Asbestos, a low-cost fire retardant and insulating material was widely used in construction, shipbuilding, and the steel, automotive and railway industries, among others. It is present in thousands of kilometres of water pipes, public and private buildings, warehouses, tunnels, machinery, ships and trains, although it is being progressively replaced by other materials. Asbestos was used for decades in more than 3,000 products, so even today plumbers, electricians, building demolition and maintenance workers and car mechanics may come across this hazardous material in the course of their jobs, facing health risks if they fail to take precautions. Asbestos is banned in 55 countries, including the 28 members of the European Union, Argentina, Chile, Honduras and Uruguay. But more than two million tonnes a year are still being extracted worldwide, mainly in China, India, Russia, Brazil and Kazakhstan.
Every year 107,000 people worldwide die of lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma linked to occupational exposure to asbestos, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). A study by the European Union reports that half a million people are expected to die of mesothelioma and lung cancer by 2030, due to occupational exposure to asbestos in the 1980s and 1990s. The study analyses mortality in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. WHO estimates that 125 million people are in contact with asbestos in the workplace, and attributes thousands of other deaths a year to indirect contact with the material in the home. The dangers involved is now in the deterioration and modification of structures containing asbestos, which breaks down into rigid microscopic fibrils that accumulate in the body by inhalation or ingestion. Many workers die before the occupational nature of their ailment is recognised, and they are deprived of their right to disability pensions and compensation for damages.
The asbestos issue shows the true face of a system that is only interested in profits,” said Francisco Puche of Málaga Amianto Cero, an anti-asbestos alliance, who is critical of “big business,” powerful lobbies linked to asbestos mining, and the “impunity” surrounding the illness and death of workers in Europe and around the world. “Thousands of people have died, are dying and will die in the future because of asbestos. It is the great unknown factor, and its effects have been overwhelmingly silenced.”
Francisco Báez, the author of the book “Amianto: un genocidio impune” (Asbestos: an unpunished genocide) complained about the double standards applied by countries that prohibit the material within their borders, yet abroad “they promote its use and profit financially from the installation and maintenance of asbestos sector industries.”