Red Letter Day for Asbestos Victims and Campaigners
February 23, 2021 marked a watershed moment for the global asbestos victims community with the announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) that an Australian research foundation the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) had been recognized as the first WHO Collaborating Centre on Asbestos-Related Diseases.1 The Collaborating Centre Designation was confirmed at a special ceremony at ADRIs headquarters via an online linkup with the WHOs Assistant Director General Dr Naoka Yamamoto who said:
The World Health Assembly Resolution called for global campaigns to eliminate asbestos-related diseases and [to] take action on the preventable cancers associated with this exposure. This requires building capacities in countries to improve knowledge and practices. The WHO has worked with ADRI and Professor Takahashi [ADRI Director] for many years on this important topic and we are pleased to see this working relationship is now formalised in this new WHO Collaborating Centre. Healthcare professionals, public health administrators, workers and those exposed to asbestos will benefit from the joint work of ADRI and WHO. 2
According to WHO data, 125 million people are routinely exposed to asbestos; around the world, hundreds of thousands die every year from avoidable diseases caused by such exposures.3 Pursuant to the 2007 WHO Resolution4 cited by Dr Yamamoto, WHO personnel have worked with civil society campaigners, trade unionists, medical and technical experts to identify at-risk populations and build capacity for diagnosing and treating asbestos-related diseases.5 Their efforts have drawn the ire of asbestos stakeholders who retaliated by accusing WHO officials of bias and corruption6 and by attempting to gatecrash invitation-only events. Complaints typical of those lobbed at the WHO included statements such as those in the two extracts below:
It has thus become disturbing that inside both the WHO and ILO, some people in key positions are embarking on a campaign for a global ban of asbestos, based on a very selective and partial reading of the evidence as it appears in this chapter 21 of the Concha-Barrientos publication, which ironically is published under the aegis of WHO! Thus, the numbers quoted are not based on the complete scientific data base.7
Institutions within the World Health Organization are engaged in the creation and distribution of biased, propaganda films that seek to directly discredit what the WHO deems undesirable materials, often in contravention of WHA policies.8
Despite the aggressive and sustained offensive by the asbestos lobby the WHO and ILO, having undertaken thorough and wide-ranging research, concluded that:
The WHOs acknowledgement of the pervasive and endemic threat asbestos exposures posed to human populations is underscored by its designation of the worlds first Collaborating Centre for the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases. It is noteworthy to report that ADRIS Director Emeritus Professor Ken Takahashi is someone who was been targeted on multiple occasions by the asbestos lobby for his grassroots links and advocacy work on asbestos.
Emeritus Professor Ken Takahashi, ADRI Director addressing February 23, 2021 event.
In his speech at the ceremony last week, Takahashi highlighted the moral imperative to support regional efforts to eradicate the asbestos hazard saying:
We believe it is our responsibility to reach outside our laboratory walls, across our own borders and beyond our shores to resource and educate developing countries about the dangers of asbestos and ways to protect their people Asbestos is still used widely in these regions so by delivering training in pathology, radiology, medicine, public health and nursing, we advance our mission to support the global effort to detect, diagnose and treat cases of asbestos-related disease, with particular emphasis on mesothelioma. Taking what we have learnt from our own history in Australia and sharing that knowledge is critical and urgent. 10
Peter Tighe, Chair of the Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation, endorsed this vision of ADRIs mission, commenting that:
Part of our role at ADRI is to educate, train and expand the knowledge for the treatment of Asbestos Related Disease; in most Asian and Pacific Countries there is very limited knowledge on identification and treatment. Ken and the team are leading training workshops in the region to address this; there is mutual benefit to the parties as we assist their clinicians to identify and treat victims of Asbestos. Identification of the injured helps in pursuing bans and managing the legacy of Asbestos. The WHO recognition allows ADRI to be recognised as an honest broker in the fight against the terrible burden of Asbestos.11
Peter Tighe, Chair of the Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation, addressing February 23, 2021 event.
Despite all the damning evidence that has been accumulated documenting the deadly consequences of asbestos use, over one million tonnes of asbestos are still being consumed every year.12 Asbestos exports, mainly from Russia and Kazakhstan, flow into Asian countries where asbestos is regarded as just another raw material and few, if any, safeguards are in place to protect workers or consumers. The identification of asbestos victims is a crucial first step in visualizing the human price being paid for the asbestos industrys profits. The larger the number of victims diagnosed and the greater their visibility, the more pressure will be exerted on governments to take the only morally defensible action possible and ban asbestos. The importance of the WHOs establishment of its first Collaborating Centre on Asbestos-Related Diseases is of great significance not only for the patients whose lives will be saved but also for the regional campaign to shut down this industry of mass destruction. The future is asbestos-free.
March 1, 2021
1 ADRI Media Release. ADRI named WHO Collaborating Centre in World First. February 23, 2021.
3 Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. June 2017. Central European Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
WHO. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases. 2018.
WHO. Asbestos Economic Assessment of Bans and Declining Production and Consumption. 2017.
4 WHO. Workers health: global plan of action. 2007.
Diandini R, Takahashi K, et al. Potential Years of Life Lost (PYLL) caused by Asbestos-Related Diseases in the World. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. 2013.
5 WHO. Strong support as Lao Government demonstrates action on preventing future cancers in Laos with launch of National Action Plan to Eliminate Asbestos-Related Diseases including a planned ban on chrysotile asbestos. November 28, 2018.
6 Newsletter from the Chrysotile Institute. November 2011.
7 Newsletter from the Chrysotile Institute. February 2007.
9 WHO. Fact Sheet 4: Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases. 2017.
11 Interview with Peter Tighe. February 26, 2021.
12 U.S. Geological Survey. Mineral Commodity Summaries. Asbestos. January 2021.