Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies
Updated: June 22, 2017
List of Agencies (in order of entry):
International Labor Organization, World Health Organization, Collegium Ramazzini, International Agency for Research on Cancer, The International Trade Union Confederation, World Bank, International Commission on Occupational Health, Societies of Epidemiology, The Union for International Control of Cancer, International Maritime Organization, The International Social Security Association, United Nations Commission for Refugees
In 2003, the organizations tasked with protecting occupational and public health adopted an Outline for the Development of National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases which stated:
the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos. Continued use of chrysotile asbestos cement in the construction industry is a particular concern, because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure and in-place materials have the potential to deteriorate and pose a risk to those carrying our alternations, maintenance and demolition.1
Three years later both the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization took further action on the asbestos hazard as detailed below.
On June 14, 2006, a Resolution Concerning Asbestos was adopted at the 95th General Conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO) which committed the ILO to actively promote a global asbestos ban. The asbestos resolution is noted below.
Resolution concerning asbestos
The General Conference of the International Labour Organization, Considering that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a classification restated by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (a joint Programme of the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme),
Alarmed that an estimated 100,000 workers die every year from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos,
Deeply concerned that workers continue to face serious risks from asbestos exposure, particularly in asbestos removal, demolition, building maintenance, ship-breaking and waste handling activities,
Noting that it has taken three decades of efforts and the emergence of suitable alternatives for a comprehensive ban on the manufacturing and use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products to be adopted in a number of countries,
Further noting that the objective of the Promotional Framework for Occupational Safety and Health Convention 2006 is to prevent occupational injuries, diseases and deaths.
1. Resolves that:
(a) the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place are the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposure and to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and deaths; and
(b) the Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162), should not be used to provide a justification for, or endorsement of, the continued use of asbestos.
2. Requests the Governing Body to direct the International Labour Office to:
(a) continue to encourage member States to ratify and give effect to the provisions of the Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162), and the Occupational Cancer Convention, 1974 (No. 139);
(b) promote the elimination of future use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos containing materials in all member States;
(c) promote the identification and proper management of all forms of asbestos currently in place;
(d) encourage and assist member States to include measures in their national programmes on occupational safety and health to protect workers from exposure to asbestos; and
(e) transmit this resolution to all member States.2
In 2014, the updated Outline for the Development of National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases, available in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese, was jointly published by the ILO and the WHO. This document outlined a program that would enable countries to establish national strategies for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases, especially those still using chrysotile asbestos.
A useful list of ILO resources on asbestos was uploaded in December 2014 and includes links to Recommendations, Conventions, Resolutions, Guidelines, Guidance Notes, key documents and toolkits.
In October 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a policy statement on the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases which echoed the ILO's 2006 Resolution on Asbestos. Recognizing the health hazard posed by continued asbestos use, the WHO is calling for a worldwide ban:
Bearing in mind there is no evidence for a threshold for the carcinogenic effect of asbestos and that increased cancer risks have been observed in populations exposed to very low levels, the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos. Continued use of asbestos cement in the construction industry is a particular concern because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure, and in-place materials have the potential to deteriorate and pose a risk to those carrying out alterations, maintenance and demolition. In its various applications, asbestos can be replaced by some fibre materials and by other products which pose less or no risk to health. 3
In a document released on May 13, 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) called for urgent action to protect human health from exposure to 10 chemicals, amongst which is asbestos. The WHO says that "in 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 DALYs," "the sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality and the years of productive life lost due to disability."4
In October 2012, the WHO Regional Office for Europe published a 45-page monograph entitled: National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases: Review and Assessment. This document is based on a 2011 meeting convened by the WHO Centre in Bonn. Material in this monograph includes input from the meeting as well as information collected by the WHO about national asbestos situations. The report recognizes the pivotal role played by asbestos victims' support groups in raising awareness and urging political commitments. Footnote 11 on page 17 illustrates the dissension of Russian delegates to the consensus that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic.
The final section of the report highlights:
On February 19, 2013, the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a statement (Joint WHO/IARC Statement in response to the recent Lancet report) reaffirming their support for a worldwide ban on the use of all types of asbestos. This action was taken as a result of serious issues raised in a January 2013 article in The Lancet entitled: IARC in the dock over ties with asbestos industry. The full statement is below.
