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Research shows chrysotile is just as lethal as blue or brown asbestos
A recent joint investigation between the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) into the global asbestos industry has again highlighted the debate surrounding chrysotile, or white asbestos.
Bridget Collier, an industrial disease and mesothelioma expert at Fentons Solicitors LLP said: "White asbestos is a known cause of cancer including mesothelioma. There is a definite link between exposure to white asbestos fibres and the subsequent contracting of asbestos-related diseases."
Backed by a global network of trade groups and scientists, the multibillion-dollar asbestos industry has remained buoyant by depicting the epidemic of asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma seen in the West as remnants of a darker time, an unenlightened age where ignorance in regard to the dangers of asbestos was rife and workers had little if any protection from the toxic fibres they encountered.
Despite the immeasurable number of deaths from asbestos-related diseases across the world, white asbestos bans or restrictions in fifty-two countries, a wealth of incriminating evidence, and predictions of millions of asbestos-related cancer deaths worldwide by 2030, the asbestos trade remains very much alive and well due to its continued exploitation of emerging markets in the developing world, where demand for cheap building materials continues to rise.
"The continued export and use of chrysotile across the developing world will only increase the suffering of those exposed to it," warns Bridget, a partner with the firm. "Widespread asbestos exposure will result in epidemics of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis across the developing world. The resulting deaths will continue to rise for many decades to come."
The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 125 million people encounter white asbestos in the workplace. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Experts now predict that with the mineral's new lease of life in these emerging markets, the cumulative death toll from a prolonged epidemic of asbestos-related illnesses may reach 10 million in the next twenty years.
More than two million metric tons of asbestos were mined worldwide in 2009, led by Russia, China and Brazil. Russia, who with strong government backing, produces nearly one million tons of asbestos a year, almost half the world's supply. China, now the world's biggest asbestos consumer, started its widespread use of asbestos in the late 1970's. Health experts predict that given the time between exposure and the onset of disease, we will start seeing the lethal consequences of China's appetite for asbestos, around 2040.
In India, asbestos use is currently flourishing due to demand for roofing in poor, rural areas. Brazil is the world's third largest asbestos producer as well as the world's fifth largest user, consuming 94,000 metric tons in 2007, more than fifty times the amount used in the United States that year. Brazil is also the world's third largest exporter, shipping mainly to Asia as well as countries like Mexico where public-health researchers estimate asbestos-related deaths will rise to five-thousand a year. Mexico currently uses ten times the amount of asbestos as the United States and relies heavily on imports from Canada.
Canada today is the world's fifth largest producer of asbestos and its fourth largest exporter, shipping $97 million of raw fibre overseas in 2008. The following year Canada sent nearly 153,000 metric tons of chrysotile abroad, half of which went to India; the rest going to Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, only six-thousand tonnes were used domestically.
The alarming growth in the use of chrysotile in the developing world is largely due to aggressive marketing conducted by numerous companies, coordinated in part by a government-backed institute in Montreal known as the Chrysotile Institute who advocate the 'controlled' use of asbestos in construction and manufacturing. Nearly $100 million in public and private money has been spent by the industry's global network of lobby groups since the mid-1980's to promote the use of chrysotile in Canada, India and Brazil alone. Their strategy, according to critics is one honed by the tobacco industry over decades - that of creating doubt, contesting litigation and delaying regulation.
Recent evidence from China to India, Mexico to Brazil indicates how elusive this issue of 'controlled' use can be when witnessing for example, Indian workers toiling amid clouds of asbestos dust in any one of the hundreds of unregulated asbestos factories in the city of Ahmedabad, using rags as protection across their mouths.
Asbestos industry researchers have published hundreds of scientific papers claiming that white asbestos is significantly less hazardous than brown or blue asbestos. A vocal minority of industry-funded scientists claim that white asbestos fibres are rapidly and harmlessly expelled by the lungs and have no connection with mesothelioma at all.
"Numerous government commissioned epidemiological studies have concluded that white asbestos is far more dangerous than previously thought," counters Bridget. "Their research concludes that chrysotile is as dangerous as crocidolite, or blue asbestos for contracting lung cancer and mesothelioma."
Citing its value as a cheap and effective building material, asbestos industry researchers claim any health effects from chrysotile are trivial. Notwithstanding any possible links to lung cancer they state it is wrong to deny cheap building materials to developing countries for what they insist are unproven health risks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the pro-chrysotile lobby make any reference to recent WHO research into asbestos cement substitutes - roofing and pipes made with cellulose fibres, ductile iron and fibreglass - detailing how these substitutes cost 10-15 per cent more to produce.
"No exposure to asbestos is without risk, asbestos cannot be used safely as it is clearly a lethal carcinogen. Asbestos cancer victims die horribly painful and lingering deaths," said Bridget.
The American Public Health Association (APHA) has joined the World Federation of Public Health Organizations (WFPHA), the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in calling for a global asbestos ban. The number of countries imposing bans or restrictions continues to rise and health activists have sprung up in China, Brazil, India, and other countries where asbestos use is widespread.
White asbestos is banned in the European Union, Australia and more then twenty other countries. In the United States and Canada it remains legal although its use is limited. The industry in the U.S has paid out an estimated $70 billion in damages and litigation costs to date.
"With a global ban, asbestos-related deaths could be almost entirely preventable," said Bridget. "Chrysotile is the only form of asbestos mined and used today despite its proven links with mesothelioma and other cancers. It is crucial that this information is widely available and governments act now to support a global ban on its production and export."
How can Fentons Solicitors help?
Fentons has a specialist department experienced in handling claims for victims of industrial diseases such as mesothelioma.
If you think that you have a case or require further information contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.
Source - BBC News, Public Integrity
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