More than 50 countries have have banned or restricted the use of asbestos since the 1970s, yet other countries still continue to export or import the dangerous mineral, in worryingly large quantities. The popularity of asbestos is unfortunately rising in developing countries, due to the buildings materials being in high demand.
However, just like how the countries who have banned the use of asbestos discovered, the cost of using the readily available asbestos is paid for by human lives. While many people support the use of white asbestos (chrysotile) when used under controlled conditions, there are too many studies that prove that any type of asbestos fibre is dangerous.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that the best way to eliminate asbestos related diseases, is for the world as a whole to stop mining and using the material. In 2015 Russia, China, and Brazil were the leaders in asbestos mining.
Banning asbestos – a global effort
In 2005, the WHO worked hard on promoting its members to work towards eliminating the avoidable exposure of asbestos, thus eliminating mesothelioma and other related diseases. In 2007 WHO was asked by the World Health Assembly to conduct a campaign aimed at the global elimination of asbestos-related diseases, specifically targeting the countries that still use white asbestos.
The World Health Organisation plans to eradicate diseases caused by asbestos exposure by doing the following:
- Completely stop the use of asbestos worldwide
- Help all countries to replace ACMs with non-asbestos alternatives
- Improve the diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases, as well as its treatment
- Create registries for asbestos exposure, as well as conducting medical surveillance on said people
Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances
In a concerted effort to reduce the global effects of asbestos, a lot of countries have voted to get white chrysotile asbestos added to the RCHS (Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances) list. This treaty, enforced by the UN, requires countries that export any substance on the list to fully inform the receiving country of the health risks.
So far, only 5 out of the 6 types of asbestos have been added to the list; to be added to the list, all votes have to be unanimous. Some countries argue against the scientific data that proves that chrysotile is dangerous These countries are: India, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.
Asbestos is still mined and used within the developing world, who are now experiencing the same problems the US and Europe faced during the 20th century.
In 2015 and 2016 China, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, and Brazil were the top countries in asbestos production. However, towards the end of 2017, Brazil completely banned the mining or use of all asbestos, including chrysotile.
China, who is the leading consumer country for asbestos, used over 570,000 metric tons of asbestos in 2013. This figure is approximately 765 times what the United States consumed the same year. However, China has not matched the asbestos-related disease figures that Europe and the U.S. have, but the gap is widely believed to close in the coming years, as asbestos wasn’t very commonly used until the late 1970s; thus, the fallout of diseases from its use will start to spike in the next couple of decades.
Russia is the world second largest asbestos consumer. Even though Russian banned amphibole asbestos (crocidolite, amosite, etc.) in 1999, they still supply approximately 75% of all asbestos used globally.
Canada’s first asbestos mines were established in 1876 in Thetford, after chrysotile deposits were discovered. A century later, Quebec had an annual asbestos turnover of over 900,000 metric tons.
2012 almost saw the resurrection of asbestos mining in Quebec after only 1 year of halted operations, when the Canadian government proposed a $58 million grant to reopen the asbestos mine. However, the opposing party won the following election and cancelled the loan.
Although the mining of asbestos halted in 2011-2012, it wasn’t until 2016 that the ban came into effect for manufacturing and import/exporting asbestos products.
Russia has the largest land mass of any country, therefore its unsurprising that they are also the top country for asbestos production.
Russia has been generating over 1 million metric tons of asbestos annually since 2008, which far surpasses China and Canada. These incredibly high figures mostly stem from Asbest, a city situated 900 miles northeast of Moscow. The city of Asbest was once named “the dying city” due to the high rates of asbestos-related diseases diagnosed there. The mine is seven miles long, over 1,000 feet deep, and over a mile wide. The mine is controlled by the company Uralasbest, which leads the world’s production on white chrysotile asbestos. This mine has half a million metric tons of asbestos mined from it a year, which equates to approximately 20% of the world’s supply.
