The United States is the only developed country in the west that has not banned asbestos. Over 55 other nations have made the import and export of this dangerous carcinogen completely illegal. Numerous studies have proven that there is no safe way to use asbestos, which causes the deadly cancer mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Given these hazards, it is frustrating to read the latest figures from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). This report shows that U.S. asbestos imports doubled from 2017 to 2018. We must ask why the United States has not only failed to ban asbestos, but increased the amount that has been brought into the country.
Knowing full well the public health risks, an increase in asbestos imports into our country seems completely nonsensical.
Asbestos has not been mined in the United States since 2002. The demand for asbestos has decreased both internationally and in the U.S. because of its well-known extreme health hazards. All of the asbestos used in the United States in 2018 was mined in and imported from Russia and Brazil.
All of these asbestos purchases were made by companies in the chlor-alkali industry, which manufactures diaphragms needed to make chlorine. But asbestos is also imported in other products that are produced in countries that do not have a ban. These goods include brakes, plastic used to make gaskets, wallpaper, tile and knitted fabrics.
The USGS report also states that because of the health risks of asbestos, many companies have found substitute materials that serve the same function but are much safer for employees and consumers’ health. Sadly, the chlor-alkali industry has resisted taking that action.
Behind the Times
Worldwide consumption of asbestos decreased to less than 1 million tons in 2018. This is an encouraging step, since the figure had been 2 million tons in 2010. The Supreme Court of Brazil banned all uses of asbestos in 2017, yet the sole producer of asbestos in Brazil was defiant. The company has taken the matter to court, suggesting asbestos is not banned in all Brazilian states.
After a year’s-long battle between consumers and companies, Canada successfully banned the import and export of asbestos and products that contain asbestos in 2018. Despite the risks, Canada had been a primary exporter of asbestos until a Quebec mine closed in 2011. The government has admitted it was wrong to defend asbestos as safe, and it has since started the badly needed process of removing asbestos from public buildings and homes.
Worldwide Workplace Hazard
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to asbestos causes one out of every 3 deaths from workplace-related cancers. Canada enacted its asbestos ban after the carcinogen was proven to be the primary cause of workplace deaths. More than a third of these fatalities were related to asbestos. Such deaths will likely increase for several years after the ban, because the effects of asbestos exposure take decades to appear.
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), people in a range of careers are at risk for exposure to asbestos. Those in construction are particularly vulnerable, including people who do insulation work and drywall removal. Asbestos is still used in some building supplies and can easily become airborne when buildings are renovated.
Others at higher risk include auto mechanics, since asbestos may be in materials used to make brakes. Firefighters are also vulnerable to mesothelioma, since asbestos can be released into the air when buildings are burned or demolished.
Figuring the Fatalities
The end result of asbestos exposure is truly sobering. The carcinogen causes a total of 39,000 deaths in the United States every year, according to a study by Jukka Takala, President of the International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH). His work uncovered an annual 34,270 lives lost to lung cancer, 3,161 to mesothelioma, 787 to ovarian cancer, 443 to larynx cancer and 613 to chronic asbestosis.
With statistics like these, it is clear that the United States must stop importing asbestos and force the chlor-alkali industry to focus on materials that do not pose a danger to human health. Consumers must demand that the United States join the growing number of nations that have enacted a strict ban on this carcinogenic killer.