As of 2018, the failure to ban asbestos remains a global problem that will plague the world for many decades to come. Though 66 countries have banned asbestos because of its proven health risk, there are still many that have not. In fact, half of the G20 countries still mine or use asbestos. The G20 countries comprise the 20 top countries contributing to the global economy. Almost two-thirds of the world population lives in these countries, producing four-fifths of the gross world products and three-quarters of global trade. G20 countries that have not banned asbestos include the United States and our North American neighbors, Canada and Mexico.
Asbestos regulations in the US, Canada, and Mexico
Though there are some limitations, the United States has not banned the use of asbestos. In 1918 a report on diseases from asbestos exposure was published. Through the following decades additional research documented the impact on health. Yet, the 1960s through the 1970s saw widespread use of asbestos in everything from ships, to multiple construction applications, to brake linings, to any industry using high heat processes – even in baby powder.
Efforts to ban the mineral have been ongoing for many years. In 1970 the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed outlining guidelines for use. In 1971, OSHA issued the first regulation for general industry. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) first recommended a ban on asbestos in the workplace in 1976. Other partial bans were put in place in the decades since, but many asbestos-containing products are still allowed in US markets. The 2016 revised Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) provided some hope that a ban could come, but only time will tell.
As a consequence of these prior – and current – exposures, 12,000-15,000 Americans continue to die each year due to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Other deaths occur due to various cancers of the larynx, ovary, and complications from non-malignant asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos-caused diseases are preventable. Science has proven that all levels of any type of asbestos can be deadly. A strategy to prevent further exposures through a complete ban on all manufacture, import, and use of asbestos has been proven effective. There is no logical reason to delay a ban.
The Canadian government has promised a comprehensive ban on the mineral this year. Two health agencies, Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, sponsored the Prohibition of Asbestos and Asbestos Products Regulations that would prohibit the import, use, and sale of asbestos and products containing it. However, there are anti-asbestos champions that say these regulations would have too many exemptions and would not cover asbestos-containing products produced and installed before the regulations take effect.
Canada had one of the largest asbestos mines in the world from the 1870s until its closure in 2011. Throughout the decades, government agencies supported this highly profitable industry despite hard evidence of the health risks. Gabriel Miller, vice-president of public issues for the Canadian Cancer Society, explained the change in direction, “What a ban says is: We admit, all asbestos causes deadly cancers, and it comes in no safe form. And ending the denial and the delay that’s defined our approach to asbestos in Canada is the first step to healing the scars of this substance.”
Mexican companies use asbestos in many products – roofing, boilers, pipes, brakes, and wires are a few of the products produced by over 2,000 Mexican companies. Mexico, along with China and India, leads the asbestos market for developing countries. The material is cheap and versatile, and therefore appealing to these countries in spite of the proven health hazards. Because of this growing market, experts predict deaths from asbestos may reach ten million worldwide by 2030 and thousands of those will come from Mexico.
The Mexican Social Security Institute oversees public health under the federal Secretariat of Health. A physician and researcher with the institute, Dr. Guadalupe Aguilar Madrid, asserts the weak worker protection laws permitted these dangerous conditions to continue. “The epidemic can grow like it grew in the countries that started to work with asbestos after the Second World War.” She predicts the death toll from asbestos-related diseases will rise from 1,500 currently to approximately 5,000 annually and will continue to rise without a total ban of asbestos. While any asbestos-caused cancer can be deadly, that is especially so with mesothelioma. Yet, health experts estimate only 29% of mesothelioma deaths are reported.
Aguilar points to an asbestos trade association, the Instituto Mexicano de Fibro Industrias (IMFI) as the lead in opposing restrictions or a ban on asbestos. The founder and president of this group, Luis Cejudo Alva, proclaimed, “Why does this lady [Aguilar] say that the dust that comes from the asbestos sheets kills people? It is only dust . . . These sheets are an answer for people’s needs.” The IMFI and the Mexican government are in close agreement, meaning an asbestos ban in Mexico is not seen for the foreseeable future. Despite all the scientific proof of the deadly consequences of asbestos exposure, Mexico works hand-in-hand with Russia to not only keep asbestos in their respective countries, but to encourage other countries to continue its use as well. To disguise the continued use of asbestos, the word “asbestos” is no longer used. It is now the “fibre industry” making “fibre-cement” products, but this fibre industry will kill Mexican citizens for many decades to come.
North America’s failure to ban asbestos
While the three North American countries could have been world leaders in the abolishment of asbestos, they are instead responsible for the painful deaths of thousands of their citizens and citizens throughout the world who received imported asbestos products or exported them to North America.
Asbestos-related diseases are totally preventable, but with the long delay between exposure and diagnosis, it is imperative to ban these products immediately. They are embedded in the fabric of our lives and it will take a concentrated effort to remove those already installed and stop – completely – any further mining or use. That day seems very distant, but it is important that we citizens speak up to our governments and let them know we understand the dangers from their failure to ban asbestos.
In the US, contact your congressional representatives and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and let responsible parties know a ban is necessary. Clean up, North America.