China's Explosive Rise in Asbestos Disease
It is not surprising to read articles which predict a dramatic rise in asbestos-related disease in China, the world's foremost user of chrysotile asbestos. Over the last 5 years, China's annual usage of asbestos has averaged 560,527 tonnes.1 An article which appeared recently that was written by experts in public and occupational health detailed the prevalence of lung cancer mortality amongst a cohort of workers exposed to chrysotile:
According to plant records, only chrysotile asbestos had been used to produce asbestos textiles, cement products, friction materials, rubber products and heat-resistant materials in the plant since 1939.2
As has been widely observed elsewhere, the interaction between asbestos exposure and smoking for this cohort was shown to be disastrous. This study provides China-specific evidence for decision-makers formulating the Chinese Government's asbestos policy. 3
Despite some attempts to minimize harmful exposures to asbestos in China, the uncontrolled conditions and the widespread use of chrysotile asbestos constitutes a potential time bomb. An article published on November 14, 2010 entitled Mainland faces explosive rise in asbestos-related lung disease,4 revealed that ignorance of the asbestos hazard was the norm in mining towns, asbestos-using factories and residential areas nearby. Even as residents from Sichuan's Asbestos County denied knowing about the asbestos hazard, epidemiological research from Japan, England, and Italy has repeatedly shown that people living within close proximity to asbestos mines or processing facilities have an elevated incidence of asbestos-related disease.
Conditions in places such as the small workshops visited in Yuyao, Zhejiang province provide cause for concern. Describing these conditions, Reporter Paul Monney explained:
A journalist peeks inside a dusty work room in the village and finds some workers wearing cheap cotton or paper masks. A few have masks hanging over their chins, and some wear no masks at all. A middle-aged worker says she's been working here for several years. 'We get physicals every year,' she says, and her health is fine.
A woman factory owner insists there is no risk if one does not enter the work room, although there are signs of dust everywhere in the yard outside her factory and strands of asbestos yarn are hanging outside in the fields to dry. 'As long as you don't go inside you're okay. I live here and my health is fine.'
In light of China's asbestos consumption, a serious epidemic of asbestos-related disease is unavoidable. It's the price the nation will pay for being the world's top asbestos consumer and for failing until recently to address health risks associated with asbestos mining and manufacture. According to Jukka Takala, Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, annual Chinese fatalities from mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases could reach 15,000 by 2035; other experts say that this figure is a huge underestimate and that the current level is already 40,000.
November 16, 2010
1 Data from the United States Geological Survey.
2 The researchers point out that amphibole contamination of the chrysotile used was very low (<0.01% tremolite fibre).
Yano E, Wang X, et al. Lung cancer mortality from exposure to chrysotile asbestos and smoking: a case-control study within a cohort in China. Occup Environ Med 2010;67:867-871
3 Kazan-Allen L. China Expands Asbestos Ban. November 3, 2010
4 Mooney P. Mainland faces explosive rise in asbestos-related lung disease. November 14, 2010.