It Can (Still) Kill You

It Can (Still) Kill You

Why you should care

Because asbestos needs to be banned — like, yesterday. 

Hearing the word asbestos should feel like a throwback. Didn’t we wipe that stuff out?

Apparently not.

The toxic fibers that live in a discomfiting number of products, from paint to cement, have been synonymous with danger in the U.S. since the 1970s. But the stuff that causes mesothelioma when it’s inhaled is still lurking: India, Brazil and Russia all actively promote its use; until just a few years ago, Canada was a primary exporter; and the United States allows it to flow openly across its borders. “It’s criminal,” says Barry Castleman, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental consultant and World Health Organization adviser on the issue.

Each year, an estimated 2 million tons of asbestos is used around the world.


These latest numbers hail from a 2014 global health study — The Global Spread of Asbestos — published by researchers from Drexel University School of Public Health and Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India.

Ridding the world of these nearly microscopic fibers is obviously easier said than done — especially when some companies see an advantage in continuing to use it. Take India, the world’s top asbestos importer, where asbestos appears as a cheap filler in construction and roofing materials. The demand for affordable housing ends up overshadowing health risks.

Today’s top exporters, according to the report, are Russia, China and Brazil. China has cut back on its use. Other countries, such as Vietnam, have gotten industrious and are shredding grasslike vines as a replacement for the material. Critics of asbestos use say that with safer substitutes commonly available, we should be at zero usage, period. The problem is that countries friendly to the asbestos industry — including India — place stifling tariffs on the alternatives, keeping asbestos desirable.

Or, blame the United States.

Asbestos still isn’t totally banned in the U.S., which is part of the problem, says Arthur Frank, a public health professor at Drexel University and one of the authors of the study. “Other countries point to us and say, ‘If America hasn’t banned it, why should we?’”

“Part of the problem, though, is most people think it is banned.”

More than 50 countries have banned it. In 1991, the U.S. Congress tried to impose its own rigorous restrictions, which barely stuck. The World Health Organization’s take on the issue is simple: There’s no such thing as safe asbestos use. “We have a product that takes only one day of exposure to give humans cancer, and we’re still using it,” Frank says.

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 2, 2014.

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