Asbestos Exposure 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



(Updated June 2020)

Occupational Exposure
Environmental Exposure


Occupational Exposure

Asbestos has been described as "the grand-daddy of all occupational killers." It affects people who come in contact with it at every stage of the production process. It contaminated the miners who pulled it from the ground, the millers who processed the raw fiber, the men who transported the hessian bags of fiber from South Africa, Canada, Australia, the dockers [A Sad Legacy,   Asbestos and Dockers] who unloaded the cargo, the factory workers who manufactured asbestos products, the wives who washed their clothes and the children who were present at the time [Canadian Asbestos : A Global Concern,   Literature Review,   Literature Review,   General Motors St. Catharines Cancer Cluster].

The incidence of asbestos-related mortality has been particularly high amongst those who received hazardous asbestos exposures whilst working in heavy industries such as shipbuilding, railway engineering and the insulation industry [Oral Histories of the Asbestos Tragedy in Scotland, Asbestos in Scotland, Literature Review (2008),   Report on Seminar on Asbestos Hazard (India)]. Elevated disease levels have also been found amongst naval personnel exposed to asbestos on board ships [see: Asbestos and Merchant Navy].

Building workers who used asbestos-containing products in the construction of domestic and commercial properties and D-I-Y enthusiasts have also contracted deadly diseases [New Zealand: Asbestos Epidemic, Mesothelioma: Australian Data and Research, The Problems of Asbestos in Poland as seen by Labor Inspectors].

Asbestos-containing materials in public buildings [Next Wave of Asbestos Victims?,   Asbestos Reverberations in Australia] such as hospitals and schools [Asbestos Hazard in UK Schools] and in private residences constitute an on-going risk to professional and amateur workmen. People who continue to work in, inhabit or maintain buildings which contain deteriorating asbestos products are at risk. Asbestos deaths among caretakers and maintenance men of such buildings are higher than average.

In the 21st century, hazardous exposures remain routine for workers in ship-breaking yards in Turkey, India and Bangladesh, asbestos factories in India, Thailand and Vietnam and on construction sites in Pakistan, China and Indonesia [Asian Asbestos Conference 2006, Dismantling & Recycling Decommissioned Ships].

The contamination of raw materials with asbestos [Hyundai Steel: A Corporate Criminal], the dispersal of asbestos fiber into the environment by mining and manufacturing processes [ALERT: Asbestos Public Health Hazard, Press Release: India’s Asbestos Killing Fields], the presence of asbestos-containing products onboard ships [Why Most Ships Still Contain Asbestos], the illegal import of asbestos-containing products [Press Release: UK Toxic Asbestos Imports from China?], demolition and building work on unremediated buildings [Media Release: Albania Asbestos Crisis], and the contamination of baby powder by tremolite asbestos [Toxic Talc and Mesothelioma] are examples of the ongoing occupational and environmental hazard posed to human health by asbestos.

The World Health Organization estimates that today 125 million people are being occupationally exposed to asbestos and that such exposure lead to 90,000 deaths every year [Asian Asbestos Conference (AAC 2006)]; the ILO believes that 100,000 people die annually from workplace asbestos exposures [Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies)]. In 2017, researchers produced figures which indicated that the total annual global mortality “from all asbestos-related exposures could exceed 300,000” [Global Asbestos Mortality Data].

For decades, workers, labor organizations and concerned citizens have taken action to lobby employers, national agencies, government officials and regional associations to progress the transition to asbestos-free technologies to protect workers from toxic exposures [Denial of the Occurrence of Occupational Asbestos Diseases in the Brazilian Mining Town of Minacu] [Status Report from Asian Ban Asbestos Mission to Brazil 2019] [Vietnam’s Asbestos Frontline 2019] [Global Overview: Asbestos Landscape 2018] [Southeast Asia Ban Asbestos Conference 2018] [Economic Violence, Occupational Disability, and Death: Oral Narratives of the Impact of Asbestos-Related Diseases in Britain] [Everest Industries Ltd., Kolkata, India].


Environmental Exposure

Research from almost every continent has confirmed the link between hazardous environmental exposures to asbestos and asbestos-related disease. Airborne contamination generated by mining or processing of asbestos and the liberation of fibers through physical manipulation, man-made or natural catastrophes endanger human health [Environmental Hazard,   Asbestos in the environment].

