Back in 2011, The Daily Show produced a segment about one Canadian town’s unusual support of asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that is widely known to cause cancer and lung disease. The name of that town? Asbestos, Quebec.
It might be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
Around the time the story aired, the Quebec government was debating whether or not to reopen the last remaining asbestos mine in Canada — a project that would have created hundreds of jobs for the small, blue collar community, but also would have guaranteed a legacy of severe health problems for the region.
Fortunately, in 2012, the Quebec government canceled a federal loan that would have opened the mine. It also vowed to end official support for the production of asbestos, and to stop blocking an international effort to add chrysotile asbestos to the U.N.'s Rotterdam Convention on hazardous materials.
It was a step in the right direction for the Canadian government, but the success of the campaign overlooked an uncomfortable truth about the international asbestos industry: It’s a much bigger threat in the developing world, and it’s made worse by the fact that workplace safety tends to be an afterthought in these places. In countries like India, Brazil, China, and Indonesia — all of which continue to consume or manufacture products containing asbestos — the impact on public health is becoming an increasingly urgent problem.
A Global Industrial Addiction
Most of the developed world has banned asbestos in all forms (notable exceptions being the United States and Canada), but it took generations for those countries to learn just how harmful the mineral is. It was that process — plus the benefit of political systems that strictly regulate workplace safety and workers’ rights — that led to the bans. Most of the countries where asbestos is still widely used, on the other hand, are still industrializing. They haven’t experienced a lot of progress when it comes to labor law. Moreover, the commercial demand for asbestos is still high, so the industry is just moving to locations where restrictions on production are less strict.
China, for example, is one of the largest consumers of asbestos in the world, as well as one of the largest importers. In 2007, the country consumed 626,000 metric tons of raw asbestos fiber, according to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). In 2008, it was the second-largest manufacturer, mining 280,000 metric tons.
The huge scale of asbestos trading in China is sure to plague the country for generations. Jukka Takala, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, told the CPI that the annual death toll from mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases in China is expected to reach 15,000 by 2035.
In Brazil — another one of the largest asbestos manufacturers in the world — production continues to rise. Of the 237,000 metric tons mined each year, 70,000 are sent to developing nations, including India, Nigeria, Angola, and Uruguay. The rest Brazil consumes for itself. Not surprisingly, this has led to a host of health problems for the developing country. According to a 2014 Guardian report, Brazil accounts for roughly 10 percent of asbestos-related deaths worldwide.
And then there’s India, where demand for corrugated roofing laced with asbestos is highest in the country’s many slums. India is the world's largest importer of the mineral, leading to a $2 Billion industry that employs some 300,000 people, according to the Associated Press.
The New Asbestos Capital of the World
According to an environmental NGO called Toxics Link, India consumes some 100,000 metric tons of asbestos each year (it imports 4 times that). However, it only produces a mere 240 metric tons of the stuff, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. So where is India getting all of its asbestos?
Why, from the so-called developed world, of course — namely Russia, Brazil, and (you guessed it) Canada.
In recent decades, India has drastically reduced its import tariffs on asbestos — a move that reflects the country’s huge population, steady industrialization, and growing need for roofing in its many slums. This has led to a robust asbestos industry that is, unfortunately, thriving.
Gopal Krishna, founder of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, expressed his frustration with the situation in an interview for Bloomberg:
“It is totally outrageous…. We’ve known that this stuff is deadly for many years and the government is not banning it. In fact, they are making asbestos artificially cheaper by giving incentives.”
India also lacks the worker-safety protocols needed to ensure even a modest level of protection from asbestos. In a 2009 documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Indian workers are seen handling heaps of raw asbestos fibers with nothing more than a bandana to protect their lungs. Even in the U.S., where asbestos is legal, such a sight is unthinkable.
How the Industry Sleeps at Night
Despite thousands of annual deaths linked to asbestos in India alone, the captains of the industry see their product as something that saves lives, bringing much needed roofs, pipes, and walls to some of the world's poorest people.
“We're here not only to run our businesses, but to also serve the nation," said Abhaya Shankar, director of India's Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, in an interview with the AP.
Outside of India, the international asbestos industry believes it has been misunderstood, claiming improper handling of the mineral by Western nations is the main reason for its poor reputation. Others claim that one form of asbestos — chrysotile, or white asbestos — is actually safe to use.
This is patently, medically, and scientifically false. Study after study has revealed that all forms of asbestos — in any quantity — are dangerous and potentially lethal, causing numerous lung problems and cancers, including mesothelioma. The AP points to a 2012 statement made by the Societies of Epidemiology: "All types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death.”
In Canada, like in the U.S., asbestos remains a legal — albeit heavily regulated — commercial product. It is used in brake parts, pipeline wrappings, floor tiles, gaskets, and a variety of other products. While this isn’t ideal — and organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) continue to call for an outright, global ban — there are at least some limits to how asbestos can be used.
But that’s not the case in the developing world, where many continue to suffer from a vicious cycle of deadly consequence: Asbestos is legal because it is so heavily consumed, and it’s so heavily consumed because it is legal.