The World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer issued a joint statement Feb. 19 stating that all forms of asbestos cause cancer in humans and stopping the use of all forms of asbestos is the most efficient way to eliminate diseases caused by asbestos such as mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities.
The joint statement came in response to an article published this month in The Lancet medical journal raising questions about the IARC ‘s participation in a conference in Kiev, Ukraine and potential conflicts of interest. The IARC is participating with the Russian Scientific Research Institute of Occupational Health in a study of cancer among chrysotile workers in Asbest, Russia. The lead author of the research is Evgeny Kovalevsky, who is a promoter of chrysotile asbestos. The IARC is providing epidemiological expertise for the study.
Several prominent American health researchers including Richard Lemen, retired U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, sent a letter to the IARC saying it was unacceptable that a scientist who is a promoter of asbestos should be a lead investigator on an IARC research project. The authors of the letter noted that the World Health Organization had previously withdrawn the Russian Scientific Research Institute’s designation as a WHO collaborating center because of the institute’s conflicts of interest with the Russian asbestos industry.
In the joint statement, the WHO and IARC said the study on cancer among chrysotile asbestos workers in Asbest, Russia will provide important scientific data to quantify the risk of cancers known to be related to chrysotile, the most commonly produced asbestos fiber. In addition it may be useful in quantifying the risks of additional cancers suspected to be related to chrysotile asbestos exposure. The IARC acknowledged receiving a number of emails urging the agency not to participate in the conference.
The IARC and WHO said they take conflict of interest seriously and use a rigorous process to protect research.
According to the Lancet article, the timing of the IARC attendance at the conference and decision to collaborate in the study are particularly sensitive on the eve of an upcoming meeting of countries participating in the Rotterdam Convention. The attendees at the conference will discuss the listing of chrysotile to the Rotterdam Convention, which would require countries that import chrysotile asbestos to give prior informed consent of the health hazards it poses. Russia which has an active asbestos industry, may try to block the addition to chrysotile to the list of hazardous substances.
The heaviest burden of asbestos cancer is currently found in the United State, European countries, Australia, Japan and South Africa, according to a 2012 article in the British Journal of Cancer. The highest consumption of asbestos is in China, Russian, India, Ukraine, Thailand, Brazil and Iran, signaling that those countries will have increases in mesothelioma and asbestos-related cancer deaths in the future.
Approximately, 2,500 to 3,000 people in the U.S. die each year of mesothelioma. It is a devastating disease. Most people who are diagnosed with mesothelioma were exposed to asbestos in a workplace or during military service decades ago.
- Lancet article
- joint statement