Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Asbestos in the Developing World

Asbestos products are marketed to developing countries as cheap and durable products. Asbestos-containing products thought of as a poor person’s building material. It is cheaper than other materials so it makes home building and even ownership more attainable to a person or a family who would not have been able to afford another kind of shelter. Furthermore, materials made with asbestos are more durable.

However, the health risks are often downplayed and are rarely promoted. People who do not know about the health risks associated with asbestos exposure and who live in poverty so they cannot afford a safer building material do not have the opportunity to protect their health. Moreover, chrysotile asbestos is said to be the ‘safer’ choice than its alternatives, which has generally unstudied consequences, and other varieties of asbestos, like amphibole, despite that the World Health Organization says that all kinds of asbestos are carcinogenic.

Why sell to the developing world?

Asbestos producing countries need to market asbestos to countries where it has not yet been banned or its consumption limited. Asbestos is currently banned in over fifty countries including the European Union, many of which are located in the developed world or are medium-income countries. Most other developed countries and increasingly more developing countries strictly control asbestos.

Developing countries are then the most accessible market to the asbestos industry. India, for instance, is one of the largest consumers of asbestos in the world.

Health consequences due to lack of laws and enforcement as well as a lack of capacity to create and enforce new laws

Sadly, many developing countries do not have laws that protect workers effectively.  Even if they do have laws, they might not be enforced, which puts people, especially those who work with asbestos, at risk of being exposed. According to the WHO, asbestos-related cancers are the leading cause of occupational cancer globally with an estimated 125 million people being exposed to asbestos each year in their workplace.

The people who work in factories that process imported raw asbestos are also in danger of asbestos exposure. If workers are impoverished, they will not speak out against working conditions for fear of losing their jobs.

And if they become ill with an asbestos-related disease such as asbestosis, they will keep working in the toxic environment because they require the income to support their families and pay for their medicine. Continuing to work with asbestos will only make them sicker, though. Eventually, they will not be able to work anymore so they will lose that income. This will mean they will not be able to afford medicine and without the income from their job they will be even more marginalized.

Mining operations have grown in developing and middle-income countries 

Before 2011, when its last asbestos mines were closed, Canada was a major exporter of asbestos globally. The main importers of Canada’s asbestos were developing countries like Brazil and India. These countries are still importing asbestos today from producers like Kazakhstan, Russia, Zimbabwe, and China whose asbestos mines still operate today.

While the closing of the Canadian asbestos mines were a win for the anti-asbestos movement here, other asbestos-producing countries benefitted financially from the move by picking up where the Canadian asbestos industry left off.

Not Worth The Risk

The asbestos industry has a great financial interest in continuing the mining and processing of the mineral. Advocacy groups against asbestos argue that this is why asbestos has still not yet been banned in many countries. Even in Canada and the United States asbestos is not banned outright, just controlled.

Even though asbestos is fireproof and has high tensile strength, it is not worth using (even with precautions) because it is like poison and has deadly consequences. When these consequences are ignored or downplayed, though, some only see asbestos’ profit-making ability.

CBC The National. (2010). Canada’s Ugly Secret. Retrieved July 2013 from http://www.cbc.ca/thenational/indepthanalysis/story/2010/06/28/national-asbestos.html.
CBC News. (2011). Asbestos Mining Stop For The First Time In 150 Years. Retireved July 2013 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2011/11/24/asbestos-shutdown.html.
Lemen, Richard A. (ND). Smoke and Mirrors: Chrysotile Asbestos Is Good For You – Illusion And Confusion But Not Fact. Retrieved July 2013 from http://worldasbestosreport.org/articles/iatb/page16-20.pdf.
McCulloch J. and Tweedale G. (2009). Defending the Indefensible, The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival. Oxford University Press.

World Health Organization. (2006). Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases. Retrieved July from http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hq/2006/WHO_SDE_OEH_06.03_eng.pdf.

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