Joint WHO/IARC Statement
19 February 2013
In response to allegations in the recent Lancet article, IARC in the dock over ties with asbestos industry (The Lancet, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60152-X), WHO and IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) state the following:
Towards the end of 2013, the WHO published a report on a meeting held by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health on November 5 – 6, 2012 in Bonn. The 90-page report (The Human and Financial Burden of Asbestos in the WHO European Region) contains invaluable information on the asbestos status quo in 26 countries. There exists, according to the evidence presented by the national delegates, a vast discrepancy regarding the regulation of occupational and environmental asbestos exposures, the collection of data on asbestos-related diseases and the services provided to the injured. The authors of this report having confirmed the “carcinogenicity of all types of asbestos … and the importance of ARDs (asbestos-related diseases) as one of the most severe and widespread occupational and environmental health hazards in the Region, highlighted the need for better legal frameworks, more medical training and the compilation of national asbestos profiles.
In July, 2014 the WHO issued Fact sheet N°343 entitled: Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases which re-enforced previous statements regarding the carcinogenicity of ALL types of asbestos:
“Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings). Asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), and plaques, thickening and effusion in the pleura.”
The WHO stressed that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos…”
Also in 2014, the updated Outline for the Development of National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases, available in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese, was jointly published by the WHO and the ILO. This document outlined a program that would enable countries to establish national strategies for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases, especially those still using chrysotile asbestos.
As a result of the actions by the WHO and the ILO to address the global asbestos crisis, the Russian-led asbestos propaganda machine bombarded the agencies with letters, uninvited visits and threats. The industry lobby’s actions were to no avail and in 2014, the WHO published a 44-page document entitled Chrysotile Asbestos which was intended to assist decision-makers in WHO Member States to make “informed decisions about management of the health risks attached to exposure to chrysotile asbestos.”
The text is divided into sections containing:
On April 30, 2015, at the closure of a meeting on environment and health in Israel calls were made by Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by ending asbestos use and decontaminating European infrastructures. He estimated that 300 million people in the WHO European Region live in countries which have not banned asbestos. Dr. Jakab said: “We cannot afford losing almost 15,000 lives a year in Europe, especially workers, from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos. Every death from asbestos-related diseases is avoidable (see: At least one in three Europeans can be exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment).
On June 13, 2017, the World Health Organization released the English language version of its Asbestos Fact Sheet 4 at the 6th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The four-page text reaffirmed that:
Confirming the conclusion that the economic case for banning asbestos far outweighs the fiscal arguments for continued use, the authors conclude:
“There are substantial and increasing costs associated with the continuing production and use of asbestos. The long-term negative effects far outweigh any short-term economic benefits. Substantial health costs, long-term remediation and additional litigation costs (see Fig. 2) further reinforce banning all uses and the production of asbestos as early as possible in favour of sustainable and healthy economic development.”
A longer document was also released in June 2017 entitled: Asbestos. Economic Assessment of Bans and Declining Production and Consumption in English and also a Russian version (click here for Russian version).
The Collegium Ramazzini is an independent, international academy founded in 1982 by eminent scientists. It is comprised of 180 internationally renowned experts in the fields of occupational and environmental health. The mission of the Collegium Ramazzini is to advance the study of occupational and environmental health issues and to be a bridge between the world of scientific discovery and the social and political centers which must act on the discoveries of science to protect public health.
In 1999, the Collegium issued a: Call for an International Ban on Asbestos which said:
To eliminate the burden of disease and death that is caused worldwide by exposure to asbestos, the Collegium Ramazzini calls for an immediate ban on all mining and use of asbestos. To be effective, the ban must be international in scope and must be enforced in every country in the world.5
This was followed up in 2004 by a Call for an International Ban on Asbestos: Statement Update which stated:
Asbestos is an occupational and environmental hazard of catastrophic proportion. Asbestos has been responsible for over 200,000 deaths in the United States, and it will cause millions more deaths worldwide. The profound tragedy of the asbestos epidemic is that all illnesses and deaths related to asbestos were entirely preventable.6
In March 2010, the Collegium Ramazzini called again for global action on the asbestos hazard:
All forms of asbestos are proven human carcinogens. All forms of asbestos cause malignant mesothelioma, lung, laryngeal, and ovarian cancers, and may cause gastrointestinal and other cancers. No exposure to asbestos is without risk, and there is no safe threshold of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos cancer victims die painful lingering deaths. These deaths are almost entirely preventable
Early suggestions that chrysotile might be less dangerous than other forms of asbestos have not been substantiated 7
The 2010 document provides news of recent developments including scientific research and global action; it highlights the adoption of asbestos policies by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization which support a phasing out of asbestos use. The authors urge: All countries of the world ... to join the international endeavor to ban all forms of asbestos.
