Asbestos Business Thrives In Developing World, Despite Health Risks
by Brenda Wilson
July 23, 2010
NPR's Health Blog
We couldn't let the week pass without noting Dangers in the Dust, an ambitious investigative series from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC.
While many countries in the developed world have severely restricted or even banned use of the material. There's danger is in the dust from bricks and sheeting made from asbestos and used to build cheap houses around the world.
The use of the mineral has been associated with hundreds of thousands of deaths from mesothelimoma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Take a look at the series, and you'll find yourself deep inside the global asbestos trade, and the industry's aggressive promotion of the product in the developing world.
An Occupational Health Scientist in Sydney, Australia, Dr. James Leigh has projected that asbestos will lead to up to 10 million deaths by 2030.
Asbestos is a fire- and heat-resistant mineral that was widely used in construction as pipe and ceiling insulation in the U.S. for decades because it's strong, cheap and fire and heat resistant.
The stuff has been banned in the European Union. It's still legal in the United States, mainly used in brake linings, but the industry is weighted down with $70 billion in damages and legal costs.
Reporters spread throughout the world, in the United States, Canada, Russia, Mexico and India were involved in putting together the multimedia series.
There's some contention over whether the asbestos currently being mined, chrysotile or white asbestos, is as toxic as blue or brown asbestos, that is no longer in use.
On one side is the World Health Organization contending that all types cause cancer and that its continued use, primarily in countries like China, India, Brazil, Mexico and other places will only prolong the epidemic of cancers related to its use. The cancers can take up to 30 to 40 years to develop.
On the other side is the proud little town of Asbestos, two hours outside Montreal, Canada, where BBC producer Steve Bradshaw says, "There's a mine in the center of town that is as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high."
A powerful industry Canadian lobbyist, the Chrysotile Institute continues to urge the federal government there to back a multimillion dollar loan to keep the mine open and continue exporting the product. The locals support it. But outside the province the issue of exporting a product, for which Canada has no use, is hotly debated.
No such sensitivities stand in the way of the biggest producer of asbestos, Russia which produces about a million tons a year. Two-thirds of it is shipped to Thailand, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Iran, where there are few if any constraints on its use.
The reporter who picks up the story in India, Murali Krishnan says, "They know it's dangerous, but they continue to live with it because it is cheap and abundant."
An overview on the website estimates that a global network of lobby groups has spent a $100 million dollars since the 1980s promoting the asbestos market.