Clearing the Air on Asbestosis Prevention

Clearing the Air on Asbestosis Prevention

No matter where you are in the world, asbestos kills. For the more than 60 countries where the use of asbestos is now banned, this deadly substance – once deemed a ‘wonder material’ – now presents a ticking time bomb. For countries still using asbestos, however, which includes the UAE despite its ban, the root of the problem is yet to be contained and so the scale of the final problem is yet to be uncovered.

Asbestos is the biggest occupational cancer killer, claiming more than 200,000 lives a year worldwide, according to the Global Health Data Exchange. In the United Kingdom and the United States alone, in 2017 over 55,000 people died from work-related asbestos-caused diseases.

“despite numerous countries in the region banning asbestos, including the UAE in 2006, there is evidence that asbestos containing materials are still being used”

Comparing prevention and policy from the UK and the US allows us to better understand the scope of risk to mitigate exposure. Although the UK banned asbestos in 1999, the US failed to ban asbestos in 1989 and asbestos imports and use continue today. Meanwhile in the Middle East, despite numerous countries in the region banning asbestos, including the UAE in 2006, there is evidence that asbestos containing materials are still being used in new construction projects in the region.

Asbestos causes mesothelioma as well as a number of other cancers and deadly diseases, including lung, ovarian, laryngeal cancers, and asbestosis to name a few, yet all asbestos-caused diseases are 100 percent preventable if we prevent exposure in the first place.

When asbestos is inhaled, the indestructible fibres lodge themselves in the body where they remain, causing damage for years to come. Asbestoscaused diseases have long latency periods, with symptoms typically not presenting until 10-50 years after the time of exposure. And asbestos is undetectable by sight, smell or taste, so you can be exposed without ever knowing it.

Despite the focus on occupational exposure, the risk doesn’t stop at factory walls. Asbestos has been found in talcum powder, teen makeup, toys, and crayons. After decades of popular use in the construction industry, asbestos-contaminated materials are also commonly found in homes, office buildings, and schools – in fact, according to Parliament, 85 percent of UK schools contain asbestos.

A long, dark history

It can be difficult to fully understand the century-old asbestos tragedy. Commonly, it is described in three waves.

“Wave One” of asbestos diseases and deaths occurred in the early 1900s among workers who mined, milled, or transported raw asbestos. This gave way to “Wave Two” exposures which were concentrated in high-risk industries during the mid-century decades when asbestos was used rampantly in manufacturing. These high-risk industries include construction, automotive, shipbuilding, and the military, all of which had labourers handling or working in direct proximity to raw asbestos and contaminated materials. “Wave Three” refers to the structural, environmental, and secondary exposures – this wave continues in the Middle East, US and beyond today.

Environmental exposure can happen in structures built with materials containing asbestos. When do-it-yourself or commercial repairs and remodels are done to structures containing asbestos, fibres can be released into the environment. The same risk occurs when asbestos-filled structures are demolished. For example, untold amounts of asbestos were released into New York City air during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). Unfortunately, the firefighters who risked their lives responding to the disaster have seen a 19 percent spike in cancer rates compared to New York firefighters who weren’t at Ground Zero.

Not unlike the WTC, when the UK’s Grenfell Tower fire broke out, it too contained asbestos. Firefighters bravely fought the blaze for more than 24 hours. Tragically, 71 people lost their lives to the fire, but it is expected that others will suffer in the coming years from asbestos exposure.

Both natural disasters and ageing infrastructure can also be a source of environmental exposure. For example, even burst water pipes can cause fibres to become airborne.

“eventually, science and government proved what the asbestos manufacturing companies had known for years: asbestos exposure causes disease”

An especially tragic side of both Wave Two and Wave Three is secondary exposure, sometimes referred to as “deadly hugs and chores.” This kind of exposure happens when workers bring asbestos fibres home on their clothes and expose their families who lovingly greet them with a hug at the door or clean their work clothes. Tragically, people who were exposed this way as children are now dying from mesothelioma and other asbestoscaused diseases in their 20s and 30s.

Eventually, science and government proved what the asbestos manufacturing companies had known for years: asbestos exposure causes disease.

In the 1960s, the American researcher Dr Irving Selikoff pioneered landmark studies of insulation workers that “demonstrated the severity of a modern occupational and public health tragedy.” However, it wasn’t until 1983 that Iceland became the first country to finally heed the science and fully ban asbestos. In slow succession, nearly 70 other countries followed suit and banned asbestos, but it remains legal and lethal in more than two-thirds of countries around the globe.

And even though asbestos has killed millions upon millions in the past century, the dark legacy and continuing risk remain a mystery to most.

Education is the first step

The health illiteracy around asbestoscaused disease is one of our biggest challenges in ending the epidemic of preventable deaths surrounding the fibre.

In America, where asbestos is still legal, nine in 10 people mistakenly believe the substance is banned and therefore poses no risk. In the UK, where asbestos was banned in 1999, many believe that asbestos danger is a thing of the past, but thousands of residents continue to fall ill and die from mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases.

Misconceptions about asbestos must be corrected, because although promising research continues, exposure prevention is currently the only cure for asbestoscaused diseases.

While trade unions, safety and health professionals, and anti-asbestos advocates work hard to bring the truth to light, we fight an uphill battle against the spin and propaganda peddled by asbestos producers and users. Despite the longstanding scientific consensus that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, companies that still use it in manufacturing claim their method of use is safe. And chemical lobbyists and asbestos exporters, especially those in Russia, would have us believe that a risk-free version of asbestos – chrysotile – exists, though the World Health Organization is very clear in stating that “all forms of asbestos including chrysotile are carcinogenic to humans.”

Employers, regulators and governments alike need to take time to reflect on the tsunami of evidence linked to asbestosrelated disease and to understand the burden this deadly product places on people, their families and society as a whole to stem the tide of suffering and death.