In 2015, the Collegium issued commentaries on: the pathological diagnosis of the diseases caused by asbestos; and the causation of malignant mesotheliomas as related to asbestos exposure in the workplace. Below are the relevant links to the documents released by the Collegium on October 14, 2015:
IARC has for decades classed all types of asbestos as a carcinogen. In March 2009 there was an IARC meeting in France which extended IARC's findings to state that exposure to asbestos caused even more types of cancer. Although the monograph detailing these findings will not be available until 2010, a summary report on the official evaluations was published in The Lancet Oncology which said:
Globally, an estimated 125 million people are still exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Although asbestos has been banned or restricted in most of the industrialised world, its use is increasing in parts of Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union. Naturally occurring sources of asbestos, its use in brake linings, and deterioration of asbestos-containing products all contribute to environmental exposure worldwide. Exposure may also come from fibres carried home on the clothing of asbestos workers.
Epidemiological evidence has increasingly shown an association of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite, and anthophyllite) with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Although the potency differences with respect to lung cancer or mesothelioma for fibres of various types and dimensions are debated, the fundamental conclusion is that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Mineral substances (eg, talc or vermiculite) that contain asbestos should also be regarded as carcinogenic to humans.
Sufficient evidence is now available to show that asbestos also causes cancer of the larynx and of the ovary. A meta-analysis of cohort studies reported a relative risk of cancer of the larynx of 14 (95% CI 1216) for any exposure to asbestos. With different exposure metrics, the relative risk for high exposure versus none was at least 20 (1625).5 Cohort studies of women who were heavily exposed to asbestos in the workplace consistently report increased risks of ovarian cancer, as in a study of women in the UK who manufactured gas masks during World War II. Studies suggest that asbestos can accumulate in the ovaries of women who are exposed to it.8
In 2012, IARC Monograph 100C: A Review of Human Carcinogens: Arsenic, Metals, Fibres, and Dusts was published.9 The 90-page chapter on Asbestos10 constituted nearly one fifth of the monograph and covered subjects including: Exposure Data, Cancer in Humans, Cancer in Experimental Animals, Biopersistence, Mechanisms of Carcinogenesis and Susceptible Populations. The conclusion of the chapter states:
There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite). Asbestos causes mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovary. Also positive associations have been observed between exposure to all forms of asbestos and cancer of the pharynx, stomach, and colorectum. For cancer of the colorectum, the Working Group was evenly divided as to whether the evidence was strong enough to warrant classification as sufficient…
All forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).
The International Trade Union Confederation, formerly known as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), was set up in 1949 and has 155 million members in 156 countries on all five continents. In December 2004, the ICFTU World Congress adopted a resolution calling for a Global Asbestos Ban which instructed its member bodies, regional organisations, Global Union partners and affiliates, to:
campaign for a total world ban on the use and commercialisation of asbestos; promote ratification of relevant ILO Conventions; work with affiliates to apply pressure on national governments to cease the further use of asbestos; ensure proper, strengthened, safeguards to protect workers and communities that are or will be exposed to asbestos products; and implement employment transition programmes for workers displaced by the banning of asbestos, including economic support for regions that are particularly affected 11
In December 2005, the ICFTU adopted A Global Ban Asbestos Resolution that called on Governments and Social Partners to “initiate actions and programmes leading to a ban on future use of asbestos in all of its forms…”
In 2007, the World Bank Group adopted the Environmental, Health and Safety Guidelines, which stated:
The use of asbestos containing materials (ACM) should be avoided in new buildings or as a new material in remodeling or renovation activities. Existing facilities with ACM should develop an asbestos management plan which clearly identifies the locations where the ACM is present, its condition… procedures for monitoring its condition, procedures to access the locations where ACM is present to avoid damage, and training of staff who can potentially come into contact with the material to avoid damage and prevent exposure.12
In May 2009, a new World Bank document: Good Practice Note: Asbestos: Occupational and Community Health Issues was issued which:
Although adherence to this guidance note is discretionary, advice provided by the World Bank is usually regarded as a precedent for other development banks, private banks and governments. The 17-page note explains the international consensus on phasing out asbestos use, provides information on alternative building products and includes summaries and references on best practices for asbestos abatement.13
In July 2012, the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), “an international non-governmental professional society whose aims are to foster the scientific progress, knowledge and development of occupational health and safety in all its aspects” uploaded a Statement on Global Asbestos Ban and the Elimination of Asbestos-related Diseases to its website.
The preamble to this document made clear ICOH’s unequivocal support for an end to asbestos use:
The International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) calls for a global ban on the mining, sale and use of all forms of asbestos and the elimination of asbestos-related diseases… we urge each and every individual country to implement a total ban on production and use of asbestos…
Highlighting the need for post-ban follow-up and regulatory enforcement, the ICOH statement was categorical in condemning all forms of asbestos as carcinogenic and in calling on ICOH members to “express their concerns, raise awareness and take necessary action regarding the need to prevent asbestos-related diseases.”14
In October 2013, the ICOH issued a further Statement on Global Asbestos Ban and the Elimination of Asbestos-related Diseases which stated: “There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of all forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite actinolite and anthophyllite).15
On July 24, 2012 the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology issued a Position Statement on Asbestos16 which confirmed that all types of asbestos fiber are implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,” including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other diseases.
