Asbestos, an umbrella term that applies to minerals that form fine fibers when broken or crushed, has been known to cause mesothelioma and other cancers since the 1960s. Most industrialized nations have banned asbestos trade and use, but there are notable exceptions, among them some of the fastest growing economies in the world. While most people believe that the dangers of asbestos exposure has declined, thanks to the widely publicized bans in the United States, Canada, Australia and other industrialized nations, in fact, millions of people around the world are exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, and its use worldwide continues to grow. This is despite the fact that we now know it is so deadly that it has been called the “Silent Killer,” and countries throughout the world have been calling for a universal ban on its mining, manufacture, importation and use.
The History of Asbestos Bans
U.S. Asbestos Bans
Efforts to regulate and eventually ban the use of asbestos in the United States began in the late 1960s, after a series of lawsuits publicized the dangers of the mineral fibers. Research has shown that more than 80 percent of diagnosed cases of mesothelioma, one of the deadliest types of cancer, resulted from occupational or environmental exposer to asbestos. The Clean Air Act of 1970 identified asbestos as an air pollutant and gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate the use of asbestos. It also banned the use of spray-on forms of asbestos. A subsequent series of regulatory bills gave the EPA further powers to regulate asbestos, and mandated regular inspection and remediation of asbestos found in schools. In 1989, the EPA issued the Asbestos Ban and Phase-out Rule, which was meant to eventually ban the use of all asbestos products in the United States. That rule is the one most people believe banned asbestos use in the U.S. In fact, within a year, the ban was halted by a court ruling in a lawsuit against the EPA. Based on that ruling, the EPA was limited in its power to further regulate or ban products that had already been in use before July 21, 1989. As a consequence, the EPA is only allowed to regulate six categories of asbestos-containing products, including spray-on products. It is still used in gaskets, fireproof clothing, brake pads and roofing materials.
International Asbestos Bans
Meanwhile, countries in other parts of the world had begun to ban the manufacture, use and sale of asbestos. By the time the EPA rule was struck down in the U.S., Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Hungary had all banned asbestos from use. In the 1990s, another 13 countries banned the importation, use, sale or manufacture of at least some forms of asbestos. Those countries included Japan, Germany and the UK. As of 2016, 60 countries have essentially banned asbestos, except for in very limited uses.
The Global Asbestos Trade Market
Despite the widespread bans, the use of asbestos throughout the world continues to grow. According to the latest statistics available (2015), worldwide asbestos trade is worth about $319 million annually, with most of the profits accruing to four countries: China, Russia, India and Brazil. Interestingly, four of the largest states in Brazil banned the use of asbestos in construction in the 1990s, but it hasn’t stopped the export of asbestos to other countries. In China, India, and Russia, the value of the asbestos trade has increased steadily year after year. Between 2007 and 2015, the Chinese asbestos market grew by about 39% annually, while India’s increased about 8 percent a year. As a result, world health experts estimate that 107,000 people die of asbestos-related diseases annually, and another 125 million are exposed to asbestos at work, putting them at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
The Push for a Universal Asbestos Ban
The World Health Organization has been working towards a worldwide asbestos ban since 2005. In 2013, it introduced an action plan with the goal of banning asbestos and asbestos-containing products in all of its member nations and states by 2020. The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, an organization founded by occupational health experts and anti-asbestos advocates, has called for a complete ban on the use of asbestos. as have the American Public Health Association, the World Federation of Public Health Organizations, the International Commission on Occupational Health and the International Trade Union Confederation. However, those calls for a ban face stiff opposition from those in the asbestos industry and related trades, which regularly spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually lobbying governments to weaken, delay or otherwise reduce regulation of the poison on which they make their profit.