Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and known carcinogen. Exposure to asbestos fibres can cause people to develop a number of asbestos-related conditions. The dangers of asbestos to people’s health have been documented as far back as the early 1900s. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
As the dangers of asbestos are so well documented across the UK and Europe, asbestos has been banned completely. As a result, some might incorrectly presume that this is the case across the world. Sadly, this is not the case and millions of people remain at risk of asbestos exposure worldwide.
Asbestos bans in the 1980s-1990s
The use of asbestos was only completely banned in the UK just over 20 years ago. The ban was brought in in phases, with blue (crocidolite) and brown (amosite) asbestos being banned in 1985 and white (chrysotile) asbestos being banned in 1999. This is the case despite the dangers of asbestos being well documented for many years before this.
It is important to note that the UK’s ban, like most developed countries, only relates to the continued use of asbestos rather than any law on removal. This means that large amounts of asbestos still remain in many buildings, including schools and hospitals.
France banned the use of asbestos in 1997. At the time, Canada claimed that France was not entitled to prohibit the import of certain asbestos-containing products. The World Trade Organisation considered the matter and ruled that France was entitled to ban asbestos to protect public health. France has since campaigned for a worldwide ban on asbestos.
Italy fully banned the use of asbestos in 1992. In addition, the country made plans for asbestos decontamination both domestically and commercially.
Asbestos bans in the 2000s
Most types of asbestos were banned throughout the EU in 1991; however, chrysotile/white asbestos use was still permitted in certain products such as asbestos cement products, seals and gaskets. In 2005 the European Commission took the step to ban asbestos throughout the EU.
Australia has a long history of asbestos production and use, with the material first being mined in the late 1800’s. Asbestos was eventually banned in Australia in 2003 but the ban, again, does not cover the handling or removal of asbestos products already in situ.
Australia’s asbestos legacy can be most clearly seen in the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia. Mining in the area began in the 1930s until the mine was shut down in 1966. Even though the mine’s closure was over 50 years ago, the entire town was shut down over health concerns due to asbestos contamination. Its official town status was removed in June 2007.
Asbestos was still mined in Canada as late as 2011. The country’s last two asbestos mines were eventually closed in 2012 but despite this, the Canadian government still tried to keep the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine open by offering a $58 million grant.
It was only in 2018 that the Canadian federal government finally passed regulations prohibiting the use, sale, import, and export of all forms of asbestos. This is particularly concerning given the known health risks associated with asbestos and the wealth of information available to the Canadian authorities at the time.
Countries still using or producing asbestos
Russia is the world’s largest producer of asbestos. The city of Asbest is home to an enormous mine which generates 500,000 metric tons of white (chrysotile) asbestos each year. It is known as the dying city because of its high rates of asbestos-related diseases. Nevertheless, asbestos producers in the country continue to maintain that the use of white asbestos is safe.
Russia is also the world’s second largest consumer of asbestos and it is regularly used in the country for car brake pads, insulation and roofing.
The world’s second largest producer of asbestos is China. In 2012 it came to light that thousands of cars containing asbestos gaskets had been shipped to Australia for sale and almost 25,000 cars had to be recalled.
In addition, China is the world’s number one consumer of the mineral and imports from Russia are needed to satisfy the huge demand. Asbestos is widely used in construction work across China, apart from Beijing where its use is prohibited.
Whilst the mining of asbestos has been banned in India, asbestos is still widely used without restriction.
India’s government has advocated the use of alternatives to asbestos and has recommended that asbestos be phased out, recognising the substance as hazardous. In addition, there are various rules and regulations in place in relation to the safe usage of asbestos products, however, in reality there is no proper enforcement of these rules leaving workers unprotected and at risk.
South Africa was once one of the leading producers of asbestos. The notorious asbestos manufacturer Cape Asbestos takes its name from the Northern Cape mines in the country.
Asbestos was banned in the country in 2008 and regulation was made regarding the use, processing, manufacturing, import and export of asbestos and materials containing asbestos.
However, materials containing asbestos remain in situ all over the country and the country’s deadly history of asbestos mining lives on, with many affected from environmental exposure alone. It is thought that many asbestos related deaths are also underreported so the true devastation to South Africa’s citizens may never be known.
Perhaps most surprisingly, asbestos is still not banned in the United States. It is currently regulated under the Clean Air Act 1970 meaning its use is restricted, however, the US continues to import and use asbestos, with 750 metric tons of asbestos being imported in 2018.
Asbestos can still be found in car brake pads, protective clothing, welding blankets and gloves, as well as construction and roofing products.
The Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act is a bill which has been presented and approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee and is now moving to the House of Representatives. The bill, if approved, will amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban the use and importation of asbestos, without exemptions or exceptions.
Despite the hugely documented dangers of asbestos and the associated health risks, only around 65 out of 195 countries in the world have banned asbestos.
It is particularly shocking to see that some first world countries continue to use asbestos. In these instances, we know that the leaders of the country have great awareness of the dangers. Despite this, they continue to allow their citizens to be put at risk of exposure to the toxic material. It is apparent that in these instances, the economic advantages of producing or using asbestos are being put ahead of the risks to the health of its citizens.
The role of the Asbestos Team at Hugh James is to exclusively act on behalf of people with asbestos-related conditions. We see first-hand the devastating effect that asbestos has on people’s lives and it is troubling to think that millions of people across the world remain at risk of developing these conditions in the future.