Although bans or restrictions on asbestos exist in 53 countries including the European Union, the industry has found new markets in other countries such as India and Mexico. By 2030, there may be as many as 10 million asbestos-related deaths.
In the United States, it is legal to use asbestos to make automobile and aircraft brakes, gaskets and a few other products.
The asbestos industry spends large sums of money to promote its commerce, using the same tactics as were used in the tobacco industry regarding the “safety” of this substance: creating doubt, contesting litigation, delaying regulation. The only kind of asbestos sold today, chrysotile (white asbestos) is claimed by industry to be much less hazardous than the brown or blue asbestos which ceased to be mined in the 1990’s. Chrysotile is cheap and thus still used in construction and manufacturing in many countries.
The leading countries mining asbestos are Brazil, China and Russia. Russia is the largest producer of chrysotile, while China is the biggest consumer.
In countries such as China, India and Mexico, protective measures against asbestos exposure in factories are lax. Mexico imports Canadian chrysotile. In Mexico City, there are some 70 asbestos factories, employing about 10,000 workers. A mesothelioma epidemic is expected in the coming years.
The industry is strongest in India, which is the world’s second largest asbestos consumer after China. The market is growing at 30% a year due mainly to construction in poor, rural areas where asbestos is used to cover homes.
In China, the largest user of asbestos, there are some 1,000 asbestos mines and production facilities, employing about one million workers.
Chrysotile is banned in Canada. The country is, however, the world’s fifth largest asbestos producer and the fourth largest exporter, where half of the exports go to India, and the rest to Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
Canada is one of the principal promoters of the “controlled” use of asbestos in building and manufacturing. The Chrysotile Institute in Montreal, which is funded by the federal and provincial governments of Canada, continues to export asbestos. Recently, Canada became the only country in the world to oppose listing chrysotile under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral treaty covering the importation of hazardous chemicals. Under the terms of this Annex, exporting countries must inform importers of the hazards of the substance and the precautionary measures that should be taken in handling it.
The Chrysotile Institute promotes the safety of asbestos use, while at the same time working to preserve commerce in this material. There are about a dozen industry-backed scientists attesting to the relative safety of chrysotile. The industry spends millions of dollars funding their studies which appear in the medical literature.
Asbestos cement substitutes exist although these materials cost 10 to 15% more to produce. The cost of disease and death erases any short-term savings using chrysotile, the cheaper and more hazardous material.
Once again, industry’s greed for profits takes precedence over the health and well-being of workers and people who are exposed to its harmful products.
(The above is a near-verbatim summary of the article “ Exporting an Epidemic: A Global Asbestos Crisis ” written by Jim Morris in September 2010. It appeared on the site “Women in Europe for a Common Future” ( http://www.wecf.org/ ) . Also referenced: " A Deadly Disdain for Science ” by Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun, July 2011).