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Asbestos: the iron grip of latency

The ILO estimates that 100,000 people die each year from work-related asbestos exposure. Asbestos-caused cancers will kill at least 15,000 people in Japan in the next five years, and up to 100,000 people in France over the next 20 to 25 years. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of injury claims have been filed since the 1970s for deaths, cancers and other health problems related to asbestos exposure, bankrupting dozens of U.S. companies. ILO online spoke with Jukka Takala, Director of the ILO InFocus Programme SafeWork.

Article | 10 January 2006
GENEVA (ILO Online) - It happens every day somewhere in Europe: a building from the 1950s is demolished. A few children on their way back from school watch the giant bulldozer at work. The engine has already attacked the ground floor - apparently nobody has noticed the asbestos pads…

For a short moment, huge quantities of asbestos fibres become airborne. The fibres are very narrow and easily breathable. Their resistance to chemical dissolution means that they will persist for a long time - perhaps indefinitely once in the lung. Harmful effects only emerge after decades of latency.

"Broadly speaking asbestos can cause two types of damage in humans: asbestosis, a fibrous thickening either within the alveolar structure of the lung, or in its pleural lining, and cancers of the lungs and larynx, including mesotheliomas, the most malignant of the work-related tumours", explains Jukka Takala.

Although the use and production of asbestos has been forbidden in the 15 old member States of the European Union and the new member States may follow with a ban soon, the "iron grip of latency" explains why the issue of asbestos contamination still ranks high on the political agenda in many industrialized countries.

In October 2005, a French Senate report blamed the government for failing to adequately respond to the country's asbestos contamination problem, which has, as a result, accelerated cancer deaths attributed to asbestos.

"While 35,000 deaths can be attributed to asbestos between 1965 and 1995, another 60,000 to 100,000 deaths are expected in the next 20 to 25 years", the report says. Due to the long periods of latency typical of the lung cancers caused by asbestos, French scientists consider the coming epidemic to be inevitable and irreversible, and expect it to continue until 2030.

"Asbestos is one of the most, if not the most important single factor causing work-related fatalities, and is increasingly seen as the major health policy challenge worldwide", comments Jukka Takala.

Taking into account studies by the ILO, the Japanese Environment Ministry recently gave a first official estimate for the numbers of deaths to be caused by asbestos. According to Ministry officials, the number of fatalities from mesothelioma or other lung cancers in Japan by 2010 could reach 15,600.

The Ministry will use the figure for a planned special measures law to cover medical costs for those suffering from diseases caused by asbestos, and offer payouts for family members of asbestos victims.

In other countries, the ILO estimates that more than 21,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancers and mesothelioma in the United States, more than 10,000 in the Russian Federation, and more than 110,000 in China. In the Western Europe, North America, Japan and Australia, an estimated 20,000 new asbestos-induced lung cancers and 10,000 new mesothelioma cases occur each year.

Towards a worldwide asbestos ban?

The EU Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work (83/477/EEC, amended in March 2003) and ILO Convention No.162 concerning Safety in the Use of Asbestos adopted in 1986 have halved worldwide asbestos production since the 1970s.

"Nonetheless, asbestos is still the No.1 carcinogen in the world of work", Jukka Takala says. "Rather than being solved, the problem has been moved. In transition and developing countries the risk is now even higher than in the established market economies and it is certain that asbestos will prove to be a health 'time bomb' in these countries in 20 to 30 years' time".

In developing countries, asbestos use increased in the last three decades of the 20th century, while the United States and other industrialized countries were phasing out their use of the substance.

Jukka Takala refers to the ship breaking industry in Asia as a particularly prominent example. "A ship that is being dismantled in Bangladesh or elsewhere contains in average six tons of asbestos. Almost everything on such a ship will get recycled, including the asbestos. There is no harm in recycling safe products, but scrapping and repackaging asbestos from the ships without any protection devices is unacceptable", he says.

The ILO provides various solutions to the asbestos challenge based on its international standards (Conventions, Recommendations, Codes of Practice). The ILO Conventions Nos. 139, 148, 162 and 170 on occupational cancer, working environment, safety in the use of asbestos, and safety in the use of chemicals have received 116 ratifications by the ILO member States.

These Conventions provide solid legal and technical basis for worker protection against harmful exposures to asbestos by prescribing comprehensive preventive measures at national and enterprise levels. Other means of action such as sharing knowledge and experience, dissemination of information, direct technical assistance and technical co-operation activities are widely used by ILO to intensify preventive efforts against asbestos-related diseases.

"We are still far away from a global ban on asbestos use and production. 27 countries have ratified ILO Convention No. 162 on safety in the use of asbestos", says Jukka Takala, adding that among the 25 countries that have banned asbestos are the EU15, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Croatia, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

"Moving the risks elsewhere does not fit in with the aim of fair globalization that offers opportunities for everyone. It is a big but important challenge to expand the asbestos ban to all countries in the world. To that end, the international community must provide knowledge and assistance to help them cope with the necessary restructuring measures, create alternative jobs and promote the use of asbestos substitutes around the world", concludes Jukka Takala.