JORGE DELUCCA, MS, MA, CAIH, is a retired U.S. Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineer and a former instructor of environmental health and ethics at the University of Phoenix.
Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of AIHA or The Synergist.
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Asbestos Restrictions: The International Picture
Toward the end of the 20th century, governments in many developed countries banned or seriously restricted the use of asbestos. As a result, according to the researcher and activist Laurie Kazan-Allen, global asbestos producers have engaged in aggressive marketing campaigns to sell asbestos to developing countries. Consumption of chrysotile asbestos is increasing in Asia, Latin America, and the Commonwealth of Independent States. In most of these countries, there is little, if any, control of hazardous asbestos exposures.
More than 50 nations have banned asbestos over the past 30 years. But the Rotterdam Convention, a treaty that regulates global trade in dangerous chemicals, has repeatedly rejected a move to place chrysotile asbestos on its Prior Informed Consent List, which would require that governments be provided full information about chrysotile’s dangers to human health and the environment before importation. Additions to the PIC list must be unanimously approved, and a few nations, including Russia, the world’s largest producer of asbestos, have consistently objected.
RESTRICTIONS IN SELECT COUNTRIES There is no restriction on the use of asbestos in India, where workers often have limited education and are neither aware of the occupational health risks nor powerful enough to fight for their rights. Not all workers receive medical examinations, and of those who do, asbestos-related diseases are either missed or not reported. The Indian health system lacks the capacity to diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate these cases, and the agency implementing the law is not strong enough to prevent the exposures.
In the United States, asbestos stopped being used in most industries and products by the late 1970s. Limits on asbestos were put into place following the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Other factors, such as demands by organized labor and trade groups for safer work environments, led to the steep decline in asbestos use as manufacturers sought other alternatives. A 1989 EPA rule that banned most asbestos products was overturned, and asbestos is still imported into the U.S. But last April, EPA proposed a new ban, which is expected to be finalized in 2024.
The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people around the world are currently exposed to asbestos at work.
Asbestos production in Colombia began in 1940 and continued through the 1980s, even after the relationship between asbestos exposure and lung diseases had been demonstrated. Bans were instituted in several municipalities, but multiple nationwide prohibitions failed to pass congress. Finally, in June 2019, congress passed the Ana Cecilia Niño Law in honor of the activist and victim of asbestos exposure who fought for a ban.
In Brazil, which was once the world’s third-largest source of chrysotile asbestos, the Supreme Court banned the mineral in 2017. But recent reports state that asbestos exports continue, with thousands of tons transported through Brazil to neighboring countries and beyond. In one case, asbestos sent to India included warnings in languages that were foreign to those who were handling the asbestos. Countries receiving asbestos exports from Brazil have taken legal action; for example, in 2019, Japan, India, and Indonesia began the Asian Ban Asbestos Mission to Brazil.
Other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have banned asbestos include Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Uruguay. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) asbestos atlas project, some countries attempt to address the management of asbestos in a safe way without banning it. Peru prohibited the use of amphibole asbestos and called for the demolition of buildings presumed to contain asbestos insulation. Paraguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela do not restrict asbestos, but the government must approve its use, and employers are obliged to comply with laws that guarantee the safety and health of employees. Panama and Costa Rica have regulations that allow the controlled use of asbestos, ensuring protection of personnel.
OCCUPATIONAL EXPOSURES The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people around the world are currently exposed to asbestos at work. At present, half of the occupational cancers in the world occur because of asbestos. Its continued use in high quantities may elevate this proportion further.
Indian Journal of Palliative Care: “Current Asbestos Exposure and Future Needs for Palliative Care in India” (October 2019).
Journal of Public Health Research: “Asbestos and Cancer in Latin America and the Caribbean: We May Have Won Some Battles, but Definitely not the War” (March 2022).
Lung Cancer: “Asbestos and Mesothelioma: Worldwide Trends” (July 2005).
Mesothelioma.com: “Asbestos Ban in the U.S.” (September 2008).
Mesothelioma.com: “Asbestos Hurts Developing Nations the Most” (February 2016).
Mesothelioma.com: “Brazil Continues to Mine and Export Asbestos Despite Ban” (January 2020)
Science of the Total Environment: “Asbestos: Old Foe in 21st Century Developing Countries” (May 2003).
World Health Organization: “Asbestos: Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases” (February 2018).