Asbestos on WHO Agenda 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



(Revised Mar 28, 2011)

Concern about the human consequences of asbestos exposures led to the subject of asbestos being given a high priority at a high-level conference in Asturias, Spain. The event, which took place on March 17 & 18, 2011, was organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Union for International Cancer Control and Spanish partners from civil society, regional and central governments. According to the organizers, this was the first WHO conference to tackle the subject of Environmental and Occupational Determinants of Cancer and, as such, attracted a range of stakeholders from a multitude of countries.

On the program were sessions during which asbestos was discussed at some length including: Environmental and occupational health policies for primary prevention of cancer: Learning example on asbestos and cancer (March 17), Strategies for introducing environmental aspects to the global cancer agenda and Increasing social and political awareness to promote policies for primary prevention of cancer (March 18).

Documentation distributed to conference delegates was categorical about the risks posed by asbestos exposures. In an Overview of the Evidence of Environmental and Occupational Determinants of Cancer, asbestos was indicted as a major cause of avoidable human mortality:

“All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Inhalation of asbestos contributes substantially to the burden of lung cancer and is causing mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and the ovaries. There is some evidence suggesting an association between exposure to asbestos with causation of cancer of the pharynx, the stomach and colorectal cancer. Asbestos exposures account for the largest proportion of occupational cancer.

The construction industry and extractive mining of asbestos are sources of workers' exposure. Although the use of asbestos has been greatly restricted in many countries (over 50 countries have banned the use of all forms of asbestos), workers employed in construction trades, electricians and carpenters can still experience high levels of asbestos exposures through renovations, repairs and demolition; as well as workers exposed to asbestos-containing products, such as in brake maintenance and repair. Some countries still continue to mine and use chrysotile.

Asbestos is one of the best characterized occupational causes of human cancer, however the general population is also exposed because asbestos is released into the environment from the use and deterioration of many asbestos products.”1

Another discussion document Primary Prevention of Cancer through Mitigation of Environmental and Occupational Determinants, highlighted the benefits of asbestos bans which “will prevent linked lung cancer and mesothelioma and will also prevent asbestosis, a non-malignant fibrotic condition of the lungs…” Recommendations for reducing “chemical and physical exposures to carcinogens” include:

“Banning of the use of all types of asbestos and banning exportation to other countries, and stimulating asbestos replacement with safer substitutes by economical and technological mechanisms…”2

An observer who took part in the sessions said the meeting was productive in delineating ways to prevent environmental and occupational cancer and “was a step forward in the global struggle over asbestos.” The Asturias Declaration adopted by conference delegates called for a mobilization of international agencies, national governments, civil society networks and industry to coordinate efforts to protect humanity from exposures to cancer causing substances.

March 21, 2011


1 Overview of the Evidence of Environmental and Occupational Determinants of Cancer.

2 Primary Prevention of Cancer through Mitigation of Environmental and Occupational Determinants.



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