Opposition to Asbestos Use Accelerates – Even in China
On October 5, 2023, it was announced that a groundbreaking agreement had been reached at the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in Bonn, Germany to improve safeguards protecting workers from exposures to toxic chemicals.1 The introduction of a human rights-based approach, promoting decent, safe, healthy and sustainable work throughout value and supply chains, preventing exposure to harmful chemicals and phasing out the most harmful was hailed as a landmark by Owen Tudor, Deputy General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.
Work-related deaths now account for one million fatalities every year; this figure is expected to double by 2030. Last year the International Labor Organization recognized that a safe and healthy working environment was a fundamental human right; the high-level declaration adopted at the end of ICCM5 acknowledged that pollution was the worlds largest risk factor for disease and premature death.2 Pursuant to these developments, optimism is building that efforts to adopt a Biological Hazards Convention by 2027 will succeed. Toughening up chemical safety protocols will no doubt hasten calls to outlaw the use of the worlds worst occupational killer: asbestos.
There is no question that the asbestos industry is in terminal decline. The most recent global asbestos trade data available show that international consumption between 2018 and 2022 averaged 1,218,000 tonnes/year; the corresponding figure for the previous five-year period was 1,420,000t 20% more. For comparison purposes, total global asbestos consumption at the beginning of the 21st century between 2000 and 2004 was a staggering 10,176,235t or 2,035,247t per year; in other words, annual asbestos consumption worldwide was 67% higher between 2000 and 2004 than it was between 2018 and 2022.3
Growing awareness of the asbestos hazard as well as increasing government regulations are already impacting on the financial prospects of industry stakeholders in asbestos producing countries; this is all the more surprising when it is appreciated that in these countries Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Zimbabwe4 vested interests dictate the content and extent of information disclosed as part of national asbestos dialogues.
On World Cancer Day 2023, alerts were issued about the health hazard posed by occupational and environmental asbestos exposures in Russia, with oncologist Alexei Sorokin warning Russians to avoid such exposures to protect themselves from the risk of contracting cancer.5 This message seems to be one which Russians were already familiar with; whilst Russia produced 708,000 tonnes (t) and 750,000t of chrysotile (white) asbestos in 2020 and 2021 respectively, domestically it only used 113,000t (16%) and 145,000t (19%) in those years, with all the rest being exported. Kazakhs have also shown themselves disinclined to use the output of their countrys asbestos mines, having also been warned of the human hazards posed by exposure to carcinogens such as asbestos, radiation, chemicals, air and water pollution, which can increase the risk of cancer.6
In August 2023, Dr Chen Tianhui and his team from the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences, China called for developing countries to ban asbestos altogether. Pointing out that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, the medical experts bemoaned the fact that chrysotile asbestos was still widely used in China and warned that environmental and occupational exposures to asbestos posed serious threats to the population.7 Almost simultaneously, Chinas Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced plans to strengthen the standardized management of chrysotile asbestos production enterprises, increase the publicity of occupational disease prevention and control, increase awareness of the asbestos hazard and take other steps to protect the population from toxic asbestos exposures.8 Even in China, the worlds second largest asbestos user, consumption levels are falling; between 2012 and 2022, there was a reduction of almost 40%, from 431,000t to 261,000t.
