Asbestos scandal

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Irresponsible policies could cause an epidemic of malignant lung disease.

Viewed through an electron microscope, asbestos fibres look like thin glass straws, some no more than a fraction of a micrometre wide. If inhaled, they penetrate the soft alveoli of the lungs and the membranes that line the chest cavity. And there they stay. Over time, damaged cells can cause a malignant disease called mesothelioma, which often kills people, horribly, less than a year after diagnosis.

Before the widespread industrial use of asbestos began in the late nineteenth century, malignant mesothelioma was unheard of, yet it is now responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world every year. After the link between asbestos exposure and the disease was convincingly made in 1960, responsible nations eventually took strong measures to remove the mineral from commercial products and to halt mining and export. Less responsible nations did not; this is a scandal that deserves wider attention.

The United States has still not banned asbestos, despite the millions of dollars spent to clear it from homes and from communities near mines. And Canada has been criticized for plans to expand asbestos mining operations, which export the material to India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Although Canada enforces strict guidelines on asbestos use at home to protect its own people, those in countries to which it sends the mineral have little or no protection. Asbestos exported from Canada and other countries including Russia, Brazil and Kazakhstan is routinely mixed into building materials and consumer products, prized for the same durability that makes it troublesome for living tissue. Owing to the long time between exposure and the onset of disease, 30 years or more, the asbestos trade in North America and elsewhere is creating an epidemic that may take decades to peak and subside.

The minerals industry has long tried to convince regulators that white asbestos — or chrysotile — is safe when handled properly. It argues that only the already controlled forms — blue and brown asbestos, known collectively as amphibole — are of concern.

To support this, industry advocates point to scientific data and studies. Yet although the relevant literature is a mire of conflicting results, this should not be seen as an endorsement of their position. Rather, it reflects a string of industry-sponsored studies designed only to cast doubt on the clear links between chrysotile and lung disease. These are familiar tactics and several countries, including Britain, have seen through them and made the correct decision to ban all forms of asbestos, all of which have been proven to be carcinogenic in humans.

Meanwhile, researchers are finding new causes for concern with other natural fibrous minerals such as erionite (see page 884). Complacency is the problem. Much of the developed world has seen asbestos removed from public spaces, leaving in many minds a false sense of security. The public should once again be made aware of the risks associated with exposure to mineral fibres, as well as some man-made fibres. And governments must ban the extraction, processing and use of materials that can cause serious disease.


  1. Report this comment #16827

    Trevor Ogden said:

    Although the industry has disputed that chrysotile causes mesothelioma, it is beyond dispute that it causes ordinary lung cancer, and the industry-sponsored studies confirm this. Meta-analyses generally find that that the risk of lung cancer is several times the mesothelioma risk at the same exposure, so even if chrysotile did not cause mesothelioma this hardly makes a case for its continued use. In fact the IARC (the international body on carcinogenicity classification) classifies chrysotile as causing a range of cancers with differing degrees of certainty.
    Trevor Ogden (Chief Editor, Annals of Occupational Hygiene)

  2. Report this comment #16902

    Jim Beard said:

    So, if chrysotile does not cause mesothelioma (it appears to me that, at best, the link is unproven), why the continuous stream of articles and, especially, editorials in prestigious scientific journals that continue to suggest such a link exists? Nature would certainly not publish new research on any topic that states as fact that which is unlikely.
    Jim Beard

  3. Report this comment #16905

    Travis Michael said:

    Asbestos is once again becoming a hot-button issue with the news of Canada’s plan to expand its mining operations. While science and safety err on the side of caution in this debate, only time will tell what the result of it will be. It can still be hoped that this increase in news coverage will remind U.S. citizens that the material is still not banned in their country, and it is time to change that. Groups such as BAN! – -are working towards that goal. Regards, TM

  4. Report this comment #16966

    Bill Robbins said:

    The discussion banning asbestos and the dangers of asbestos exposure, I find challenging! I have lost a brother to mesothelioma, a sister living near a steel plant to lung cancer, and I have exposure to chrysotile and amosite. Yet, I find it very difficult to support an asbestos ban. Banning six minerals from a population exceeding four-thousand will not protect the public.

    You may feel good if you implement a ban, but you have not reduced your exposure. Think about it, over four-thousand minerals and not one is safe to inhale. Minerals make up our building materials, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, etc. They are impossible to avoid.

    Rather than banning six minerals I am encouraged when I see people cutting their grass and wearing dust mask, filtering their home humidity water supply, filtering their home or office with modern air filtering technology, and finally cabin filters for the auto.

    I would rather embrace education awareness and technology that educates and protects than create a false illusion of banning and safety.

    Andrew Robbins, author: It Took My Breath Away, One Man's Experience May Save Your Life.

  5. Report this comment #20903

    Carol Cavanaugh said:

    I'm not sure if banning would create an illusion of safety. Awareness and education are part of the Ban Asbestos movement; it's not an either/ or situation by any means.

    I understand what you mean about how it seems like an easy way out, but given how hard it's been to ban asbestos even after years of research linking asbestos to cancer (, "awareness" seems like the easy route. Awareness is pretty much placing the burden of responsibility on the consumers, not the producers.

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