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April 17, 2015

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Asbestos: a global concern

Despite the UK outlawing asbestos in 1999, many countries around the world still use the mineral. Tony Booth explains the consequences of using asbestos.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 125 million people around the world are annually exposed to asbestos in the workplace, whilst the International Labor Organization (ILO) states that approximately 107,000 workers die each year from a disease related to asbestos.

Currently, the highest rates of reported mesothelioma (a cancer attributed to exposure to asbestos) are in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.However, cases may be under-reported in developing countries of course.

One of the many unfortunate aspects of diseases as a result of exposure to asbestos fibres is the latency period, which can be between 10-50 years. Consequently, asbestos related deaths may be set to continue to rise in the medium term, even in countries that have enforced bans.

Of course, every country has its own story to tell relating to asbestos enforcement. For many developed countries, with the exclusion of USA and Canada, the story is “we used a lot of it, but now we have banned further use of asbestos”. However, for a number of developing countries, the contrast is somewhat different.

So who produces asbestos? There are a number of countries which continue to mine and produce asbestos to satisfy the global demand, of which the top four, which account for over 99% of the global production are, Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan. Russia alone is responsible for approximately 50% of the global production.

The US Geological Survey estimates that worldwide production continues at approximately two million metric tonnes a year. Between 2012 and 2013, there was a 2.4% production rise from 1,987,800 tonnes to 2,034,700 tonnes. However there is some good news in that those countries which produce asbestos are finding it increasingly difficult to export this hazardous material. Worldwide exports of asbestos materials fell by 27% (352,271 tonnes) between 2013 compared to 2012.

In recent years, the world’s largest importer of asbestos, India, has reduced imports of the deadly substance by 39%. Other countries in Asia such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand have also reduced the amount of asbestos they have imported each year. Unfortunately, in some countries, such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Bangladesh, asbestos consumption has increased.

It is hoped that as more and more countries turn away from using and importing asbestos, there will no longer be a market for it. However, I feel it will still be a very long time before we will be able to consign asbestos to history.


Tony Booth, health and safety consultant at International Workplace

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