The statement points out the increasing use of asbestos in low-to-middle income countries and urges epidemiological societies, public health organizations and agencies to support scientists calling for asbestos to be banned in consuming countries. At the top of the statement’s list of recommendations is a call for a “global ban on the mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos.” Commenting on the position statement, Chair of the Joint Policy Committee Stan Weiss said “continued use of asbestos will lead to a public health disaster of asbestos-related death for decades to come, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialized countries that used asbestos in the past.”
A special Asbestos Issue of The Epidemiology Monitor issued on July 26, 2012 explains the background, input and context of the Position Statement on Asbestos.17
At the end of the August 27-30 2012 World Cancer Congress held by the Union for International Control of Cancer (UICC) a Position Statement on Asbestos was adopted calling for a global ban on the mining, use and export of asbestos.18 It was ironic that this opportunity for affirmative action was a meeting in Canada, formerly the world's most prolific producer of asbestos. During the August 28th Asbestos session at the Congress, speakers Kathleen Ruff and Yeyong Choi pressed the UICC to act on the asbestos hazard. Terry Slevin, who chaired the session, told journalists that the link between exposure to asbestos and cancer was indisputable.
The UICC statement, which draws heavily on the Position Statement on Asbestos issued by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (June 4, 2012), is categorical about the human health risk of exposure to asbestos and the urgent need for a comprehensive package of measures to address it.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the "safety and security of shipping and the prevention of maritime pollution by ships." At the eighty-eighth session of the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (November 24 - December 3, 2010), IMO Circular 1374, Information on Prohibiting the Use of Asbestos on Board Ships, was adopted which stipulated that as of January 1, 2011 the new installation of ACMs (asbestos-containing materials) on board all ships will, without exception, no longer be allowed. 19 This and other prohibitions of asbestos use on ships are binding on all 170 member states. Steps to minimize hazardous exposures from asbestos products incorporated on board vessels are stipulated.
The International Social Security Association (ISSA), an institution which promotes the role of good governance in the administration of social security systems around the world, commissioned a technical report on asbestos entitled: Respiratory diseases linked to exposure to products such as asbestos: Are preventive measures sufficient?20 This 11-page document was presented at the 28th ISSA General Assembly in Beijing in September 2004. It highlighted the international health crisis caused by asbestos exposures as well as the economic consequences of caring for asbestos victims, managing asbestos-contaminated properties and disposing of asbestos waste. "All countries have to face this global menace, and no country can pretend to ignore it."
As a result of the discussion engendered by this report, an ISSA Declaration on Asbestos was adopted; it was categorical in its support for outlawing asbestos:
The ISSA Special Commission on Prevention urges all countries to ban the manufacture, trade and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing products as soon as possible.21
In UNHCR memorandum No. 025/2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) advised all staff members at headquarters and in the field that following advice from the World Health Organization “material containing asbestos should not be procured or used in UNHCR funded projects.” This memo was sent by Kamel Morjane, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner on March 29, 2005.
3 In English: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_eng.pdf
In Chinese: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_chi.pdf
In Spanish: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_spa.pdf
In Arabic: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_ara.pdf
In French: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_fre.pdf
In Russian: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_rus.pdf
4 Preventing Diseases Through Healthy Environments.
5 Sixth Collegium Ramazzini Statement (1999). Call for an International Ban on Asbestos
7 Asbestos Is Still with Us: Repeat Call for a Universal Ban. Collegium Ramazzin. (2010).
(Received by email March 18, 2010.)
15 2013 ICOH Statement on Global Asbestos Ban and the Elimination of Asbestos-related Diseases: http://www.icohweb.org/site_new/multimedia/news/pdf/2013_ICOH%20Statement%20on%20global%20asbestos%20ban.pdf
16 Position Statement on Asbestos from the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (JPC-SE):
17 The Epidemiology Monitor. Issued July 26, 2012. Volume July-August 2012. http://epimonitor.net/Epi-Docs/EM_July-Aug_12-Final2.pdf
19 International Maritime Organization. Information on Prohibiting the use of Asbestos on Board Ships. Circular 1374. December 3, 2010.
20 ISSA Technical Report 20: Respiratory diseases linked to exposure to products such as asbestos: Are preventive measures sufficient? [2003 - available in: English, French, German and Spanish].