Dangers of Asbestos and Asbestos Diseases Addressed in WHO Policy Paper

They Conclude Asbestos Exposure is Dangerous at Any Level

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - August 25, 2006 - The World Health Organization (WHO) has prepared a draft policy paper about the dangers of asbestos and the continuing problem of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer andmesothelioma. WHO is the branch of the United Nations concerned with global health. It concluded that:

  • There is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
  • All types of asbestos fibers cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.
  • Safer substitutes for asbestos exist.
  • It is very difficult to control the asbestos exposure of workers and consumers.
  • Asbestos abatement is costly and hard to carry out safely.

Asbestos Exposure: Unsafe at Any Level

About 124 million people are exposed to asbestos each year. WHO points out that lung cancer and mesothelioma have been observed in people exposed to low levels of asbestos, and that no safe level of asbestos exposure has ever been established. For these reasons, WHO recommends that countries stop using asbestos.

Asbestos cement is of particular concern because the construction workforce is so large and there is a great risk of exposure during repairs, maintenance and demolitions. Worldwide, about 90% of asbestos is used in asbestos-cement building materials, 7% in friction materials (mainly brake linings in automobiles), and the rest in textiles and other applications.

World production of asbestos ranged from 2.06 million metric tons in 2001 to 2.4 million metric tons in 2005 (USGS 2005 Minerals Yearbook, U.S. Department of the Interior). Thirty-six percent of countries use, import and export asbestos and asbestos-containing products. Seventy-seven percent of countries, including the United States, still have not banned asbestos.

All Types of Asbestos Fibers Cause Cancer

All types of asbestos fibers can cause cancer, according to WHO and many other medical experts. Asbestos fibers may be classified as chrysotile or white asbestos (the most commonly produced form of asbestos), amosite, crocidolite (Riebeckite), tremolite, actinolite and certain other varieties or mixes (see Asbestos: A Hazard to Health in Any Form). Workers have developed the aggressive cancer mesothelioma from direct exposure to any of these fiber groups while on the job. Researchers also found that people living near asbestos factories or with asbestos workers could develop this disease or other cancers.

Asbestos Substitutes

There are less harmful substitutes for asbestos. WHO lists carbon fibers, non-respirable cellulose fibers, certain synthetic fibers, natural wollastonite and xonotlite. When one must work on buildings and materials containing asbestos, WHO recommends strict procedures such as encapsulating the asbestos material, wet processes, local exhaust ventilation, personal protective equipment, safety goggles, protective gloves and special clothing.

Besides halting the future use of asbestos, WHO strongly recommends:

  • Taking measures to avoid asbestos exposure during asbestos abatement activities.
  • Providing information about replacing asbestos with safe substitutes.
  • Developing economic incentives to replace asbestos.
  • Improving early diagnosis and treatment of asbestos diseases.
  • Establishing registries of people with exposure to asbestos.

Each year about 89,000 people die from asbestos diseases-43,000 from mesothelioma, 39,000 from lung cancer and 7,000 from asbestosis. WHO says that each nation must develop a strong program to eliminate its share of this epidemic.

The complete text of the WHO asbestos policy statement may be found on the agency's web site.