Despite worldwide usage decline, asbestos still poses a threat

| 24th October 2017
A corrugated asbestos roof is installed on a roof in India. The low cost material is still used regularly in developing countries (c) Biswarup Ganguly
A corrugated asbestos roof is installed on a roof in India. The low cost material is still used regularly in developing countries (c) Biswarup Ganguly
The USA still has a problem with asbestos, despite countries all across the world taking action to ban asbestos use. CHARLES MACGREGOR argues that action must be taken now.
Now is the time for the global community to finally take action.

The U.S. imported approximately 340 metric tons of raw asbestos into the country last year, according to the United States Geological Survey’s most recent report on asbestos.

This is a far cry from the more than 800,000 tons imported into the U.S. in 1973, prior to regulations brought on by the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. But it displays the lingering difficulty the country has in terms of fully separating itself from the carcinogenic mineral.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently evaluating the risk asbestos poses to public health. Although a final ruling isn’t expected for some time, it’s important to take note of the impact asbestos has on the country and the world at large.

Temperatures and friction

The World Health Organization has suggested that asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis are attributed to about 107,000 deaths around the world each year.

Despite dozens of countries taking actions to ban asbestos use and increased knowledge related to the dangers the mineral poses to human health, global production is expected to remain steady at about 2 million metric tons each year in the near future.

Global reliance on asbestos has declined somewhat, but countries like Russia, Brazil and China still make up the majority of worldwide asbestos exporters today.

Asbestos once played an essential role in home and building construction in the U.S. and was once included in hundreds of products and materials used throughout the industry.

The durable mineral also found a home in the shipbuilding and automotive industries, particularly in products and materials that would be subjected to high temperatures and friction.

Bans on asbestos

However, since the mid-1970s when regulations were handed down by the EPA, new technologies and safer alternatives have come onto the market and have helped reduce reliance on the mineral.

In 1989, the EPA had issued a final ruling that would eventually phase out the mineral’s usage, but it was overturned two years later. The results of that failed ban have had several consequences.

Now is the time for the global community to finally take action.

Nearly 3,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with mesothelioma this year, and that number is expected to hold steady through the end of the decade.

The lack of a decrease can largely be attributed to the mineral’s widespread usage decades ago, as the latency period for mesothelioma and asbestosis can range anywhere from 10-50 years.

In countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, where asbestos bans have been in place for decades already, mesothelioma rates have been on the decline.

However, in developing countries, low-cost and readily-available asbestos is likely to contribute to rising mesothelioma rates in those countries for some time. Even in countries that have recently enacted bans on asbestos use, rates will take time to decline as a result of exposure decades ago.

Reap the rewards

There are a number of suitable replacements for asbestos in every application the mineral is used in, including the U.S.’s chlor-alkali industry, which relies on asbestos for the creation of semi-permeable diaphragms.

While certain materials on the market do cost more than asbestos, the potential health benefits provided by these substitutes are considered much greater than their additional costs.

Among the options available on the market now are steel, glass and ceramic fibers, calcium silicate and even perlite or silica in other applications.

The U.S. has already missed one opportunity to ban asbestos use, and has the opportunity to capitalize on its previous mistakes.

While the U.S. continues to drag its feet, other countries, including the entirety of the European Union, have already taken action and will eventually reap the rewards.

Now is the time for the global community to finally take action against the dangers associated with continued asbestos use and exposure.

This Author

Charles MacGregor is a health advocate specializing in mesothelioma. He works to spread awareness about the disease and advocates for a total ban of asbestos in the United States.