Seven countries that mine asbestos have prevented a form of it known as chrysotile asbestos from being added to the United Nations Rotterdam Convention‘s list of substances that are so hazardous that the world shouldn’t be using them.
The action, which came at the convention’s just-concluded 2017 meeting, led to howls from organizations trying to prevent asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma. About 194,000 die of such diseases each year, according to Global Burden of Disease estimates.
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization is one of the groups that called the seven countries’ blocking action an outrage. The seven are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Syria and Zimbabwe. Russia, which accounts for half of the world’s chrysotile asbestos, has played a lead role in keeping the substance off the hazardous-materials list.
Although many people think asbestos is one compound, it actually is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals. The compounds have had a major global economic impact for decades because of their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack.
They were bulwarks of the construction industry worldwide until many countries stopped using them because they cause a number of fatal diseases, including mesothelioma and cancers of the lungs, larynx, and ovaries. They are still widely used in the former Soviet Union, which also exports them.
Even though a lot of countries have banned asbestos as a construction material, about 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace from previous or continuing asbestos construction, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The main forms of asbestos are chrysotile, or white asbestos, and crocidolite, or blue asbestos. Other forms include amosite, anthophylite, tremolite, and actinolite. All can cause disease, WHO said.
“Asbestos-related diseases cause great human suffering,” Dr. Arthur L. Frank, professor of public health and pulmonary medicine at Drexel University, said in a press release. “Death from difficult to treat cancers and suffocation caused by asbestosis are terrible ways to die. The callous disregard of some countries for educating workers condemns many to unnecessary and painful deaths.”
“Chrysotile asbestos is recognized by every leading world scientific body as a cause of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, as have all other forms of commercially used asbestos,” said Dr. Richard Lemen, the retired U.S. assistant surgeon general. “The pandemic of asbestos-induced diseases that the world is currently experiencing will continue to grow as thousands more uninformed users of this cancerous material will face disease and death in their future. The action of these few countries represents a callous disregard for human dignity and life.”
The convention requires countries that export materials designated as hazardous to inform purchasers about the threat. But a cabal of producing countries has consistently refused to allow asbestos to be designated hazardous.
“It is reprehensible that Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Syria used propaganda and junk science to block chrysotile asbestos from being added to the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous substances,” said Linda Reinstein, co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
“Each day, more than 500 innocent people die from preventable asbestos-caused diseases, yet the asbestos industry, including the Russian Chrysotile Association, continues to promote the ‘safe use’ of chrysotile asbestos,” she said. “Russia annually mines an estimated 1 million tons of asbestos and is responsible for half of the world’s chrysotile asbestos production.”
But “thugs and criminals profiting from the deadly toxic trade will not silence asbestos victims,” she vowed. “Instead, we will turn our grief, pain, and anger into action as we continue global educational and advocacy initiatives to collaboratively ensure chrysotile asbestos will be added” to the hazardous-materials list at the 2018 Rotterdam Convention.