Asbestos: An ongoing challenge to global health

December 8, 2014, Elsevier
A pie chart of global asbestos fiber consumption in 2012. Credit: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat & Citi Research

Challenges to global health can evolve from policies and decisions that take years or decades to unfold. An article in the current issue of the Annals of Global Health describes the current state of asbestos use worldwide, a story that began over 100 years ago, and the real and contrived controversies regarding asbestos.

At the peak of asbestos use in 1972 in the United States, more than 775,000 tons of asbestos were used, much of it by the construction trades and shipbuilding industry, in addition to the manufacturing of many consumer products. As the health risks associated with asbestos have become evident, more than 50 countries have banned asbestos, although India and the United States have not.

As investigators Arthur L. Frank, MD, PhD, Drexel University School of Public Health, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and T.K. Joshi, MBBS, MS (Surgery), Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India, relate, "Unfortunately, as the developed world was banning or constricting the use of asbestos, the developing world was greatly increasing its use of this toxic material. Major producers such as Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Brazil continue to produce and export asbestos to countries around the world, especially to low- and middle-income countries that too often have weak or nonexistent occupational and environmental regulations." They note that India produces little asbestos, but has become a major importer with exponential growth in manufacture of asbestos cement and pipes.

Asbestos minerals are divided into two groups, amphibole and serpentine, based on their chemistry and fiber morphology. The amphibole group includes crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite asbestos. The serpentine group is comprised solely of chrysotile asbestos, and it accounts for some 90% to 95% of all the asbestos used worldwide.

Two groups of diseases are associated with exposures to asbestos: nonmalignant diseases, which can be fatal, and cancer. The nonmalignant diseases associated with exposure to asbestos include asbestos warts, benign asbestotic pleural effusion, and asbestosis.

The now disproven belief that chrysotile asbestos is safe and the actions of the governments of Canada and India to support asbestos production in the face of strong epidemiological data show that this is not a strictly science-driven issue. Canada has recently had a turnabout and will likely exit the asbestos business, but India remains recalcitrant.

Dr. Frank and Dr. Joshi report on how the global spread of asbestos is changing but that there are still examples of flawed science being used to justify continued use. They suggest that, because of economic issues for asbestos producers, there "are far more insidious actions that follow a pattern first established by the tobacco industry in hiring public relations firms to obfuscate the scientific issues so that tobacco could still be sold...Similarly, the asbestos industry adopted the view that a public relations campaign was needed to quash the rising concerns about its health hazards."

The authors caution that eventually the truths regarding exposure and its true hazards will be recognized and acted upon, but only after economic forces are overcome.

Explore further: Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis cases linked with asbestos exposure

More information: "The Global Spread of Asbestos," by Arthur L. Frank, MD, PhD, and T.K. Joshi, MBBS, MS (Surgery), MSc (LSHTM). DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aogh.2014.09.016. It appears in Annals of Global Health, Volume 80, Issue 4 (2014)

Related Stories

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis cases linked with asbestos exposure

September 9, 2014
A proportion of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) cases may be linked with asbestos exposure, according to the results of a new study. If confirmed, the findings would mean that current treatment strategies need to be altered ...

Mesothelioma risk endures over long-term

September 22, 2014
Western Australian researchers have determined the risk of developing mesothelioma continues to increase even 40 years after a person's first exposure to asbestos.

Deaths and major morbidity from asbestos-related diseases in Asia likely to surge in next 20 years

June 9, 2011
An alarming new article in Respirology issues a serious warning of massive rises in deaths from asbestos-related lung diseases in Asia. Dr Ken Takahashi, Acting Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health, ...

Expert: Cancer rates show it's time for a global asbestos ban

August 19, 2011
The use of asbestos building materials in developing countries results in millions of preventable cancer cases, a University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health epidemiologist reports in the coming issue of ...

Thousands stage Paris 'die-in' to protest asbestos risk

October 13, 2013
Thousands of people staged a "die-in" in Paris on Saturday over authorities' failure to clear workplaces of asbestos, which can cause fatal respiratory diseases after long exposure.

Recommended for you

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Effect of oral alfacalcidol on clinical outcomes in patients without secondary hyperparathyroidism

December 11, 2018
Treatment with active vitamin D did not decrease cardiovascular events in kidney patients undergoing hemodialysis, according to a research group in Japan. They have reported their research results in the December 11 issue ...

Yes please to yoghurt and cheese: The new improved Mediterranean diet

December 11, 2018
Thousands of Australians can take heart as new research from the University of South Australia shows a dairy-enhanced Mediterranean diet will significantly increase health outcomes for those at risk of cardiovascular disease ...

Licence to Swill: James Bond's drinking over six decades

December 10, 2018
He may be licensed to kill but fictional British secret service agent James Bond has a severe alcohol use disorder, according to an analysis of his drinking behaviour published in the Medical Journal of Australia's Christmas ...

Obesity, risk of cognitive dysfunction? Consider high-intensity interval exercise

December 10, 2018
It's fast-paced, takes less time to do, and burns a lot of calories. High-intensity interval exercise is widely recognized as the most time-efficient and effective way to exercise. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers ...

How to survive on 'Game of Thrones': Switch allegiances

December 9, 2018
Characters in the Game of Thrones TV series are more likely to die if they do not switch allegiance, and are male, according to an article published in the open access journal Injury Epidemiology.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.