Global Asbestos Panorama 2012: Questions and Answers 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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Asbestos has had many nicknames. In Canada it was called “white gold”; elsewhere it was called the “magic mineral.” We know it by another name: killer dust. Everywhere asbestos has been mined, transported, processed or used, human beings have died and the environment has been polluted. The truth is simple: there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, all types of asbestos are carcinogenic and the best way to protect human beings from asbestos is to ban its use. To understand the current scale of the global asbestos situation, a series of questions has been considered.

Where is Asbestos Used?

Chrysotile (white) asbestos remains the most widely used type of asbestos; for decades, the predominant use of chrysotile has been for the production of asbestos-cement construction products such as pipes and roofing material. Data for 2010, reveal that the world's top six asbestos consumers China (613,751 tonnes (t)), India (426,364 t), Russia (263,037 t), Indonesia (111,849 t), Uzbekistan (98,635 t) and Thailand (79,250 t) accounted for 78% of global usage.1 In 2010, 68% of global sales went to Asia and 22% to Eastern Europe, regions where asbestos health and safety regulations are either non-existent or unenforced. The WHO estimates that every year 125 million people are being occupationally exposed to asbestos; the number of people exposed to asbestos environmentally remains unknown.

Where is Asbestos Produced?

Data from 2010 show that 99% of global production takes place in five countries: Russia (1,000,000 t), China (400,000 t), Brazil (270,000 t), Kazakhstan (214,000 t) and Canada (100,000 t). Throughout most of the 20th century, Canada was the world's leading supplier of chrysotile asbestos; in the 1970s asbestos production in Russia and Kazakhstan outstripped that in Canada for the first time. In 2011, production at Canada's last remaining asbestos mine ground to a halt. Despite increasingly desperate attempts to reinvigorate asbestos mining in Canada, which may succeed given the support for the industry from governments in Ottawa and Quebec, it appears that the leadership of the global asbestos lobby is now in transition from Canadian to Russian hands. A chrysotile conference in Moscow in June 2012 is widely regarded as the event which will mark the handover of power to industry stakeholders in Eastern Europe.

Why is Asbestos still being Used?

Major international agencies, regional authorities, scores of national governments and independent scientists believe that asbestos is a substance which should be banned. A 2010 statement on asbestos issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) was categorical:

“All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials. Currently, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 DALYS [disability-adjusted life years]. In addition, several thousands of deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposures to asbestos. Elimination of asbestos-related diseases should take place through the following public health actions: a) recognising that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos; b) replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate replacement; c) taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement), and; d) improving early diagnosis, treatment, social and medical rehabilitation of asbestos-related diseases and establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos.”2

Asbestos vested interests disagree with the WHO's assessment; they have billions of reasons to do so. In order to protect asbestos markets and develop new ones, asbestos traders have engaged in a long-term, coordinated global marketing campaign to cast doubt on science which shows the harmful effects of human exposure to all types of asbestos. Industry-commissioned “experts” produce “research papers” which claim that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely; the same experts testify in courts on behalf of asbestos defendants. One of the most effective strategies employed by asbestos vested interests is: confusion. Sowing doubt where none exists enables them to forestall regulations restricting the use of their products.

Where is Asbestos Banned?

National legislation outlawing the new use of asbestos has been adopted in 54 countries, de facto bans exist in countries such as Canada and the U.S., and debate is on-going in Malaysia, the Philippines, Brazil, Albania, Iran and elsewhere about the viability of transitioning to non-asbestos technology. While current worldwide consumption remains around 2 million tonnes a year, and this is 2 million tonnes too much, usage has decreased substantially since the 1980s.

What is the Human Cost of Asbestos Use?

No one knows how many lives have been lost due to the widespread and uncontrolled use of asbestos around the world. The International Labour Organization has estimated that more than 100,000 people die every year from work-related asbestos exposures. Professor Joe LaDou, from the University of California, is more pessimistic saying:

“The asbestos cancer epidemic may take as many as 10 million lives before asbestos is banned worldwide and exposure is brought to an end… The battle against asbestos is in danger of being lost where the human cost may be the greatest, in developing countries desperate for industry.”

In the United States, asbestos-related diseases cause 10,000 deaths a year; in American men over 50 years old, they account for one death out of every 125.3 Between 2005 and 2045, epidemiologists predict that a further 100,000 Americans will die of their exposures to asbestos. Asbestos epidemics have been documented in countries throughout Europe4 as well as in Canada, Brazil, Australia, Japan and Korea. Because of the long time lag between exposure and disease manifestation, evidence of emerging epidemics can take up to 40 years to document. It can take even longer in countries where governments, such as those in Canada, Brazil, Russia and India, are determined, for political and economic reasons, to deny the link between asbestos and disease. While national asbestos epidemics are serious matters what is equally as worrying, if not more so, is the lack of data on asbestos cancers:

“Reliable figures on the incidence/mortality of/from mesothelioma are available for about 15% only of the world population. In particular, mesothelioma epidemiology is scarcely known for a majority of the big asbestos producer/consumer countries. Where data are available, marked variations in incidence are observed. During the last decades mesothelioma incidence showed a progressive increase in various industrialized countries, reaching the highest values in Australia, Belgium, and the UK… The mesothelioma wave consequent on the very high world asbestos consumption (which) occurred in the 1970s has yet to be seen.5

Is a Global Asbestos Ban Possible?

Support for the international banning of asbestos has escalated in recent years. Developments such as protests in Indian towns earmarked by asbestos companies as sites for new factories,6 public and medical condemnation of asbestos stakeholders in Canada, and educational activities regarding the asbestos hazard in Albania7 substantiate an increased concern about the human hazard of exposure to asbestos. An asbestos-free future is possible.


1 The consumption and production data quoted in this paper are sourced from the United States Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.).

2 WHO. Preventing Disease through Health Environments. 2010

3 The Asbestos Epidemic in America.

4The health effects of Europe's massive asbestos use were analyzed in a paper entitled: The European mesothelioma epidemic. The epidemiologists predicted that the number of male mesothelioma deaths in Western Europe for the period 1995-2029 would be 250,000. With additional male deaths from other asbestos-related diseases and the asbestos deaths of women, the asbestos death toll in Western Europe could in this 35-year period exceed 500,000. No estimates are available for asbestos fatalities in Eastern Europe where the use of Russian asbestos remains the norm.

5 Bianchi B. Geography of Mesothelioma: An Overview. Abstract to Global Asbestos Congress 2004; website:

6 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Protests in India. May 24, 2010.

7 Kazan-Allen L. Raising Awareness of the Asbestos Hazard in Albania. May 28, 2010.



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