Asbestos use around the world

Learning from a past that is fast catching up with us

By Dr Julie Torode, Head of Advocacy and Networks and Deputy CEO,
Union for International Cancer Control

Mesothelioma is sometimes described as the Cinderella of cancers due to the lack of awareness and research funding it attracts.

As the world came together on 4 February for World Cancer Day, we used this platform to lend our collective voice to rare cancers like mesothelioma and the unique challenges that patients with the rare cancers face in securing an accurate diagnosis and access to expertise and treatment.

Despite knowing that all asbestos products are carcinogenic since the later 1800s, prioritising health has been slow and with many countries yet to take action on mandating the use of asbestos-substitutes, there remains uncertainty on current exposures and therefore projected trends of incidence and mortality rates.

What we do know is that over 90,000 mesothelioma deaths were reported across 83 countries between the mid-90s and 2008.

The spirit of World Cancer Day’s theme – ‘We can. I can.’ – urges all of us to raise awareness, particularly for workers in occupations of high risk of exposure and a call to policy makers to take action.

So far, more than 50 countries have banned the mining, use, import and export of asbestos but others are not only dragging their feet but also encouraging continued use of asbestos through export; we must shine a light on those settings where national economics or government policy still trump the asbestos health issue.

Challenging this stance, a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) analysis reveals that countries that have taken action on consumption/production have not experienced an observable effect on gross domestic product from a ban. The inconvenient truth for the asbestos industry is that there are cheaper and equally valid alternatives.

The Union for International Cancer Control’s position statement on asbestos includes:

  1. A global ban on the mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos
  2. All countries that have used asbestos to inform their citizens, to implement measures to monitor the health of citizens who are likely to have been exposed at any point in their lives, or who have potential to be exposed in future
  3. All countries that have used asbestos to implement a systematic education and training program among workers likely to become exposed to ensure these people can both correctly identify asbestos-containing materials and have skills necessary to minimise risk of exposure
  4. Governments around the world to provide the best possible care and early diagnosis, treatment, social and medical rehabilitation and where appropriate palliative care to all individuals exposed to asbestos or diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease
  5. Individuals should be provided with access to appropriate compensation and be connected with relevant support groups and networks

Today, we have the chance to avoid repeating history. Although, we cannot erase the mistakes of our past, we can learn from them.