In the UK we can be grateful that exposure to asbestos for the ordinary person is rare. Though its dangers were obscured for generations, its eventual total ban in 1999 meant that workers and British citizens were finally afforded the protection they needed. Unfortunately, the same lies that the asbestos industry asked us to swallow in the 60s and 70s are still being repeated in other parts in the world. Amongst others, Russia and Kazakhstan still mine asbestos and countries like India still import millions of tons of it every year. Those that suffer most are rarely those that own the mines or make vast profits from cheap building materials.
Asbestos mining in Russia
In the town of Asbest in Russia the only industry is the asbestos mine, a throwback to Soviet era mono industry. The explosions used in this open strip mine throw huge quantities of deadly asbestos fibres into the air and cover the town in a fine layer of dust. So many people are exposed to asbestos that the International Agency for Research on Cancer conducted a multi-year study testing the link between asbestos and various forms of cancer, including lung and ovarian. A carved block of asbestos ore serves as a monument to those resident who have died and a bleak inscription reads: ‘Live and remember’.
Despite the deaths and the persistent cough, which most of the town’s people suffer from, the Russian Chrysotile Association continues to deny the dangers. Vladimir Galitsyn, a spokesperson for the organisation stated that “As a representative of the industry I don’t see any problem…We are not the enemy of our workers. If they died then people would be afraid to work for us.’1
India and its use of Asbestos
Some of the asbestos mined in Abest will make its way to India, which is currently the world’s second largest importer of asbestos. The wonder mineral has fuelled India’s growing property development with cheap building materials and made a small number of its citizens very wealthy. When the asbestos arrives it will likely be sent to one of more than 100 manufacturing plants that employ around 300,000 workers across the country2. These workers are provided no protection from the dust and debris. The roofs, pipes and panels they make will be used to construct buildings for many millions of Indians to live and work in.
There is little or no data available for Russia, Kazakhstan, China, India or Thailand regarding asbestos related diseases. However the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and 107,000 workers die annually from exposure to asbestos. These figures do not take into account the secondary exposure suffered by families of workers and residents of towns like Asbest.
The WHO and others are working to bring about a complete ban on asbestos and in 2013 they presented a global action plan for 2013 to 2020 describing a set of policies to help the 190 member states prevent asbestos related disease. There are some positive results, in Brazil, previously the third largest producer of asbestos, a total ban has finally been put in place. This decision took five years and a hard fought legal battle that went all the way to the Federal Supreme Court.
However there is still a long way to go and pro-asbestos governments and lobby groups still work to propagate their lies and prevent progress. At the 2015 Rotterdam Convention, a treaty in relation to the importation of hazardous materials, efforts were made to add chrysotile (white asbestos) to the international hazards list. A consensus of all states is required and Cuba, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia and Zimbabwe vetoed the move. Chrysotile remains the only form of asbestos not on the hazards list.
What is the solution to stop the mining and use of asbestos worldwide?
Further education will help citizens of affected countries to challenge the asbestos industry lies and pressure their own governments to ban its use. But we also need to rely on the justice systems of each country to enable rightful claimants to bring offending companies to court.
Making its use and production unprofitable, or at the very least difficult, through legal battles and compensation pay-outs is a tactic that has worked in Europe and America. This may not to be so easy in Russia and India where corruption and a weak rule of law leads to victims complaints falling on deaf ears. We must continue to campaign and offer our support when we can.