Anthophyllite asbestos - U.S. Geological Survey Denver Microbeam Laboratory
Writing in an editorial in the May issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, Wael K. Al-Delaimy, MD, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and chief of the Division of Global Health in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine, voices support for what he calls a long-overdue appeal by epidemiologists to ban asbestos worldwide.
Calling asbestos use a case of “global environmental injustice on a massive scale,” Al-Delaimy underscores the statement by the Joint Policy Committee (JPC) of the Societies of Epidemiology (SE) calling for the global ban of its use. The JPC-SE position is endorsed by its 10 member organizations, along with numerous major epidemiologic and public health associations.
For decades, asbestos has been known to cause lung cancer and other respiratory and cancerous conditions. According to Al-Delaimy, asbestos exposure was the number one occupational health problem until its use was banned in most of the developed world. However, an estimated 107,000 people still die each year from occupational exposure to asbestos and 125 million people are exposed to it – risking long-term disease.
Although asbestos use has been banned in most high-income countries because of its harmfulness, its use is increasing in middle- and low-income countries. According to the Al-Delaimy, this is because of the effective lobbying of the asbestos industry to prevent policies banning the substance, along with a “profound absence of education and awareness about asbestos’ harm in the countries using it the most.”
Likening it to the public health problem of tobacco use, Al-Delaimy said the asbestos industry hires consultants to promote scientific arguments in its favor, manufacture doubt about its risk and attack those advocates and scientists who speak out against the hazards of asbestos.
“In addition, the asbestos industry has established markets in countries that have inadequate legislation and weak public health programs and environmental organizations, enabling the sale of asbestos products,” Al-Delaimy writes in the editorial, adding that even countries that discourage use of asbestos-containing products often fail to ban exportation of the deadly products, “as if citizens from the less-developed countries are second-class global citizens.”
The personal costs to millions of people who become ill or die from exposure to asbestos products can harm emerging economies, impacting the global economy. More importantly, the practice of higher-income countries and their industries marketing asbestos to poorer, less education countries is unethical, Al-Delaimy said. To remain silent is “unacceptable,” and advocacy by environmental epidemiologists, scientists and public health professionals to ban asbestos is critical to bring legitimacy and accuracy to this important public health issue.
Al-Delaimy’s editorial is published in Volume 121 – Number 5, May 2013 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.