The Impact of Asbestos Use Worldwide

Illustration of potential asbestos exposure in a building

Although the danger of asbestos was acknowledged decades ago, and although the mineral is entirely or mostly banned in most industrialized nations, the world is still feeling the effects of asbestos use. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), deaths from asbestos-related diseases worldwide increased from 90,000 in 2006 to 107,000 in 2010. These are deaths from lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis caused by asbestos exposure, mostly in the workplace. As many as one in three deaths from occupational cancer may be caused by asbestos WHO says. Several thousand more deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to asbestos in the home.

WHO also estimated that about 125 million people around the world are still being exposed to asbestos at work each year. Many of these workers are in developing countries with little or no safety regulations to protect them.

The world’s production of asbestos is decreasing, slowly. In 2012 an estimated 2 million tons of asbestos were produced, but this is about half the production level of 1977. The number of asbestos-producing countries also has decreased. Only four countries account for 90 percent of the world’s production — Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan. Russia is by far the primary source of the world’s asbestos; in 2012 one million tons of asbestos came from Russia alone.

Russia’s prodigious asbestos production raised concerns about the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi. Was asbestos used to construct the Olympic village and sports facilities? Russia’s own building codes forbid its use, but whether building codes are enforced is an open question. And Russian officials have been evasive when questioned directly about asbestos in Sochi.

Not long ago, Canada would have been on that shortlist of top producers as well. Canada was a major supplier of the world’s asbestos, even after its use was restricted in Canada. Most of Canada’s asbestos was exported to developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. The last two asbestos mines in Canada stopped production in 2011, however, and there was little political will to provide loans to re-open them. In 2012, the government of Canada announced it would no longer oppose international efforts to list asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty that is intended to protect people in developing countries from imported hazardous substances.

Canada is not alone. In the past 35 years, a number of other countries have ceased to export asbestos. And at this time, 54 countries have either entirely or partly banned asbestos. So, along with the reduction of asbestos producers, there are also many fewer asbestos consumers. In 2012 China and India alone accounted for more than half of the world’s consumption of asbestos.

Asbestos mining and most—not all—industrial uses of asbestos have stopped in the United States. But the U.S. still exports and imports asbestos. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), in 2012 the U.S. exported and re-exported $26.4 million of asbestos-containing products such as brake linings. Most of these products went to Mexico, South Korea, Canada, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. The “re-exported” products were made outside the United States.

Also in 2012, the United States imported 1,610 tons of chrysotile asbestos, the USGS says, all from Brazil. Exactly how this asbestos is being used is not explained in USGS reports. Records say the United States imported $8.61 million of products containing asbestos in 2011, although the USGS isn’t sure if all of those products were correctly labeled.

Because of the long incubation period of asbestos-related cancer — 40 years between exposure and mesothelioma diagnosis is not unheard of — incidents of disease continue for a long time after asbestos use is discontinued. For example, although Italy banned asbestos in 1992, approximately 1,000 Italians die each year of mesothelioma and another 1,000 of other asbestos-related disease. Many of these deaths cluster around what were once asbestos manufacturing plants, shipyards, and other facilities that processed asbestos. The government has responded by launching a national asbestos project to investigate causes, increase public awareness and improve diagnosis and treatment.

Currently the highest rates of reported mesothelioma are in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Cases may be underreported in developing countries, of course.

In short, the devastating effects of asbestos exposure will continue to be felt for a long time to come, although decades from now we can expect to see most of the world’s cases of asbestos-related disease in the developing nations using it so recklessly now.