Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia

Iran

by Dr. Ramin Mehrdad

(Supplemental Chapter written for the Farsi version of Killing The Future Asbestos Use in Asia)

In Iran, asbestos has most commonly been used for the manufacture of building materials. The second largest application has been asbestos-cement pipes such as those which form the 5,000 kilometer water delivery network. The manufacture of brake and clutch systems are the 3rd largest followed by the use of small amounts of asbestos fiber in products such as fireproof cloths, insulation materials and gaskets. Asbestos textiles are not made in Iran.

The earliest recorded use of asbestos in Iran was for the construction of railway stations pre-World War II. The manufacture of asbestos-cement products in Iran began in 1958. Since then, one of the most common uses for asbestos has been the production of asbestos-cement corrugated sheets named "Iranite," after the factory which first made them. Even now similar products that are made without asbestos are referred to as "Iranite". Since the 1960s, Iranian imports of asbestos have quadrupled. Of the 55,000 tonnes imported annually, 35,000 tonnes are from Russia; other suppliers are Brazil, Kazakhstan and Canada.1 Raw asbestos fiber is processed at more than fifty factories and workshops. In the last five years, 5,000 workers in 15 asbestos-cement factories manufactured 500,000 tonnes/year of finished products.2 Almost 3,000 workers in 30 brake and clutch3 factories and workshops produce 20,000 tonnes of material annually. Measurements taken in asbestos workplaces confirm that hazardous levels of airborne fiber are common. Poor occupational hygiene and lack of preventative measures result in workers transporting the pollution to their homes endangering their family and friends.

Millions of Iranians in big cities are exposed to asbestos as an environmental pollutant on a daily basis according to research conducted in 2007. The study entitled "Measurement of Asbestos Concentration in Tehran" measured the asbestos concentration in 100 different parts of the city. The results revealed airborne fiber concentrations of 0.02 0.1 f/ml. Considering the growth of the population and the increase in car ownership in urban centers, the pollution is bound to worsen. There are Iranian regulations to protect the environment including a law passed in 2000 by the Department of Environment which stipulated a 7-year phase-out period for asbestos use. Unfortunately, the deadline came and went and nothing was done.

According to Iranian Labor Law, annual medical checkups of all workers is mandatory although only 20% of eligible workers are examined. Questions have been raised about the quality of the medicals as many of the physicians have not been trained in occupational diseases and are not informed about the impact of occupational hazards on workers' health. As a consequence of these factors, the value of these medical examinations is uncertain and the number of cases of occupational diseases reported to official bodies is low. In 1998, the Ministry of Health (MoH) set the national permissible exposure limit for asbestos at 0.2f/ml. Although the MoH urges employers to periodically measure workplace levels and control hazards, inadequate government supervision results in little action being taken.

Data collection for the Iranian Cancer Register relies on the submission of pathological reports; currently 80-90% of the country is covered by this system. While key information such as a patient's work history was not collected initially, procedures are being put in place to ensure that complementary information will be gathered in the future. During 2005, 55 cases of mesothelioma were reported by Iranian pathologists;4 although no information was available about the patients' jobs, it is assumed that the mesotheliomas were caused by exposure to asbestos. Also in 2005, 1,764 cases of various types of lung cancer were reported to the Cancer Register, of which 341 were adenocarcinoma. Lack of information on the patients' occupational histories is a major problem in tracing the causation of their illnesses.

Information on the national incidence of asbestosis is far from satisfactory. According to preliminary research, we could find no official data on asbestosis prior to 2004. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, the total number of asbestosis cases registered were 144, 230 and 10 respectively. Considering the high numbers of exposed workers and the intensity of workplace exposures experienced, it is surprising that no cases of asbestos-related pleural disease were reported.

Notes

  1. Although most asbestos used in Iran is imported, an asbestos mine in the eastern part of the country, 270 kilometers south of Birjand City, started production in 1974. Until operations ceased in 2003, annual output was 3,000 tonnes. It is believed that more than 500 workers were employed during the time the site was operational. The mine had the capacity to produce 75,000 tonnes of fiber/year and had deposits of 10 million tonnes. Relatively little asbestos-containing material has been imported since 2001, with annual purchases of less then 5,000 tonnes.
  2. Asbestos-cement contains 10-14% raw asbestos fiber.
  3. On average, friction materials contain 20-30% asbestos. Four of the thirty friction plants have never used asbestos in their manufacturing process and one which did has made the transition to an asbestos-free technology.
  4. Although this is not an insignificant number of cases, it is believed that the true incidence of this disease for 2005 was probably 25% higher.