Asbestos Global Expansion

From the beginning of the 20th century, world production of asbestos grew steadily. In Western Europe, Scandinavia, North America, and Australia, the manufacture and use of asbestos products peaked in the 1970s. At that time, worldwide asbestos production exceeded 5 million tons/year. Despite everything that was known about the health effects of asbestos, annual production remained at > 4 million tons for more than a dozen years. To this day, > 2 million tons of chrysotile are mined and shipped around the world each year. Asbestos industry advocates allege that crocidolite is the fiber with the greater risk for lung cancer and that chrysotile can be handled safely. Actually, on a per-fiber basis, the highest risks of lung cancer have been shown for chrysotile (Dement et al. 1994; Infante, in press; Stayner et al. 1996; Tossavainen 2004).

The largest asbestos producers are Russia, China, Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Zimbabwe (Table 2). Canada dominates world trade, with an annual export of about 300,000 tons of chrysotile asbestos. The trade value of crude chrysotile asbestos averages about $500 Canadian per ton.

More than 70% of the world production is used in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia (Table 3), in countries desperate for industry and naive to the health effects of occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos. Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, and Thailand are the only countries that consumed > 60,000 tons of asbestos in 2000. These six countries accounted for > 80% of the world’s apparent consumption of asbestos, although underreporting is an obvious problem. The highest rate of consumption occurs in Russia (3.4 kg/capita/year), whereas < 0.1 kg/capita/year is still used in Western Europe or North America (Takahashi and Karjalainen 2003).

In 1974, about 350,000 tons of asbestos were used in Japan (3.1 kg/capita/year), but in 1995 the registered incidence of mesothelioma (5 cases/million/year) was much lower than in other industrialized countries. Moreover, in Russia, the extensive use of asbestos would predict a high mesothelioma incidence. There is no explanation for the low rates of mesothelioma in these and many other countries except the obvious likelihood that mesothelioma is not being properly reported. As is the case in Eastern Europe, no reliable incidence data are available for the developing countries in Asia, Africa, or South America. The areas where the epidemic is now beginning to cause the greatest loss of life are the very areas where nonreporting of asbestos-related cancers is a major problem.

The asbestos-based multinational corporations of the past are all in bankruptcy proceedings and/or in other businesses. The asbestos industry today is composed of national companies whose political influence is large within their countries but is not globally coordinated. The protection and advancement of asbestos globally are mainly promoted by the government of Canada, the largest asbestos-exporting country. The success of Canadian efforts to export chrysotile as a safer asbestos are readily apparent in Asia. Most Asian countries have enforced a ban on the use of crocidolite (Table 4), but no Asian country except Saudi Arabia has yet banned chrysotile asbestos. Singapore comes close to a full ban on asbestos, but this is most likely because it can readily relocate its asbestos interests in neighboring countries. Japan and Vietnam are currently amending their laws and regulations to adopt a total ban of asbestos, including chrysotile. These three countries may provide an important influence in the region, with an asbestos bah not even under consideration, at least officially, in any of the other Asian countries, despite campaigns by nongovernmental organizations for bans on asbestos in Korea, Malaysia, and India.

The likelihood of a successful ban on asbestos in Asia is reflected in the current levels and recent trends of asbestos consumption. Consumption levels range from 0 in Singapore to 1.9 kg/capita/year in Thailand. In Japan, the level of 0.6 kg/capita/year (or 79,463 tons) is decreasing from a peak of 3.1 kg/capita/year (of 352,110 tons) in 1974. A striking contrast in asbestos use can be seen across Asia. The wealthy industrialized countries show a steady decrease in asbestos use, whereas the poorer developing countries show a definite increase (Table 5) (Takahashi and Karjalainen 2003). As countries gain in industrial affluence, their hazardous, costly industries migrate to poorer neighboring countries.

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