Russias Autumn Asbestos Offensive
September 1, the day Russian children traditionally return to school after the summer break, is celebrated as Annual Knowledge Day. Pupils enter festively decorated classrooms attired in new clothes holding bunches of flowers to mark the import of the day. On Wednesday last week (September 1, 2021), Sverdlovsk Governor Yevgeny Kuyvashev visited classes at three high schools including one in the asbestos mining town of Asbest (Asbestos).1 According to a news report, he offered the students options for their future professions. Whether or not he highlighted career possibilities at the towns chrysotile asbestos mine, we dont know for sure but since its owner Uralasbest is one of the biggest employers in the area it seems highly likely.2 What the Governor would not have mentioned was the elevated risk posed to Uralasbest workers of premature death and/or debilitating disease posed by occupational exposures to asbestos, an acknowledged carcinogen.
Asbest is an industrial monotown with an economy based around the mining, processing and sale of chrysotile (white) asbestos fiber. Seven thousand of the towns 70,000 population work for the Uralasbest Joint Stock Company which operates the worlds largest open-pit chrysotile mine and accounts for ~30% of global asbestos production every year.3 The incidence of mortality from lung cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos is 30% higher in the town than in the rest of the Sverdlovsk region according to scientists working under the auspices of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); death rates from other asbestos-caused cancers, such as oesophageal and stomach cancer, are also elevated in Asbest.4
Despite these disturbing findings, Russian asbestos stakeholders continue to deny that exposure to chrysotile can be deadly. A curious document released by the International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations Chrysotile, a trade union organisation, which backs the safe and responsible use of chrysotile and opposes the global chrysotile ban campaign in 2019 asserted that there were no cases of occupational diseases recorded at the Uralasbest plant in 2018 and no cases of asbestos-related diseases amongst the residents of Asbest.5 These statements were in direct contravention of scientific findings.6
Earlier this month there was a disturbing incident which revealed the disconnect between the reality of the situation as described by IARC and the fairy tales still being told by asbestos stakeholders. During a press briefing in Yekaterinburg on September 2, 2021, Russias Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed his governments reassurances that the use of Russian chrysotile asbestos was not harmful to human health.7 Lavrovs comments were timed to bolster deals being negotiated between Russian asbestos suppliers and trading partners from India, Vietnam and other Asian countries. To substantiate the scientific bona fides of the Russian Governments asbestos policy, the Minister stated that the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization also espoused the controlled use of asbestos; the WHO and ILO agreed, he reiterated, that asbestos could be used safely.
Reacting to the erroneous information provided by the Russian Minister, Carolyn Vickers, Head of the Chemical Safety and Health Unit of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health for the World Health Organization (WHO) expressed concern about the fact: that countries are lobbied with misinformation about the health risks of chrysotile. Chrysotile asbestos causes cancer in humans, specifically, it causes mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary. The scientific evidence that it causes cancer is conclusive and overwhelming.8
Other points made by Vickers in her rebuttal of the Russian Ministers disingenuous comments were the following:
The final sentences in Dr. Vickers response to the latest Russian disinformation onslaught was categorical. The World Health Organization, she wrote reiterates its policy, which remains unchanged, that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to the stop the use of all types of asbestos. WHO continues to offer its support to countries to address the problem of chrysotile asbestos and the serious threat it poses to public health.
The asbestos cover-up extends all the way from the grassroots to the very highest echelons of the Russian Government.9 The same lies told in Asbest to the workers in the chrysotile mine and mill are being told to the towns residents. The lack of asbestos awareness amongst foreign governments is ruthlessly exploited to drive export sales. The priority of all the industry stakeholders is to keep the wheels turning and the money pouring in. Whether doing so will kill Uralasbest employees, Russian citizens or foreign customers is of no concern to the asbestos oligarchs.
September 9, 2021
2 Kazan-Allen, L. Behind the Asbestos Curtain: Uralasbest 2021. July 26, 2021.
3 A 2019 article in the New York Times estimated that 17% of Asbest residents work in either the asbestos mining industry or the Uralasbest factory.
Higgins, A. In Asbest, Russia, Making Asbestos Great Again. April 7, 2019.
Uralasbest website. Accessed September 8, 2021.
4 Cancer mortality was higher for men in Asbest from oesophageal, urinary tract and lung cancers compared to the Sverdlovsk region. In women, cancer mortality was higher for women (sic) in Asbest from stomach, colon, lung and breast cancers compared to the Sverdlovsk region.
Kovalevskiy, EV, et al. Comparison of mortality in Asbest city and the Sverdlovsk region in the Russian Federation: 19972010. 2016.
IARC. Asbest Chrysotile Cohort Study.
5 Positive Statistics: There Are No Occupational Diseases at the Uralasbest Plant. November 21, 2019.
6 Schüz, J. Occupational cohort study of current and former workers exposed to chrysotile in mine and processing facilities in Asbest, the Russian Federation: Cohort profile of the Asbest Chrysotile Cohort study. 2020.
7 Лавров успокоил иностранных партнеров в вопросе хризотилового асбеста [Lavrov reassures foreign partners on the issue of chrysotile asbestos]. September 2, 2021.
Сергей Лавров озвучил позицию Правительства России по хризотиловому асбесту [Sergey Lavrov voiced position of the Russian Government on chrysotile asbestos]. September 6, 2021.
8 Email from C. Vickers, September 6, 2021.
9 Профсоюзный лидер «Ураласбеста» выступил на XI слете профсоюзной молодежи Урала [The trade union leader of Uralasbest spoke at the XI meeting of the trade union youth of the Urals URA-2021].