Asian Asbestos Conference 2009

Plenary Session 1: Asia's Asbestos Time Bomb

Moderator: Elizabeth Tang

Professor Ken Takahashi

In the presentation The Global Asbestos Panorama 2009, IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen described the advances made in recent years; these included national asbestos bans in Asia, Latin America and Africa, increasing input by asbestos victims' groups and campaigners into national asbestos debates, a heightened public awareness of asbestos issues in many countries, the birth of ban asbestos campaigns in India, Indonesia and the Philippines and an increased willingness of campaigners from different sectors of civil society to collaborate in joint initiatives. Central to the success of global efforts was the work of victims and their loved ones. Paying tribute to British campaigner Nancy Tait, "the first person to turn asbestos anger into activism"8, the speaker commented:

"Born into a typical English family in a London suburb in the 1920s, there was not the slightest chance that Nancy would become a political campaigner - that she did so is entirely due to the asbestos tragedy which befell her family. In 1967, Nancy's husband Bill became ill; a year later he died of the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma."

Nancy's anger at the tragedy which had torn her family apart fueled her pioneering efforts to force negligent corporations and government bodies to acknowledge the damage done by Britain's use of asbestos.

As the global ban asbestos movement had gone from strength to strength, industry stakeholders had capitalized on the seemingly limitless funds at their disposal to corrupt the media, curry favor with governments, pervert the scientific process, attack their opponents, manipulate national asbestos debates and exert immense pressure on international agencies. That the orchestrated global asbestos lobby was showing signs of terminal decline was due largely to the perseverance, creative campaigns and collaborative efforts being made by grass-roots activists.

The next speaker, Professor Ken Takahashi from the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan, addressed the subject: Asbestos Diseases - A Global Ecological Perspective. An analysis of asbestos mortality data revealed that while deaths were increasing in Latin America, the death rate was flattening or decreasing in industrialized nations in Europe and North America. Unfortunately, the fact that the majority of asbestos-consuming countries lacked mortality data was used by some governments to bolster arguments for the continued use of asbestos. It should not, the speaker said, be necessary for each country to experience an asbestos epidemic before action was taken: "Such a notion represents a failure of the scientific community, along with the international organizations and NGOs, to provide convincing arguments to support the elimination of use."

The situation in Asia was of particular concern due to:

To counteract the lack of statistical evidence, scientists had developed a "per capita asbestos use indicator," which allowed experts to correlate a country's use/dependence on asbestos with future mortality; this method, when used in conjunction with other measures, could produce reliable estimates of disease levels in most Asian countries10. Such estimates could be used to press for the adoption of better national policies on asbestos.

Professor Xiaorong Wang

The final speaker in this session was Professor Xiaorong Wang11 who addressed the topic: The Current Situation of Asbestos-related Problems in China. Professor Wang expressed surprise that, as one of the world's top producers, importers and users of asbestos12, the reported incidence of asbestos-related diseases in China was so low. More than 100,000 people routinely experienced occupational asbestos exposures13. The worst exposures had occurred in small mines and factories in rural areas which were more poorly regulated than larger production facilities in urban areas. The Chinese government had banned the use of amosite and crocidolite and had set standards for maximum asbestos dust concentrations in workplaces. Unfortunately these standards, which were often unenforced, were last updated in 2002. The speaker said that "In the past, dust concentrations in some factories and mines were 100 times higher than the current standard."

China had in excess of 90 million tons of chrysotile asbestos reserves distributed in 15 provinces many of which were in the northwest of the country. Graphs illustrating world asbestos production showed by Professor Wang indicated that by 2001 China had usurped Canada as the world's second biggest asbestos producer (after Russia)14.

The speaker discussed research concerning workers at chrysotile-using factories. All the factories had poor working conditions, high levels of exposure and low standards of health and safety; asbestos dust levels far exceeded allowable concentrations. People in the neighboring communities were also exposed to high levels of asbestos liberated by the manufacturing processes. The cohort consisted of 515 male workers who were followed for 25 years. There was an increased risk of all cancers amongst cohort members; indeed, "asbestos workers were more than 3 times more likely to develop cancer as compared to the control group." There was a high risk of lung cancer, especially for those people who worked in the textile and raw materials departments; smoking increased the likelihood of contracting lung cancer. This cohort was being followed up and it was hoped that this research would be used as evidence of the need to implement more rigorous controls on the use of asbestos in order to protect workers' health.

Top Asbestos-Consuming Countries
Country Tonnes (2006) Tonnes (2007) Signatory to ILO Asbestos Convention Global Ranking (2006/2007)
China 531,190 626,099 No 1/1
Russia 292,541 280,019 Yes 2/3
India 272,856 302,139 No 3/2
Kazakhstan 151,231 108,951 No 4/4
Brazil 143,123 93,780 Yes 5/5
Thailand 140,861 86,525 No 6/6
Ukraine 124,130 85,602 No 7/8
Uzbekistan 63,246 86,488 No 8/7
Vietnam 60,657 64,429 No 9/9
Indonesia 40,542 46,187 No 10/11
Zimbabwe 34,409 57,329 Yes 11/10
Kyrgyzstan 24,056 20,862 No 12/12
Total 1,879,659 1,858,410    
Source: United States Geological Survey.


8. In 1978, Mrs. Tait set up the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases, the first asbestos victims' group in the world; she devoted the next 40 years of her life to obtaining justice for victims. Her death in February 2009 was a blow to all the members of the global ban asbestos network.
9. The six countries included those from the Middle East which have banned asbestos: Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia plus Japan and Korea, the only countries in Asia which have done so.
10. Graphs shown illustrated the correlation between national asbestos use and mortality incidence, and the dramatic impact national bans have on overall consumption.
11. Prof. Xiaorong Wang is a researcher in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
12. In 2000, China mined 300,000+ tons; nowadays, annual production is over 400,000 tons, which makes China the world's second biggest asbestos producer. In 2008, China imported 300,000 tons of asbestos, most of which came from Russia. In China, the majority of asbestos is used for the manufacture of asbestos-cement products; other uses include friction, sealing and insulation products. Since 2003, the use of all types of asbestos has been prohibited in the production of friction materials for the automotive industry.
13. By the end of 2003, a total of 7,907 cases of asbestosis had been officially registered: "The prevalence of asbestosis reported by different studies varied widely, ranging from 5 to 40% but over 10% in most existing studies. In 1978, the first case of lung cancer with asbestosis was reported in China." There are no epidemiological data on the incidence of mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer in China, although in the question and answer session the Professor mentioned that two cases of pleural mesothelioma had been diagnosed in China.
14. The data source for these figures was given as The United States Geological Survey estimated China's asbestos production in 2005 at 350,000 tons; the figure (from the China Mine Association) shown by the speaker for the same year was 375,000 tons.