Asbestos is known to be a dangerous carcinogen. Despite this known risk, its use was – and is – incredibly common in building materials, insulation, fire retardants, and even brake pads across the world. It’s true that the dangers of asbestos weren’t known until fairly recently, although studies as far back as 1906 linked asbestos to lung problems and even pulmonary failure. But, with such conclusive evidence now available, two question remain: Why is asbestos still being used, and which countries are using it the most?
The fact is, asbestos use is legal – and common – throughout most of the world. Its mining, use and (in countries where bans are in place) removal from buildings is now much more regulated. Still, it remains a profitable material, and its use is actually increasing in some quarters. Major economies such as Russia, Brazil, India, the United States, China, and Indonesia all continue to use asbestos to some degree, while developing countries in Asia and Africa regularly use the material. Although many developed countries have taken steps to limit asbestos use, a lack of consensus has negated any impact these actions might have had on less developed countries. Canada, for example, is one of the major producers of mined asbestos, and has resisted adding chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous substances identified by the Rotterdam Convention (an international treaty that governs the importing and exporting of hazardous chemicals). It’s telling that Canada exports more than 95% of its mined asbestos to countries such as Russia, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, all of whom also opposed listing asbestos as a hazardous substance under Rotterdam agreements.
Asbestos Around the World
Russia’s use of asbestos remains substantial. The country produces more asbestos annually than any other nation. It’s also the world’s third-largest consumer of the material, with more than 3,000 products that contain asbestos declared safe to use by the country’s Chief Sanitary Officer. China has now become the world’s second-largest consumer, while Brazil is both the third-largest consumer and the third-largest exporter (mining and shipping asbestos to countries including Mexico and Columbia). The most populous country in the world – India – remains the largest market for Canadian asbestos. While India has ceased its own production, asbestos is still commonly used in roofing, cement and other building materials.
It’s not all bad news, though. Scientific evidence and the warnings of medical experts have raised awareness of asbestos risks and regulation, though slow, has been effective in many countries. Bans on asbestos use are now in place in Australia, France, Italy, South Korea, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. As of 1999, an EU-wide ban has been in place, covering the bloc’s 28 member nations. Worldwide, about 60 countries now ban the use of asbestos, at least in part, and there’s a definite shift in favor of stricter regulations.
The Asbestos Industry Fights Back
The fact remains that asbestos exporting is profitable. Consider, for example, that asbestos production adds $1.3 billion annually to Brazil’s economy, with industry spokesmen claiming 200,000 jobs have been created. In the United States, a full asbestos ban failed because of Congress’ requirement that the “least burdensome” means of regulation be used – and the asbestos industry has long argued that regulation fits this description far more than a full ban. While six categories of asbestos products are now illegal across the United States – corrugated paper, rollboard, commercial paper, specialty paper, flooring felt, and any new use of asbestos – the Environmental Protection Agency’s key Asbestos Ban and Phase Our Rule was overturned following industry objections, in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. the Environmental Protection Agency. Sadly, the least burdensome way to control asbestos use in the United States may end up being the one with the highest human cost.
Ultimately, asbestos use is here to stay for the time being, even if its use is decreasing overall. The impact on human health of asbestos production and use will continue to be felt. France’s Senate, for example, has said previously that while asbestos is now banned, the government’s failure to act earlier could make it culpable for as many as 100,000 future cancer deaths. We can only hope that in the coming years more regulation and, eventually, more total bans on asbestos use, will finally put a stop to a problem that’s been documented for well over one hundred years.
Christopher Placitella is a founding partner of the law firm Cohen Placitella & Roth, P.C. Mr. Placitella has established a national litigation group dedicated to effectively representing individuals who suffer from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. An experienced litigator, Mr. Placitella represents individuals injured by defective products and drugs, toxic substances and environmental hazards.