Zimbabwe was formerly a major asbestos-producing country. Mismanagement, corruption and government incompetence destroyed the administration which had successfully operated the mines. As a result, there has not been a consistent, significant output of asbestos from Zimbabwe in more than 15 years.9 Recently, attempts have been made, with limited success, to resurrect mining operations. It was, therefore, somewhat of a curiosity to read an article last month (September, 2023) which highlighted the hazard posed by occupational asbestos exposures:
Asbestos exposure occurs among asbestos miners and in other mines where asbestos is found in the ore. Among miners throughout the world, exposure to asbestos has elevated the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. It has also elevated the risk of asbestosis (another pneumoconiosis) and of airways disease.10
In non-producing asbestos-consuming countries grassroots efforts to mobilize support for the eradication of the asbestos hazard are progressing with substantial progress being made in Cambodia,11 Indonesia,12 Vietnam,13 Laos14 and Bangladesh as a result of the work of asbestos victims groups, trade unions and non-governmental organizations15 in 2022, only India (424,000t), Indonesia (104,000t), Uzbekistan (108,000t) and Thailand (35,300t) used more than 30,000t/year.16 Commenting on the current situation, Sugio Furuya, Coordinator of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network, said:
International agencies responsible for occupational and public health support our objective to ban asbestos as do many global institutions, independent researchers and academics.17 It was reassuring to see a spokesperson for the World Bank reiterate its call for immediate global action to protect humanity and the environment from deadly asbestos exposures during his presentation on September 4, 2023 at the Second Berlin Forum on Chemicals and Sustainability Just Transition Towards a Pollution-free Planet. Richard Damania highlighted high levels of asbestos-related mortality in both Low and Middle Income Countries. Grassroots campaigners are all too aware of the price paid for the asbestos industrys profits and remain united in their dedication to eradicating the hazard to protect future generations.18
October 11, 2023
1 Global chemicals safety agreement: big wins for workers, big challenges for the ILO. October 4, 2023.
2 UNDP. Fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5). August 11, 2023.
ILO. The Global Framework on Chemicals (GFC) and the Bonn High-Level Declaration on Chemicals and Waste adopted: Implications for ILO.
3 Kazan-Allen, L. Global Asbestos Trade 2023: Spotlight on India. September 28, 2023.
Kazan-Allen, L. The Demise of the Asbestos Industry: 2023 Update. August 10, 2023.
4 According to the data from 2022, in 2022 the producing countries were: Russia 750,000t, Kazakhstan 250,000t, Brazil 197,100t and China 130,000t; efforts are ongoing in Zimbabwe to restart asbestos mining operations. Small amounts of asbestos were produced in Zimbabwe in 2019 (2,500t) and 2020 (8,000t).
United States Geological Survey. Asbestos Statistics and Information. Accessed October 5, 2023.
5 Настороженность поможет Врач Алексей Сорокин — о профилактике рака легкого [Being alert will help. Doctor Alexei Sorokin on the prevention of lung cancer]. August 1, 2023.
6 Семь главных факторов риска развития рака назвал казахстанский онколог [Kazakh oncologist names seven main risk factors for cancer development]. March 20, 2023.
7 致癌物“石棉”，潜伏期可达20年，你用过的这些物品可能都有 [The first-class carcinogen asbestos, has an incubation period of up to 20 years, and may have been in items you have used]. August 5, 2023.
8 工业和信息化部答“长期接触石棉建材等制品会致癌？”问题 [The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology answered the question Can long-term exposure to asbestos building materials and other products cause cancer? August 4, 2023.
9 According to the USGS, asbestos production in Zimbabwe was: 150,000t (2004), 122,041t (2005), 100,000t (2006) and 84,500t (2017).
10 Health hazards of mining, quarrying. September 10, 2023
11 Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA. Cambodia to stop using asbestos from 2025 to improve workers welfare. June 8, 2023.
12 IBAS News Digest for Indonesia:
13 Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA. Asbestos imports and roof sheet production drop 66% in Vietnam. September 22, 2023.
14 World Health Organization. Strong support as Lao Government demonstrates action on preventing future cancers in Lao with launch of National Action Plan to Eliminate Asbestos-Related Diseases including a planned ban on chrysotile asbestos. November 28, 2018.
Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA. Laos Parliament Meets with Worlds Leading Asbestos Experts. August 20, 2019.
15 Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA. Asias campaign to ban asbestos making progress. Accessed October 10, 2023.
16 These four countries, accounted for 50% of global asbestos consumption in 2022.
17 IBAS. Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies. Accessed October 9, 2023.
18 Email from Sugio Furuya. October 10, 2023.