Uralasbest maintain that they believe that the controlled use of chrysotile is not harmful to humans. Russia is the second largest consumer of asbestos in the world, following China. Russia have over 3,000 products in circulation with asbestos in, that are labelled as “safe”.
China is the largest producer of asbestos products. It also used to mine the second largest amount of asbestos, just behind Russia. However, mining production has fallen in recent years to approximately 400,000 metric tons.
Asbestos is used by Chinese builders and manufacturers to produce many different products like: walls, brake pads, roofs, cloth, and gaskets. It’s believed that the annual death roll from mesothelioma and other related diseases will rise to approximately 15,00 by 2035.
The data on mesothelioma in China is not publicly available; it’s also estimated that the registries for cancer only cover 13% of the population also.
Up until 2017, Brazil was the world’s third largest producer of asbestos. In 2016 Brazil produced 311,000 metric tons. They also consumed roughly 181,000 tons annually, as recent as 2013.
Although the ban is great news for the country, its estimated that the number of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related disease cases will continue to rise over the next few decades. The majority of people who are being diagnosed currently are current or former workers at the asbestos plants.
Since 2016, Kazakhstan has become the fourth largest asbestos producer, mining approximately 215,000 metric tons annually. The main main in Kazakhstan, Djetygarinskoe, has been open since 1965 and is thought to be the fifth largest deposit of asbestos in the world.
Kazakhstan does use asbestos, but it exports the majority of it that is mined. It’s used in housing developments, schools, hospitals, brakes, and many other products.
In 2009 a conference on the health effects of chrysotile was conducted in Kazakhstan which urged the government to support a national effort to eliminate all asbestos use. The conference was the first of its kind in the country, yet subsequent seminars and conferences are still pushing the notion that the citizens of Kazakhstan are ill-informed on the dangers of asbestos.
India’s excessive use of asbestos will most likely have a significant impact on the health of the population in the next few decades, especially as India’s population is over 1.3 billion people.
While India does not mine asbestos anymore, it used to be a top importer for asbestos mined in Canada. Two decades ago, India used 500,000 metric tons of asbestos cement roofing; today’s numbers are much higher and are nearer the 4 million mark.
However, in 2011 India voted to have asbestos added to the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances list. BANI (Ban Asbestos Network of India), which is a group comprising of doctors, scientists, activists, and public health researchers, have been pushing the complete ban of the mineral.
Due to the early documented cases of asbestos-related diseases from the workplace, like those from Spodden Valley, the UK saw the creation of the 1931 Asbestos Industry Regulations. These regulations stated what was deemed a safe level of asbestos exposure. Amazingly, this exposure limit was increased in 1960, but later decreased 8 years later.
The UK is still paying the price for its excessive asbestos usage, although mesothelioma deaths are now starting to decrease annually. Although amosite and crocidolite was banned in the 80s, chrysotile was only banned in 1999.
Australia’s peak asbestos years are long behind them, but the detrimental health effects of overuse are still seen today. It’s predicted that approximately 18,000 Australian citizens will have contracted mesothelioma by 2020.
The asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, located in Western Australia, could be one of the best examples of proving the toxicity of asbestos. Mining began in 1939, where the predominant mineral mined was crocidolite. Crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is known to be associated with higher development rates of asbestos related diseases, compared to others.
Even though the mine was shut down in 1966, Wittenoom’s mining efforts has meant that Western Australia has one of the highest asbestos related disease rates in the world.
Wittenoom, as of 2018, only has three residents. The town has been removed from official maps and receives no government services.
South Africa’s mining efforts were established in 1883, with a crocidolite mine in Koegas. This lead to the country becoming a major exporter of crocidolite to the United Kingdom and Australia.
South Africa’s mining peaked in 1977, when they mined 380,000 metric tons, making them the worlds third-biggest supplier at the time. However, the mines were closed within a decade due to health risk concerns.
The negative health effects of exposure to asbestos fibres were predominately hidden from the public, by the mining industry. There was minimal awareness of mesothelioma to the public until the late 70s. After the Northern Cape mines closed, others followed suit across South Africa.