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In the battle to ban asbestos across the globe, advocates have faced many challenges and setbacks. Still today, the majority of the world allows the mineral to be used, with only about 62 nations having banned the toxin so far. The asbestos industry is still booming in certain countries, most notably in Russia, the top producer of asbestos in the world. In other nations, like China and India, production of the toxin continues to grow massively each year.
Despite these many challenges, advocates saw a huge victory recently. Last week, the Federal Supreme Court in Brazil voted 7 to 2 to ban chrysotile asbestos, which includes mining, processing, distribution and marketing of the toxin. Brazil has been the world’s third largest producer of the mineral for years, behind Russia and China.
Asbestos’ Long History in Brazil
The fight to ban asbestos in Brazil has been ongoing for decades, and only recently saw better momentum leading up to this nationwide ban. In August, the Brazilian supreme court allowed certain states to ban the toxin in the absence of a decision on the federal level for a nationwide ban. At that point, ten states, including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, were able to prohibit its use and ultimately protect over 130 million citizens.
The case first came into question back in 2012, when asbestos exports and industry leaders presented evidence of the health risks and occupational hazards the mineral posed. A verdict wasn’t clear as the jury deliberated, and it took 5 years for this decision to finally pull through. The court met again after deciding to allow these ten states to ban asbestos, battling over the constitutional right of the government to enact a nationwide ban on the toxin. At this time, those in favor of banning the toxin technically won with a 5 to 4 vote, but the country needed at least 6 yes votes to move forward with this law. Thankfully, in their November vote, 7 out of 9 ministers ultimately decided the toxin should be banned.
Prior to this landmark move, asbestos had a long, important history in Brazil. Reports show that mining began back in 1939, and started producing significant amounts by the 1960s. By 2012, the country produced 306,500 tons of asbestos, a growth of 55% from 2011. The industry hasn’t grown at quite that rate in recent years, but they still produce hundreds of thousands of tons each year for exporting and consumption within their own industries. It has become an important aspect of their economy and provided many jobs over the years. Ultimately, though, all the jobs and money the mineral may have provided over these years will likely result in many thousands of mesothelioma diagnoses for years to come. Thankfully, the ban will help prevent further exposures and save many lives.
How This Ban Impacts the U.S.
Though the U.S. hasn’t actively mined or produced asbestos since the last mine closed in 2002, the country is still an active importer of the toxin largely for the chlor-alkali industry. In 2015, agencies reported imports of 340 metric tons, roughly 95% of which came from Brazil. The rest of the asbestos was imported from top producer, Russia.
Reports estimate that since 2013, the U.S. has spent about $4 million on these asbestos imports, even though the chlor-alkali industry has alternative, safer means to produce chlorine. With Brazil no longer producing or exporting the mineral, officials note the U.S. will instead most likely turn to Russia. Russia has been the leading exporter and consumer of asbestos for many years, producing over 1 million metric tons each year. Experts have estimated Russia’s exports to be worth approximately $191 million U.S. dollars, making it clear how huge of an impact the toxin has on their economy and the difficulties advocates will face in ever achieving a ban there.
While the EPA is currently evaluating asbestos along with nine other chemicals, the limitations of this investigation are clear. The agency stated their investigation would not look into the widespread, dangerous legacy uses of the toxin, instead only focusing on a few current uses like that of the chlor-alkali industry. Some officials are worried by importing from a huge asbestos supporter like Russia, Americans will be even slower to act against the toxin. Still, the evaluations are a step in the right direction and hopefully will ultimately come to the same decision as Brazil and the more than 60 other nations who have already implemented a ban.
Progress Toward a Global Ban
Though this news is a big step in the right direction, there are still so many countries that have a long way to go. Considering the amount of asbestos exported and consumed in Russia alone and its impact on their economy, it will still be a long fight ahead to see a global ban on asbestos.
But the ban in Brazil shows strength even in the face of a negative economic impact. The mineral helps provide many jobs for the nation, between mining and all the industries, like construction, that still heavily use it in their materials. Their ban shows a nation that realizes the severe health risks of asbestos exposure far outweigh any potential “benefits” the mineral may provide.
Other nations are beginning to realize the need for change as well. Slowly but surely, more countries are adding to the list. Canada is still on track to fully ban the toxin by 2018. Not long ago, Moldova also promised to have a ban in place by 2019. With more bans, the world can start making an impact on the statistics.
125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work each year, with countless others facing other instances of exposure. Research shows about 40,000 new mesothelioma cases each year, on top of thousands of other diagnoses caused by asbestos. This week, Brazil is helping to positively change those deadly statistics well into the future, and hopefully more nations will be close behind.