Instances of environmental asbestos contamination include:

  • U.S. – The attack on the World Trade Center liberated 5,000 tonnes of asbestos from sprayed asbestos fireproofing and asbestos floor tiles used in the twin towers [Asbestos Fallout from 9/11].
  • Lebanon & Israel – Bombs dropped during the 2006 war in the Middle East liberated asbestos from asbestos-cement roofing products and asbestos-containing insulation in damaged buildings in both countries [Asbestos Fallout from War in Middle East].
  • Sri Lanka – In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, asbestos debris was found strewn throughout coastal areas in Hikkaduma, Sri Lanka [Killing the Future - Asbestos Use in Asia].
  • India – Asbestos-contaminated waste generated by decades of asbestos mining operations in the Singbhum district in Jharkhand has polluted villages and the surrounding countryside. A local activist described the toxic legacy as follows: “The (asbestos) dust gets mixed with water and flows into the field… the entire issue of managing mineral waste has been totally neglected” [What Price the Truth?]. The legacy of manufacturing operations by European companies in India has been one of environmental degradation which created hazardous conditions that remain a potent threat to human life. [Legacy of European Asbestos Industry Continues in India].
  • Vietnam – The northern hamlet of Tho Vi is nicknamed “cancer village” because of the high incidence of asbestos disease; although asbestos mining operations ceased 20 years ago, the haphazard and unrecorded discarding of asbestos-contaminated waste and the use of such waste to reinforce wells and roads has compromised the health many local people.
  • South Africa – The level of asbestos pollution in the mining town of Penge is so high that some experts feel the town is “virtually uninhabitable” [Environmental Asbestos Fallout in Asia and Africa]. Efforts by grassroots groups in affected areas have been pivotal in raising awareness of the environmental hazard posed by widespread asbestos contamination. [Asbestos Youth Awareness Workshop 2018: Asbestos the Silent Killer].
  • Canada – Epidemiologists have confirmed the high incidence of asbestos-related disease in mining towns such as Thetford. Tonnes of asbestos-contaminated debris collected into tailing mountains pose a daily risk to local people. There is an elevated incidence of mesothelioma among women in Thetford Mines, many of whom have had no occupational exposure to asbestos [Asbestos Kills Canadians Too!].
  • Japan – In 1975, more than 20% of townspeople (120,000 out of 540,000) lived in areas where asbestos fiber concentration levels exceeded 10 f/liter. In 2006, 99 mesotheliomas were identified amongst people in Amagasaki City who lived within 1,500 meters of the former Kubota Kanzaki asbestos-cement plant [Asian Asbestos Conference (AAC 2006)]. According to research published by the Environment Ministry on June 4, 2008, about 18% (145) of 804 people living near asbestos-using factories in Yokohama, Hashima, Nara, Osaka, Amagasaki City, Tosu and Saga have pleural plaques, an asymptomatic condition which is usually regarded as a marker of asbestos exposure [Japan: Cause & Effect]. After the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the majority of debris collected in the Sendai area in April 2011 confirmed the presence of asbestos contamination. Air samples taken near a collapsed building revealed airborne asbestos levels of 2 fibers per liter [The Post-Disaster Asbestos Hazard] [Fallout from Japanese Disasters].
  • Korea – In 2009, researchers announced that tremolite asbestos had been found in a populated area in close proximity to a redundant asbestos mine in Susan county, Jecheon City, Chung-Cheong Buk Province. The highly toxic substance was identified in the surface soil of agricultural fields and on a school sport's ground [Tremolite Contamination in South Korea].
  • Poland – In Szczecin, a small town in the southeast of the country, air measurements routinely show high levels of airborne asbestos: from 5 to 50 fibres/liter. Over half of the district's inhabitants are environmentally exposed to asbestos fiber concentrations above 10f/L. As a result of the environmental contamination, the local incidence of asbestos cancer among local people is very high [European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Health and Human Rights].
  • Hong Kong – An investigation by a Hong-Kong based grassroots health and safety NGO, documented multiple examples of asbestos-contaminated debris in an urban area in New Kowloon, Hong Kong [Ma Tong Village Asbestos Issue in Jan 2013].
  • Australia – Asbestos contamination is a routine occurrence in the aftermath of the all too frequent wildfires that occur throughout Australia [The Post-Disaster Asbestos Hazard].
  • Italy – The mining and processing of asbestos fibers endangered the lives of generations of citizens who received non-occupational exposures to asbestos. Many of those affected lived, worked or attended school in the vicinity of asbestos factories; some of the injured shared households with workers from asbestos factories [Who is at Risk from Toxic Exposures] [Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial].
  • Denmark – Research published in 2019 by Danish researchers reported that children who had attended schools near the Dansk Eternit Fabrik – the country’s largest asbestos-cement factory – had a 7-fold increase in the risk of mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos [The Spectre Haunting Danish Schoolchildren].

Updated June 2020



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