2050, an increase of 77% from 2022 levels, and that deaths will have nearly doubled since 2012 to more than 18 million. 1
According to IARC researcher Dr. Freddie Bray:
The impact of this increase will not be felt evenly across countries Those who have the fewest resources to manage their cancer burdens will bear the brunt of the global cancer burden.
Cases of lung cancer, which is the most common cancer diagnosed worldwide, are predicted to account for 12.4% of the new cancer cases and 18.7% of deaths. It is widely acknowledged that exposure to all types of asbestos can cause lung cancer;2 the hazard posed to populations by the continued use of asbestos was cited by Dr Jean-Yves Blay, the director of public policy at the European Society of Medical Oncology, when commenting upon the new WHO health alert.
In 2023, 1,300,000 tonnes of asbestos were consumed worldwide. Asian countries including India, China, Indonesia3 account for most of the asbestos used every year, the vast majority of which is supplied by Russian mines. According to a USGS Asbestos Fact Sheet uploaded in January, 2024: Global demand for asbestos will likely continue for the foreseeable future, particularly for use in cement pipe, roofing sheets, and other construction materials in Asia.4 One doesnt need a crystal ball or a degree in epidemiology to see the obvious: the more asbestos used in a country, the greater the incidence of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.
Almost a fortnight before World Cancer Day, a major piece of research, more than a decade in the making, appeared on the website of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Cancer mortality in chrysotile miners and millers, Russian Federation: main results (Asbest Chrysotile Cohort-Study).5 The collaboration of IARC personnel with Russian co-authors, at least one of whom had known links to asbestos industry stakeholders, was contentious from start to finish.
Dr Evgeny Kovalevsky, whose work on the research project included: Conceptualization; Data curation; Funding acquisition; Investigation; Methodology; Project administration; Resources; Supervision; Writingoriginal draft; Writingreview & editing, admitted receiving payments from companies to evaluate exposure to asbestos and risk of asbestos-related disease in those workplaces. In addition, Kovalevsky reported participation as an occupational and environmental health expert as part of the delegation of the Russian Ministry of Health at multiple World Health Assembly meetings as well as at the Conference of the Parties to the Basel and Rotterdam Conventions. Dr Kovalevskiy [sic] reported attending meetings organized by the International Chrysotile Association [a trade association representing the interests of the global asbestos lobby] and reported that all expenses for attendance were paid by his institute.6
Dr Evgeny Kovalevsky testifying at asbestos hearings at Brazils Supreme Court, August 31, 2012. Photograph taken by the author. 7
At a cursory glance there is much to criticize in this paper including: its funding by the Russian Ministry of Health; the relatively few cases of mortality 13 from mesotheliomas and 7 from asbestosis recorded among 11,110 deaths found compared to mortality in chrysotile mines in Quebec, Canada and Balangero, Italy; the high (12%) proportion of lost workers those whose date and cause of death could not be established; and very wide confidence intervals. No doubt, medical and scientific experts will have more to say on the bias and failings of this research in the pages of peer-reviewed journals in the coming months.
Findings reported in the paper included the following:
We observed an increased risk of mesothelioma with high exposure to chrysotile fibers; men were more affected than women
We observed an increased mortality for lung cancer in men with increasing cumulative dust exposure
exposure to dust containing chrysotile mined in the worlds largest active asbestos mine increases the risk of developing cancer in a dose-dependent manner. 8
One can but guess at the nature of the discussions which took place amongst the Russian co-authors during meetings behind closed doors or private skype calls. Whatever their intentions, and that of the funders of this project, in the end it was conceded that chrysotile asbestos the type produced in Russia did indeed cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. Remembering that Russia overtook Canada as the worlds largest asbestos producer during the late 20th century, the official party line has always been that exposure to Russian asbestos was not harmful to human health. Although various conclusions of this paper remain suspect, the admission that Russian asbestos, like asbestos everywhere else on the planet, was carcinogenic was significant.
It is neither prudent nor humane for national governments, international agencies and regional authorities to neglect their duty to protect populations in countries where asbestos use remains legal. In light of the WHO cancer alert and the latest USGS asbestos trade data, every minute of every day millions of people are being exposed to a substance that could kill them. It has to stop.9
February 5, 2024
1 IARC. Global cancer burden growing, amidst mounting need for services. February 1, 2024.
Bawden, A. Global cancer cases to rise by more than 75% by 2050, WHO predicts. February 1, 2024.
This is a translation into Vietnamese of The Guardian article: Số ca mắc ung thư toàn cầu tăng 75% vào năm 2025 [The number of global cancer cases will increase by 75% by 2025]. February 2, 2024.
2 International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies. Accessed February 2, 2024.
3 Herdiana, I. Produk Berbahaya Mengandung Asbes belum Diatur di Indonesia [Dangerous products containing asbestos are not yet regulated in Indonesia]. January 3, 2024.
4 USGS. Asbestos Fact Sheet. January 31, 2024.
5 Schüz, J. et al. Cancer mortality in chrysotile miners and millers, Russian Federation: main results (Asbest Chrysotile Cohort-Study). January 22, 2024.
7 According to the Supreme Courts official program for August 31, 2012, Kovalevsky testified on behalf of the
Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Indústria & Instituto Brasileiro de Crisotila [National Confederation of Industrial [Asbestos] Workers and the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute, a trade association representing asbestos industry stakeholders.
The evidence presented by Kovalevsky can be read at the link below:
8 Schüz, J. et al. Cancer mortality in chrysotile miners and millers, Russian Federation: main results (Asbest Chrysotile Cohort-Study). January 22, 2024.
9 World Health Organization. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases. February 15, 2018.