Introduction

Asbestos is a general term applied to certain fibrous minerals long popular for their thermal resistance, tensile strength, and acoustic insulation properties. Asbestos minerals are divided into two groups: serpentine and amphibole. Only one type of asbestos is derived from serpentine minerals: chrysotile, also known as white asbestos. Amphibole minerals include five asbestos species: amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite, and actinolite. Two of these are the most commercially valuable forms: amosite, or brown asbestos, and crocidolite, of blue asbestos.

More than 30 million tons of asbestos in its various forms have been mined in the past century. Asbestos is one of the most pervasive environmental hazards in the world, present in more than 3,000 manufactured products. All forms of asbestos can result in asbestosis (a progressive fibrotic disease of the lungs), lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer arising in the membranes lining the pleural and peritoneal cavities.

Asbestos exposure affects not only asbestos workers but also their families, users of asbestos products, and the public as it is exposed to building materials and asbestos in heating and ventilating systems. In developing countries, where protection of workers and communities is scant or nonexistent, the asbestos cancer epidemic may be even more devastating than it has been in developed countries. The battle against asbestos is in danger of being lost where the human costs may be greatest, in developing countries desperate for industry.

With rare exceptions, the developed countries defer to the United Nations (UN) the responsibility for international occupational health. The UN’s international agencies have had only limited success in bringing occupational health to the industrializing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for the technical aspects of occupational health and safety. The International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions and Recommendations (Takala 1999) are intended to guide all countries in the promotion of workplace safety. The ILO has no enforcement power, and UN funding for the WHO and the ILO is so meager that neither agency has the power of moral suasion.

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