Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I knew the story before I knew the story

Its been a big month for asbestos news. Featured as both the cover story of the latest Environmental Health Perspectives issue and the topic of a 9 month joint research piece by the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC, I can’t say the news is good.

Honestly, I didn’t know much about asbestos before reading up recently, so what may be shocking to me may be old news to others. Pretty much the extent of my knowledge is that asbestos exposure, mainly occupational, can lead to mesothelioma, at least that’s what I gather from the daytime lawyer ads that run during the commercial breaks of the Price is Right. But occupational health and safety is something I’ve been getting more interested in, so now looks like the perfect time to look a little further for some hard numbers. And it seems pretty clear; asbestos exposure leads to cancer among other adverse health effects. Not only is asbestos one of the most commonly encountered carcinogens in the workplace but as the World Health Organization noted, asbestos related cancers account for half of all occupational cancers worldwide.

This leads into one of the scariest conclusions from the latest investigative report. It is estimated, that by 2030, asbestos related deaths worldwide will have reached 10 million.

10,000,000 deaths. Preventable deaths.

Such deplorable numbers give EHP good reason to renew the battle cry for banning the use and trade of asbestos. While over 50 countries have banned the asbestos and found safer alternatives, the United States is not among them. Ah, glorious American Exceptionalism at work! And international attempts to ban the trade of asbestos have failed repeatedly. Mainly because the amount of money being dumped in by the industry to oppose any sort of regulations of asbestos. Since 1985, roughly $100 million dollars have been spent by industry groups to keep the asbestos flowing. Asbestos is big business after all, with over 2 million tons being traded annually. And despite the well understood toxic effects of asbestos exposure, in developing industrial countries, asbestos use is on the rise. So like coal, the use of asbestos in the biggest growing economies like China and India are only climbing. Experts are warning of a looming cancer epidemic in these and other nations but the demand is high and the industry in strong.

Asbestos is a known human carcinogen yet an estimated 125 million workers are at risk of exposure. Why are we knowingly putting so many in danger? It’s insidious enough that the United States hasn’t banned its use but its other countries, like Canada, carrying out to villainous degree the export and opposition to regulation which keeps this industry alive. Public pressure has led Canada to ban the use of asbestos domestically but that hasn’t stopped them from shipping it overseas. Too toxic for their own people but perfectly safe (as they claimed when battling the World Trade Organization against legislation which eventually led to an asbestos ban in the EU) when its being sold to developing countries. It’s exploitation and a flagrant disregard for the safety and health of workers worldwide all in the name of making money.

I always feel my closing sentiments in a post are nearly identical when writing about widely used toxic chemicals. And seriously reading up on asbestos for the first time, it’s deflating to run into the same story I’ve seen before, again and again. We know X is toxic, we have alternatives for X and yet, attempts to regulate X are faced with fierce, well-funded opposition from industry. The richest countries keep selling to the poorest countries, and we are ineffective at protecting the health of those most at risk. Enough already.

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