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Asbestos the killer that haunts us still

A quarter of a century since its ban the number of asbestos victims continues to increase

India asbestos
Asbestos workers in India - the Rotterdam Convention may have warned them

63 years since Switzerland acknowledged the link between asbestosis and airborne asbestos fibres, 27 years since the ban on asbestos use in construction, and 11 since a total ban on all use of asbestos in the EU, asbestos is still a major killer.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the global death toll to be at least 90,000 per year, and this is likely to increase over the coming decade. The European Commission projects half a million people in Europe alone will have died from asbestos-linked disease by 2030. In Germany, nearly one in every two occupational deaths can be attributed to asbestos exposure.

Why hasn't the ban stopped the carnage?

Asbestos fibres under an electronmicroscope

Asbestos was discovered soon after the turn of the 20th century to be a valuable admixture to many building materials, since it possesses exceptional fire resistance and insulation properties. By the 1930s, fears were arising that the dust from asbestos was linked to increased risk of occupational cancer, particularly amongst workers who mined and worked asbestos.

In 1938, the German physician, Martin Nordmann, described two cases of ‘Occupational Cancer of Asbestos Workers’. This led the workers’ accident insurance fund in Germany in 1943 to include lung cancer linked with asbestosis in the list of occupational illnesses. Switzerland followed suit and entered asbestosis in its list of occupational diseases in 1953.

However, despite the growing evidence of a link between the substance and disease, asbestos enjoyed unlimited use till its peak in the 1970s, when many countries began moves to restrict it. In the 1980s, industry resisted the banning of its treasured substance, and formed unions in many countries, including Switzerland, to lobby against universal bans, ceding step by step restrictions on specific applications, insisting that proper use made asbestos a safe substance.

Gradually, as the level of concern with the number of confirmed deaths and sufferers, bans and limitations began to become stricter. In 1970, with its deathtoll already in the tens of thousands, Germany officially recognised asbestos fibres as carcinogenic, and banned spray-on asbestos in 1979. Both Switzerland and Germany finally imposed a general ban on asbestos as a construction material in 1989 and 1993 respectively.

Claims accepted for mesothelioma due to asbestos

Italy banned asbestos in 1992, and has joined the other European countries in beginning a system of systematic decontamination in industry and homes. France banned the use of asbestos in 1997, and the WTO upheld its right to impose the ban in 2000, in the face of a challenge by Canada that the ban infringed international trade rules. France is calling for a worldwide ban. That goal is yet to be achieved.

It is estimated that 100,000 people die every year from asbestos-caused diseases1, and tens of millions are suffering the effects of their exposure decades ago. This number is still increasing, as the time delay between maximum exposure and onset of disease can be as much as 30 years.

Some countries, including Switzerland, have a restrictive statute of limitations, limiting any prosecution of claims for damages to a timeframe which falls well under the latency period of asbestosis and mesothelioma. This statute of limitations not only prolongs the suffering and delays compensation for victims, but also relieves industry of the pressure which insurance companies would otherwise have brought to bear on them.

However, despite its condemnation in the EU and by world bodies such as WHO and ILO, today asbestos is still not listed in the Rotterdam Convention as a hazardous substance. This is due mainly to objections by the powerful asbestos lobby in Canada, who obstructed international efforts to ban the substance till 2012. As a result, today only 30% of WHO countries ban asbestos. Developing countries, including Latin-America, Russia, China and India, still allow the import and use of asbestos, and do not provide sufficient information or protection measures for workers and others exposed to the materials.

1 ILO International Labour Organisation

Article by Andrew Bone, Monday, 21st November 2016