Can asbestos be used "safely"?

The Statement: “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile [white asbestos] fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” (Dimitri Soudas, PMO communications director, 06/15/2011)

Chrysotile, or white asbestos, is back in the news again, and doctors around the world are questioning the Canadian government’s championing of a substance that has been banned in most developed countries. “My jaw dropped when I heard [Soudas’ statement],” says Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a specialist in respirology at Toronto’s University Health Network and assistant professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto. “It’s so completely misrepresentative of the science.”

The term “asbestos” refers to two types of naturally occurring fibrous minerals: serpentine and amphibole. Chrysotile, derived from serpentine minerals, makes up 100% of the asbestos used and produced in the world today and 95% of all the asbestos used worldwide since 1900. It’s also the stuff Canada produces, alongside such countries as Kazakhstan, China, Brazil, and Russia.

Though there has been some debate about whether chrysotile is less hazardous than other forms of asbestos, the World Health Organization (WHO) is one of many international bodies which doesn’t discriminate among types of the mineral in discussing its dangers. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, and may cause mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary,” the organization has concluded, estimating that about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and that each year, more than 107,000 people die from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure. They also estimate that one in three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos.

As for Soudas’ claim that it’s safe to use white asbestos in controlled conditions, a recent article on asbestos in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives noted: “Numerous epidemiologic studies, case reports, controlled animal experiments, and toxicological studies refute the assertion that chrysotile is safe. [...] These studies demonstrate that the so-called controlled use of asbestos is a fallacy.”

Science-ish contacted the Quebec-based IRSST (Robert-Sauv√© Occupational Health and Safety Research Institute) to get their view. A spokesperson said, “All the studies we know of tend to show that all types of asbestos fibres have adverse effects on health.” They cite the findings of a scientific working group brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in March 2009, which concluded there is a link between all forms of asbestos (including chrysotile) and an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. They added: “Although the potency differences with respect to lung cancer or mesothelioma for fibres of various types and dimensions are debated, the fundamental conclusion is that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans.”

In Canada, asbestos remains one of the leading causes of lung cancer, according to the Lung Cancer Association, up there with smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke and radon.

In 2006, the WHO said that if a global ban on asbestos were enacted, a decrease in the incidence of asbestos-related diseases would surface approximately 20 years later, adding that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.” The International Labour Organization also passed a resolution to promote a worldwide asbestos ban.

Such bans require some international consensus, though, and Canada has twice blocked even the inclusion of chrysotile on a list of hazardous substances under the United Nations Rotterdam Convention, which regulates the global trade of certain hazardous chemicals and requires countries that import the substances to give “prior informed consent” that they are aware of the hazards associated with them. Canada is expected to do so again at the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva on Monday.

asbestosagain - Information of Asbestos.

City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit

ASBEST, Russia — This city of about 70,000 people on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains is a pleasant enough place to live except for one big drawback: when the wind picks up, clouds of carcinogenic dust blow through. 

Asbest means asbestos in Russian, and it is everywhere here. Residents describe layers of it collecting on living room floors. Before they take in the laundry from backyard lines, they first shake out the asbestos. “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” said Tamara A. Biserova, a retiree. So much dust blows against her windows, she said, that “before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.”
 The town is one center of Russia’s asbestos industry, which is stubbornly resistant to shutting asbestos companies and phasing in substitutes for the cancer-causing fireproofing product.

In the United States and most developed economies, asbestos is handled with extraordinary care. Until the 1970s, the fibrous, silicate mineral was used extensively in fireproofing and insulating buildings in America, among other uses, but growing evidence of respiratory ailments due to asbestos exposure led to limits. Laws proscribe its use and its disposal and workers who get near it wear ventilators and protective clothes. The European Union and Japan have also banned asbestos. (A town called Asbestos in Quebec, Canada, has stopped mining asbestos, though it hasn’t changed its name.)

But not here, where every weekday afternoon miners set explosions in a strip mine owned by the Russian mining company Uralasbest. The blasts send huge plumes of asbestos fiber and dust into the air. Asbest is one of the more extreme examples of the environmental costs of modern Russia’s deep reliance on mining.

“Every normal person is trying to get out of here,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver, explained. “People who value their lives leave. But I was born here and have no place else to go.”

