It's impossible to say exactly how many people asbestos-related diseases kill around the world. Experts estimate that the asbestos-caused cancer, mesothelioma, claims 43,000 lives globally. Unlike other lethal cancers, mesothelioma specifically plagues the richest nations, making it, quite literally, a disease of greed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) found that 88 percent of mesothelioma cases between 1994 and 2008 occurred in high-income countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Although asbestos has been banned in 55 countries – including the U.K. – many of the most powerful nations are suspiciously absent. World players like the United States, China, Russia, India, and Canada, are all major importers and/or exporters of asbestos – and, as such, they pay the price by suffering the highest rates of mesothelioma, a rare disease caused exclusively by asbestos.
And it’s not as if the leaders in these countries are unaware of the dangers presented by asbestos – medical professionals have been writing about its health risks since at least 1924. The grim truth is that asbestos continues to kill a small city’s worth of people every year because chemical corporations allow it. Multi-billion dollar companies, like Koch Industries and Honeywell, have paid a fortune lying to their employees, bribing scientists to conduct dishonest studies, and lobbying Washington D.C. to block public health bills.
Fortunately, after centuries of unnecessary deaths, the disturbing trend of promoting profit over human lives is just now starting to change. Advocacy groups across 2 different continents and nearly half a dozen countries have recently made headway in the fight to make asbestos-related diseases a thing of the past, where they belong.
Around the World, Advocates Fight for Asbestos Bans
On April 23rd, 20 South Asian anti-asbestos advocates and activists met in Dhaka, Bangladesh to discuss a possible asbestos ban. The Bangladesh Ban Asbestos Networks (B-BAN) has been advocating for a complete ban of asbestos in the country since 2013. Now that it has the backing of more advocates from around the region, B-Ban can take its advocacy efforts a step further, calling for a complete ban of asbestos in the entirety of South Asia.
Meanwhile, more than 7,500 miles away, in a separate but similar meeting, Canadian activists convinced their legislature to ban the use of asbestos in almost all government buildings, beginning April 1st. "All new federal buildings that are still in the planning stages will be built asbestos free," said Denis St-Jean, a national health and safety officer who attended the meeting.
At the very least, this law will save the 265,000 federal workers who work in those buildings; if it’s expanded to cover private structures as well, it could save millions. Such improvements are especially necessary in Canada which, despite being a progressive country, has struggled to kick its asbestos addiction. Although the last of Canada’s major asbestos mines were closed 5 years ago, asbestos products continue to kill 2,000 Canadians a year.
“The importation of asbestos products in our country is simply unacceptable,” commented Hassan Yussuf, President of the Canadian Labour Congress. Yussuf has firsthand experience with asbestos, being exposed to it in his youth while working at a General Electric plant.
Now that Yussuf and his fellow advocates have succeeded in achieving a limited ban, they are pushing for a complete ban of the deadly mineral fiber. Yussuf told a Canadian newspaper that all of the asbestos-containing products in Canada could be replaced with safer materials, emphasizing under no uncertain terms that “there is no reason for delay” in enforcing a ban.
U.S. Surgeon General Issues Landmark Warning about Asbestos
Like its neighbor to the North, the United States has stopped mining asbestos, but hasn’t even come close to stopping its use of it. Unlike Canada, the U.S. hasn’t yet made substantial progress towards a complete ban of the substance. Each year, the most powerful nation in the world buys 2.3 million pounds of asbestos, even as it loses 30 people a day to asbestos-related diseases, or 3,200 people a year.
This isn’t to say advocates haven’t been doing good work. Recently, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) sponsored Global Asbestos Awareness Week, educating individuals and industry leaders on public health risks. The event was so effective that it inspired the U.S. Surgeon General to issue an official statement. Among other warnings, the statement urged construction workers and first responders to protect themselves against exposure. It’s a small gesture but an important one towards creating an official, governmental resistance to corporate greed.
Regulators in the U.S. and industrialized nations abroad must fight harder to end asbestos use. Scientists agree that the mineral is deadly and not necessary. Every fiber of asbestos that is bought and sold contributes to a death toll that is preventable and already far too high. More work must be done – and soon – to save future generations from a disease created by corporate greed.