Experts Forecast Global “Catastrophe of Death and Disease” From Asbestos Use

Illustration of mesothelioma research

Asia is heading for a huge jump in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades, according to numerous scientific studies and two of the world’s most prominent experts on public health and asbestos exposure. Not surprisingly, the consequences are expected to be felt most severely in India and China, two emerging economies and most populous countries in the world.

“What we can expect is very predictable – an absolute catastrophe of death and disease,” Dr. Arthur Frank, chairman of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, said in a recent interview with this reporter. He added that the coming catastrophe is “all preventable.”

“What we can expect is very predictable – an absolute catastrophe of death and disease

– Dr. Arthur Frank, Chairman of Environmental and Occupational Health, Drexel University

Frank’s cautionary words parallel numerous scientific studies and expert predictions forecasting a surge in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in Asia in the coming decades. This is primarily because India, China, and other countries on the continent continue to use – or in some cases, even increase – their dependence on asbestos for cheap roofing insulation, in cement, and other widespread applications.

Another expert, Dr. Amir Attaran, a scientist, lawyer and acknowledged expert on global health issues, said that the consequences of continued heavy use of asbestos will be felt particularly hard in India, a growing nation of 1.2 billion people with few limits or controls on the use of asbestos.

“It’s a scientific failure, a clinical failure, and a social and moral failure of India. It is a failure of culture and science”

-Dr. Amir Attaran

When asked about the consequences of the country’s widespread use of asbestos, Attaran, a leader in the fight to stop exports of the material to Third World countries, quickly replied: “In disease terms, incalculable. India has no public health controls. They will pay dearly for this with an epidemic of mesothelioma.”

“It’s a scientific failure, a clinical failure, and a social and moral failure of India. It is a failure of culture and science,” Attaran added.

Asbestos and Asia

Asbestos has historically been used as cheap insulation material in construction, ships and cars. In the United States and Europe, asbestos has been banned for most uses because of its clear-cut links to mesothelioma and other diseases, but it is still widely used in Asia and other nations because it is effective, yet relatively inexpensive. In Asia, it is used primarily for cheap roofing insulation, and in cement and power plants. The health hazard of occupational asbestos exposure is compounded by the fact that Asian workers often toil in factories with poor ventilation.

A few Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea, have banned asbestos, but they are the exceptions.

In recent years, numerous studies have documented the anticipated rise in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases over the next several decades in Asia. One recent study, in the Journal of the Asian Pacific Society of Respirology, said that Asia, with its large, developing countries, currently accounts for about 64% of the world’s asbestos use. This represents a steady increase — the continent accounted for a 33% share from 1971 to 2000, and 14% from 1920 to 1970.

Medical experts say that it generally takes people 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This timetable clearly forecasts that Asia’s current rate of usage is likely to lead to a huge hike in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades.

An Asbestos Tsunami

Ken Takahashi, the lead author and acting director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborative Center for Occupational Health, has said that Asia can anticipate an “asbestos tsunami,” in the coming decades. In response, WHO has identified asbestos as one of the most dangerous occupational carcinogens in the world, and says there is an urgent need to stop asbestos use in order to curtail the enormous associated health damages.

An estimated 107,000 people worldwide die each year from asbestos-related diseases, a number that will continue to grow if efforts to curb its usage fail.

While already substantial, this assessment is probably low, according to leading public-health experts, as it is difficult to categorically track deaths from asbestos-related diseases in Asia because India, China and other countries do not to keep reliable data on them.

In recent years, some Asian nations, including Japan and South Korea, have banned or limited asbestos use. But in most other Asian nations, most significantly India and China, the use of asbestos has continued with little or no regulation or oversight. (This reporter got a first-hand view of the problem in the late 1990s while investigating India’s notorious shipbreaking facilities in Alang, where thousands of unprotected workers worked on large, retired vessels with high asbestos content).

Many public health experts, such as Frank of Drexel University, have called for a ban on asbestos exports to Asia. Last year, Frank led a group of 120 medical doctors and other health professionals in a campaign to stop Canada from exporting asbestos to developing nations. Canada, which has largely banned asbestos for domestic use, is the second-largest exporter of asbestos to Asia, behind only Russia.

In an appeal to Canadian medical experts, Frank and his colleagues warned that Canada is morally obligated to consider the “enormous harm to health for generations,” if the exports continue – a plea that so far has gone unheeded.

In the recent interview, Frank reiterated the urgency to stop developed nations such as Canada from exporting asbestos to the Third World, along with the need for Asian nations to ban asbestos and start using available non-lethal substitutes.

“What needs to be done is very simple,” Frank told me. “They should stop using asbestos in Asia.”

However, this is unlikely to happen as long as established countries continue to chase the profits from exporting the carcinogen. “Canada is the world’s biggest hypocrite when it comes to asbestos,” said Frank. “It is taking it (asbestos) out of Parliament buildings but willing to sell it overseas.”

Next up: The hypocrisy of asbestos-exporting nations. Canada, for example, has banned the use of asbestos domestically and is scheduled to begin a $1 billion renovation project to clean its parliamentary buildings of asbestos this summer. Yet Canada remains one of the world’s biggest exporters of asbestos to the Third World.