New Year's Call to Ban Asbestos
On January 6, 2011 an article entitled Global Magnitude of Reported and Unreported Mesothelioma1 was published (online) in Environmental Health Perspectives, the most widely read peer-reviewed journal on the impact of the environment on human health. Recognizing that at present, mesothelioma is grossly underreported in many developing countries, the authors developed a protocol for addressing the existing information vacuum. Building on work previously done on this subject and drawing on newly available information from the WHO Mortality Database and other sources, the impact of asbestos use in scores of countries was analyzed by the researchers.
While the epidemiological calculations and statistical manipulation detailed in this paper might be challenging for non-specialists, what is crystal clear is the authors' findings about the toll asbestos use has taken. Table 2 (page 25), which relates cumulative national mesothelioma mortality (1994-2008) to asbestos consumption (1920-1970), predictably gives pride of place to developed countries where asbestos was formerly regarded as a miracle mineral. The ten worst affected countries out of the 56 listed are: the USA, UK, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy, Australia, Belgium and Spain. It is of interest to note that amongst the top ten, only the USA (Number 1)2 and Canada (Number 6) have not banned asbestos. Of all the 56 countries listed on Table 2, 71% (40) have banned asbestos and 13% (7) have de facto or partial bans or no longer use asbestos.
The section of most interest to ban asbestos campaigners is Table 3 on pages 28 & 29. The details in this table relate to the 33 countries which during the years 1920-1970 had used a total of 14.2 million tonnes of asbestos (22% of global consumption) but for which no mesothelioma data were available. Many of the countries which feature have long denied the existence of any adverse effects on human health of asbestos exposures. Russia, which used nearly 8.5 million tonnes of asbestos in 1920-1970, is amongst the world's leading pro-asbestos propagandists; Russian industry lobbyists have long maintained that chrysotile asbestos the type Russia mines, uses and exports is a vital ingredient for developing economies. Industry spokesmen from Kazakhstan, China, India and Thailand, occupying positions 2-5 on Table 3, have concurred with this assessment and actively promoted the use of asbestos at home and abroad. The lack of national mesothelioma data has enabled them to maintain the party line. Until now.
Authors Park Eun-Kee, Ken Takahashi et al expose the asbestos propaganda as incorrect; during 1994-2008, there were, the scientists estimate, 21,300, 6,500, 5,100, 2,200 and 500 mesothelioma deaths respectively in Russia, Kazakhstan, China, India and Thailand.3 Worse is to come: It should be noted that the world nearly doubled cumulative use of asbestos from 65 million metric tons until 1970 to 124 million metric tons since then. In particular, the group of 33 countries not reporting mesothelioma frequency quintupled asbestos use. Naming the countries which used a total of more than 3 million tonnes since 1970 Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Japan, the USA, Brazil, Germany, India, Thailand the authors warn them to anticipate the need to deal with a very high burden of mesothelioma in the immediate decades ahead. Developed countries are urged to share: experience and technology to enable developing countries to promote accurate diagnosis, reporting and management of ARDs (asbestos-related diseases), including mesothelioma. This paper is concluded with the unambiguous statement that political will is essential to ensure that asbestos use ceases globally.
January 6, 2011
1 Eun-Kee Park, Takahashi K, et al. Global Magnitude of Reported and Unreported Mesothelioma. January 6, 2011.
3 The estimates for Russia, Kazakhstan, China, India and Thailand total 35,600, 92% of all the cases believed to have gone unreported worldwide.