Asbestos on the Horizon in Asia

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How do you decide which environmental issues to pursue? I know I definitely put too much store in social context: what my friends, the media, and my favorite politicians – and, embarrassingly, celebrities – are talking about. If people are talking about climate change and factory farming over lunch, then that’s got to be the really urgent stuff, right?

Well, maybe not. Recently a team of researchers from the World Health Organization published a study in Respirology warning that deaths from asbestos-related diseases will surge in Asia over the next 20 years. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never really thought about asbestos, despite living in Asia for 18 out of the 20 years of my life, and I’d venture to guess that it isn’t on most other people’s radars either.

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But Asia currently accounts for 64% of global asbestos use – a nearly five-fold increase from the 1970s – and researchers are predicting a massive rise in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades. The team compiled data on asbestos use in 47 countries, and found that Cyprus, Israel, and Japan had the highest age-adjusted mortality rates in Asia. Given that these asbestos-related diseases include lung cancer, mesothelioma, and lung fibrosis, I’m thinking we need to pay more attention to asbestos exposure and its associated harms.

“Despite concerns of the global ARD epidemic and Asia’s growing importance in the world, data on current asbestos use and asbestos related diseases in Asia remain limited,” research leader and acting director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Occupational Health Ken Takahashi said in a statement. His study is aimed at informing public health planning and regional health policies in Asian countries.

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Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring minerals used in building and construction, the shipbuilding and automotive industries, and in power plants. Because it is relatively affordable, asbestos tends to be attractive to developing countries—resulting in unregulated asbestos import and use in these nations. While asbestos has been largely phased out in the developed world—after contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in America alone—it’s still common throughout much of the developing world. The World Health Organization has identified asbestos as one of the most dangerous occupational carcinogens. Here are some sobering facts about the minerals:

  • About 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace.
  • According to WHO estimates, more than 107 000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.

It’s no wonder that Takahashi is concerned that “the sharp increase in asbestos use in Asia will see a surge of mortality and morbidity from asbestos related diseases in this region in the decades ahead.” There is a worrying paucity of information concerning asbestos use and ARDs in Asia, and Asian governments have a long way to go yet in banning the use of asbestos. So even as the media explodes over the fires in Arizona, radiation leaks in Japan, and that ever-present climate change, we need to remember that problems exist in the developing world that may be quieter and less captivating, but no less insidious.