Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Hidden Killer: Asbestos in Developing Countries

Eric Stevenson a health and safety advocate who resides in the Southeastern US.

Asbestos, as many people know, is an extremely hazardous substance, a naturally-occurring mineral that can cause severe lung problems after even small periods of exposure.  Tiny, needle-like fibers can break away from the material, lodging in the lungs and other body tissues.  As they accumulate, the fibers can cause lung scarring, asbestosis, or even mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lining of the chest and abdomen.  Mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years after exposure to become apparent, so it has taken time to prove that these symptoms are a direct result of asbestos.  However, scientists in the U.S. and the U.K. now see the link between the two as irrefutable.

While the dangerous of asbestos have been known in the U.S. for several decades now, it may be surprising to hear that we have not, in fact, completely banned the mineral from use.  The 1989 EPA ban was overturned in New Orleans’ Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals two years later.  Luckily, the threat of litigation has kept asbestos use in the U.S. to a minimum since the 1980s, though thanks to the long latency period, the death toll from mesothelioma is still rising.  Some estimates put the cost of lawsuits and damages paid out by the asbestos industry at $70 billion.  The substance has been banned outright in the European Union and many other countries.  The ban on asbestos in many developed countries has not stopped the companies that mine the mineral and manufacture asbestos products – they now sell the materials to developing countries.  According to the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), the countries who used the most asbestos in 2009 were China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Thailand, in that order, all countries with large poverty-stricken populations.  Asbestos is inexpensive to mine and use, making it the material of choice for insulating, cement sheeting, tiles, and other construction products manufactured and sold in these countries.

While it’s not always a simple case of developed countries exporting this dangerous mineral to developing countries, it is true that Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of asbestos.  Ironically, the country uses almost none of this material inside its borders, the government instead funding widespread efforts to remove asbestos from schools and federal buildings.  However, a recent plan to revive the world’s largest asbestos mine in Quebec could greatly increase the amount of this dangerous material that gets shipped overseas.  Balcorp, the corporation behind the new funding, plans to export all of the substance to Asia, to countries that have few or no regulations on occupational safety, particularly India.   While Balcorp insists that it will provide the latest in safety gear to the Canadian miners, it has made no such promises to the workers in developing nations who will be processing the mineral.

The methods used by the asbestos industry to justify continued production have been compared to those used in the past by Big Tobacco: emphasizing or creating doubt in the research, pouring money into fighting litigation, and sometimes simply using flat-out denial.  A major difference, however, is that the asbestos industry is making a policy out of selling its dangerous wares to poor, largely nonwhite countries that have few resources to deal with the damage to public health, let alone hold the industry responsible for its abuses.  For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where our voices can be more easily heard, we can stand with organizations like the IBAS and the Ban Asbestos Network of India to prevent these abuses and force the hidden agenda of the asbestos industry into the light.