Asbestos has been banned in more than 30 countries, and safer products have replaced things once made with it. Public concern and government action, combined with liability considerations, have made the cost of asbestos products prohibitive in the United States. And though the Environmental Protection Agency's rules to phase out major uses of asbestos were overturned in a court challenge, asbestos use in the United States has continued to plummet. Unfortunately, asbestos products continue to be imported, some in alarming amounts. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act to shut down the remains of the asbestos industry here and stop imports of products containing asbestos.
We have a continuing tragedy from the historical use of asbestos in the United States, which peaked in 1973. Every hour, another American dies from asbestos-related cancers. This is primarily a result of widespread exposure to asbestos in construction work, where boards containing asbestos were cut up with power saws like lumber, the dust flying around. Now, when workers go into buildings for such renovations, they commonly wear "space suits" with air masks and take elaborate precautions against contamination of the work area.
It's not like that everywhere, however. A new asbestos factory opened in India this year. More than 90 percent of the asbestos used today is in asbestos-cement sheets and pipes. This goes on despite a warning by the International Program on Chemical Safety that the use of asbestos in construction materials is especially dangerous because of the large numbers of people exposed to the airborne dust and the extreme difficulty of controlling exposure.
As markets for asbestos in North America and Western Europe declined in the 1970s and 1980s, they were offset by expansion elsewhere. Nevertheless, world asbestos consumption dropped by half in the 1990s from its historical high and has leveled off there.
In 1999 the world's largest exporter of asbestos, Canada, went to the World Trade Organization challenging the ban on asbestos in France. The United States supported the right of France to ban asbestos, and the WTO agreed. The WTO found that all levels of asbestos posed some cancer risk, that safer substitute products were available and that there was no such thing as "controlled use." This enabled other countries to ban asbestos and ensured that the Jan. 1, 2005, European Union deadline on its asbestos ban would be observed by all its member countries. Asbestos has now been banned by Saudi Arabia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Seychelles, Gabon and Australia.
Canada, however, has exercised enormous influence internationally. At a recent conference organized by the asbestos industry in India, 14 of the presentations were by perennial defenders of asbestos from Canada. The asbestos mined in Canada is exported almost entirely to poor countries. Unions, environmental groups and residents of Quebec have urged that the asbestos mines be closed and that the 1,000 or so remaining asbestos miners be pensioned off with money heretofore spent on propping up the declining trade. But Canada continues to use its international prestige to market asbestos.
International lending institutions could help in this regard. A recent report to the World Bank said that it should "work with the rest of the U.N. system to foster a global ban on asbestos." The World Bank was urged to phase out the use of asbestos materials in projects it supported and to assist countries in converting asbestos-cement plants to safer materials. It was also urged to promote construction practices for the careful renovation and demolition of asbestos structures.
The global struggle over asbestos has come a long way. Multinational corporations that were based on asbestos mining and manufacture 20 years ago are either bankrupt or in other lines of business. But very high levels of asbestos use persist in many countries, including those, such as Brazil and India, where valiant campaigns are being waged by public health workers and unionists to ban asbestos. In fact, it will take unprecedented efforts to stop the use of asbestos products in poor countries, where vast amounts of it continue to be utilized.
The writer is an environmental consultant. He has testified for plaintiffs in a number of asbestos lawsuits.