Asbestos. It isn’t just a word that sends a chill to homeowners renovating old buildings; it’s a naturally occurring mineral in widespread commercial and industrial use that still poses a public health hazard today.
It’s still a big industry with big implications. Here’s a look at seven major things to know about asbestos, based on a paper recently published in the journal Annals of Global Health, by asbestos expert Arthur Frank, MD, PhD, a professor in environmental and occupational health at the Drexel University School of Public Health and his colleague T.K. Joshi of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, India.
- No form of asbestos is “safe.” Frank and Joshi emphasize that all types of asbestos can cause all of the diseases associated with exposure to asbestos, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. “The myth has been perpetrated that chrysotile asbestos is ‘safe’ asbestos, but this is absolutely not true,” they write.
- About 2 million tons of asbestos are still produced for use worldwide each year despite widespread knowledge of its health hazards and bans on using the mineral in more than 50 countries. Although this is well below half of its peak usage two decades ago, it is still quite high for a substance known to be so unsafe. Asbestos use is not banned in the United States. Common uses include as insulation in building materials and in shipbuilding. Consumer products have historically also contained asbestos, including inside toasters and hair dryers.
- Asbestos production continues at high rates in countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Brazil. These countries consume only a fraction of the asbestos they produce and export the rest to other countries that have weak or nonexistent occupational and environmental regulations.
- India, China, Russia and many developing countries continue to use large amounts of asbestos. Safer substitutes are available, but in some cases deliberate policy action discourages switching to those materials. For example, in India, tariffs on safer substitutes are much higher than tariffs on asbestos.
- Disease rates associated with asbestos are expected to grow in developing countries in the future, even though rates elsewhere are dropping due to bans and restrictions on use. But it is difficult to track disease rates in many of these countries, as many of these countries lack disease surveillance systems that collect data on mesothelioma and other asbestos-associated illness.
- Real controversies about asbestos exist, including the relative potency of different types of asbestos fibers to cause disease.
- Manufactured controversies about asbestos abound as industry-funded scientists have made claims with little or no scientific basis that asbestos can be “safe” if fibers are below a certain size threshold, if only certain types of fibers are used or if they are only used for specific functions. Of these claims, Frank and Joshi write, “It has been well recognized that extremely large sums of money, sometimes in the tens of millions of dollars, has gone from industry or their attorneys to selected scientists to create a body of literature that flies in the face of science as it is thought of outside of the courtroom.” They compare this lawyer-driven science to the manufactured controversy surrounding tobacco products.
Frank and Joshi describe a century of major shifts in the global use of asbestos, yet, where we stand today, economic forces still keep this unsafe mineral in widespread use. The world faces hazards from asbestos both from the direct threat to public health caused by exposure to the mineral itself, and from delays in more extensive bans fueled by “science for sale” that perpetuates unfounded doubt. As the authors put it, “Just as other scientific advances in public health have taken time to be fully accepted, we see the same pattern with regard to asbestos disease. Eventually, the truths regarding asbestos exposure and its true hazards will be recognized and acted upon.’”
Note to news media: For interviews with Arthur Frank, contact Rachel Ewing at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.895.2614.