Asbestos isn’t just an Australian problem, and it’s not necessarily something that’s in the past either. While most first world nations had asbestos bans in place by the 1990s, many countries still mine, use, and even export asbestos, exposing about 125 million workers a year to the material, according to the WHO (World Health Organisation).
About 50 countries have now banned the use of asbestos, or put tighter controls in place, and this has led to rigorous asbestos testing plus bans on importing goods that use the material. However, the asbestos industry spent millions fighting against these controls. Worryingly, countries including Kazakhstan, Brazil, Russia, and Cuba still mine and export the mineral, so it’s important for Australians to be wary when importing goods from these countries, as they could be unwittingly breaking the law.
Here’s some history behind the use of asbestos around the world, and how it was phased out.
The Rotterdam Convention
The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral treaty around hazardous materials in general, and encourages proper labelling, handling, and safety materials. The convention was signed in 1998 by 156 countries, and includes five kinds of asbestos; actinolite, anthophyllite, amosite, crocidolite, and tremolite, with a proposal to also add chrysotile.
History of asbestos in Australia
Australia didn’t ban the use of asbestos until 2003, and this was after decades of reports about the dangers of the material. Asbestos was a popular material from the mid-1920s, up until it was phased out in the mid-1980s, although some homes built up to 1990 can contain the mineral. Australian homes that contain asbestos will need to be inspected by professionals, as disturbing asbestos can create dangerous dust particles.
Contrary to popular belief, asbestos isn’t banned in the USA, but it’s no longer mind and is rarely used. The USA did ban asbestos in 1989, although the ban was overturned two years later, and certain asbestos products are still legal. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulate the use of asbestos in the USA, and have allocated federal funds to remove asbestos from schools and educational premises.
There have been a large number of asbestos related lawsuits in the USA. Many manufacturers or miners of asbestos went bankrupt years ago due to these lawsuits, so trusts have now been set up to pay personal injury claims to those who were affected by asbestos.
The USA was arguably one of the first countries to note the dangers of asbestos, with a report in 1918 showing premature deaths among those working in the asbestos industry. However, it’d be many decades before action was taken.
In 2006, the Control of Asbestos Regulations Act passed in the UK, which effectively bans the use of asbestos. If asbestos is found, then it has to be removed by a licenced professional, and the Health & Safety Executive has to approve any removal plans.
The UK recognised issues with asbestos as far back as 1931, when it added regulations to limit the exposure of workers. In the 1980s, crocidolite and amosite were banned, and in 1999 chrysotile was added to the banned list. There are a number of treatment centres in the UK for asbestos victims, such as those suffering from mesothelioma, and has conducted medical research around asbestos-related conditions.
Despite a number of health warnings from pressure groups such as BANI (Ban Asbestos Network India), there’s still widespread use of asbestos in India, and experts have predicted a huge number of asbestos-related illnesses will occur in the next few decades.
Banning asbestos mining in India didn’t slow down the country’s use of the material. The country became the largest importer of the material, with the asbestos industry in India worth about $2 Billion USD a year. Illegal and unregulated mines have also been uncovered, meaning there’s still a black market for asbestos.
Car parts manufactured in India will often be made with asbestos, although those intended for export with generally be made without it, so they meet international standards. However, this means a large number of auto company workers who are suffering exposure.
Asbestos was a big industry in Canada, which boasted of the world’s largest asbestos mine in Quebec, and mining didn’t completely stop until 2012. A group called Asbestos Canada then put pressure on the government to admit the dangers of asbestos, and in 2015 the Canadian government finally admitted that asbestos in all forms is harmful.
Canada is aiming to ban asbestos completely by May 2018, including banning imports and preventing it being used in new buildings. However, the regulations may also extend to existing products, meaning it will need to be removed over time. Canada is currently looking to issue grants for homeowners who need asbestos removal, and are putting long-term plans in place.
Denmark was the first country to ban asbestos use, with controls first put in place back in 1972 when many countries were at their peak of asbestos use. In 1986, a ban on imports and reuse of materials was put in place, and by 2005 there was a blanket ban. However, the country continues to suffer the after effects of asbestos, with up to 130 Danes dying from mesothelioma every year, decades after being exposed, with over 4,000 estimated deaths related to asbestos so far.
It’s not just former builders from Denmark who were exposed to asbestos. Those who worked in demolition, manufacturing, and auto technicians are among the people who’ve suffered from asbestos related issues.
Attitudes to asbestos vary from country to country, and although it’s banned or phased out in most developed nations, many places still mine, use, and even export asbestos. If you suspect that your home was built with asbestos, then it’s important to get it checked by a professional, as disturbing the materials can be dangerous. They can then advise whether it needs to be removed, and put a plan in place to make your home safe.