The use of asbestos has dropped from more than 4 million metric tons to 2.1 million metric tons in the past 25 years as one country after another has banned the cancer-causing mineral fiber. Yet, a majority of the world’s population still lives in countries including the United States that do not ban asbestos or asbestos-containing products. And demand for asbestos is surging in industrializing countries such as China and India where safeguards on worker exposure are weak or non-existent.
Today, the top users of asbestos are China, Russia, India, Kazakhstan and Brazil. These countries export asbestos-containing products to other countries including the U.S. where the products are used in the automotive and construction industries and pose an ongoing threat of asbestos exposure. Asbestos causes about half the of total deaths from workplace-related cancers such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung or abdomen, according to the World Health Organization.
While the U.S. stopped mining asbestos and producing asbestos in 2002, according to a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, U.S. companies imported more than 1,400 metric tons on chrysotile asbestos, primarily from Canada, in 2008. Much of it is used for roofing products. In addition, the U.S. imports large quantities of asbestos-containing products such as cement pipe, asbestos-lined brake pads and gaskets.
According to global estimates reported by the World Health Organization 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures. Many experts believe current estimates of asbestos-related disease and deaths understate the actual numbers. Since mesothelioma did not receive its own classification in the International Classification of Diseases until the mid-1990s, many asbestos-related deaths were not classified as such.
Given the decades-long latency period from exposure to asbestos to development of mesothelioma, the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases is still spreading and will for decades to come, particularly in countries still heavily using asbestos.