Of the half-dozen people interviewed who worked at the factory or mine, all had a persistent cough, a symptom of exposure to what residents call “the white needles.” Residents also describe strange skin ailments. Doctors interviewed at a dermatology ward say the welts arise from inflammation caused by asbestos.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is a branch of the World Health Organization, is in the midst of a multiyear study of asbestos workers in Asbest. Because of the large number of people exposed in the city, the researchers are using the location to determine whether the asbestos causes ailments other than lung cancer, including ovarian cancer. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans,” the group said.

Standing on the rim of the world’s largest open pit asbestos mine provides a panoramic scene. Opened in the late 1800s, it is about half the size of the island of Manhattan and the source of untold tons of asbestos. The pit descends about 1,000 feet down slopes created by terraced access roads. Big mining trucks haul out fibrous, gray, raw asbestos.

The Uralasbest mine is so close by that a few years ago the mayor’s office and the company relocated residents from one outlying area to expand its gaping pit.

So entwined is the life of the town with this pit that many newlyweds pose on a viewing platform on the rim to have their pictures taken. The city has a municipal anthem called “Asbestos, my city and my fate.” In 2002, the City Council adopted a new flag: white lines, symbolizing asbestos fibers, passing through a ring of flame. A billboard put up by Uralasbest in Asbest proclaims “Asbestos is our Future.”

The class-action lawsuits that demolished asbestos companies in the United States are not possible in Russia’s weak judicial system, which favors powerful producers. Russia, which has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos, mines about a million tons of asbestos a year and exports about 60 percent of it. Demand is still strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is used in insulation and building materials. The Russian Chrysotile Association, an asbestos industry trade group, reports that annual sales total about 18 billion rubles, or $540 million. And the business is growing, mostly because other countries are getting out of the business.

 The mine and the factory Uralasbest owns are the principal employers. The town depends on the jobs that mining asbestos and making asbestos products bring. Nationwide, the industry employs 38,500 Russians directly while about 400,000 people depend on the factories and mines for their livelihood, if supporting businesses in the mining towns are counted. About 17 percent of Asbest residents work in the industry.

Asbest is a legacy of the philosophy known as gigantism in Soviet industrial planning. Many cities wound up with only one, huge factory like this town’s sprawling asbestos plant. The cities, known as monotowns, were an important engine of the economy. A Russian government study counted 467 cities and 332 smaller towns that depend on a single factory or mine. A total of 25 million people out of Russia’s population of 142 million people live in towns with only one main industry that cannot close, even if it is polluting.

In a sign of just how scarce other employment options are in Asbest, a guard requires cars leaving the factory to open their trunks, lest anyone try to steal scrap metal for resale. That is about the only other way to make a meager living in Russia’s old industrial towns.

The trade association says that the type of asbestos mined in Russia, called chrysotile, is less harmful than other types. The United States, though, has tightly restricted its use. The country imports about 1,000 tons of asbestos, mainly from Brazil, for use in aerospace and automotive industries for items like clutch pads. “They consider it dangerous but we consider it safe,” said the association’s spokesman, Vladimir A. Galitsyn. Russia has three research institutes dedicated to studying uses for asbestos.

“As a representative of the industry, I don’t see any problem,” he said. Properly handled, asbestos is safe, he said, and it saves lives in fires. “We are not the enemy of our workers. If they died, then people would be afraid to work for us.”

Valentin K. Zemskov, 82, worked at the mine for 40 years and developed asbestosis, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in asbestos fibers, which scar lung tissue. “There was so much dust you couldn’t see a man standing next to you,” he said of his working years. For the disability, the factory adds 4,500 rubles, or about $135, to his monthly retirement check, which would be enough to cover only a few restaurant meals.

Still, he said the city had no other choice. “If we didn’t have the factory, how would we live?” he said, gasping for air as he talked in the yard of a retirement home. “We need to keep it open so we have jobs.”

A monument to residents who died was made, grimly, of a block of asbestos ore, with the inscription “Live and Remember.”

“Of course asbestos dust covers our city,” said Nina A. Zubkova, another resident of the retirement home. “Why do you think the city is named Asbest?”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 18, 2013

An article on Sunday about Asbest, a Russian city that remains dependent on the mining of asbestos despite the health perils, misstated Russia’s asbestos output in one reference. It is about a million tons a year, as the article noted at one point, not “about 850,000 tons,” the figure used in another reference. (The lower figure was from the Russian trade association’s Web site; the higher one from a more detailed year-by-year breakdown from the United States Geological Survey.)