Asbestos is a set of naturally occurring minerals. There are six types in total, namely, actinolite, amosite, anothophyllite, chrysotile, crocidolite and tremolite.
More than 4,000 years ago asbestos was mined, however, at the end of the 19th century large-scale mining began. Asbestos was a sought after material, due to its many useful qualities such as sound absorption, heat resistance and affordability. Asbestos was used widely in the UK in the building industry, as well as in the manufacture of many household products including irons, televisions, hairdryers and heaters.
Asbestos was seen as a wonder product, that is until its carcinogenic effects became well known. Although it was noted as far back as the Roman times that asbestos appeared to have a detrimental effect on health, it was not until much later that the problems caused by asbestos became public knowledge and people paid more attention to the dangers of asbestos.
Asbestos is known to cause a number of debilitating conditions including mesothelioma, a terminal cancer which affects the lining of the body’s organs. The most common forms of mesothelioma are pleural mesothelioma, affecting the lungs and peritoneal mesothelioma, affecting the abdomen. Mesothelioma can also affect the heart and testes.
Asbestosis is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and scarring of the lungs, this is mostly seen in people who have had a prolonged exposure to asbestos and results in breathing problems.
Pleural thickening is also caused by asbestos exposure and this is a condition whereby the lung pleura thickens, causing shortness of breath.
Lung cancer can also be caused by exposure to asbestos exposure but, unlike mesothelioma, asbestos lung cancer can be successfully treated, depending upon the diagnosis stage.
In the UK, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the government did something about asbestos, banning the use and import of both crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) in 1985. These were seen to be the worst kinds of asbestos, causing the greatest risk to health.
In 1992, the Asbestos Regulations were amended to ban some uses of chrysotile (white asbestos) with more restrictions being put in place during the 1990s stating that some work involving asbestos and in particular, asbestos removal, had to be carried out by licensed professionals.
Finally, in 1999, the importation of any asbestos containing products and the use of any new asbestos products was completely banned in the UK. Of course, this means that any building constructed prior to the Regulations coming into force, could contain asbestos and so the Regulations also stipulated that anyone coming into contact with asbestos should be properly trained and protected against the harmful substance.
While it may seem that the UK took its time in banning asbestos, considering the Romans noted it caused health problems, they were one of the first countries to ban asbestos, behind Australia who banned the use of blue asbestos as early as 1967, but did not completely ban the use of asbestos until 2003.
Given the devastating effects exposure to asbestos can have on a person’s health, many would think that most countries would have seen sense and banned the toxic substance. Unfortunately, this is not the case and surprisingly both the United States of America and Canada are on the list of countries yet to completely ban asbestos.
Although in 1989 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Asbestos ban and Phase Out Rule, trying to stop all importation, processing, manufacturing and selling of asbestos products, in 1991, the asbestos industry overturned the ban. Although a complete ban was opposed, the EPA was able to keep some asbestos products banned and stop any new uses of asbestos.
Asbestos products are still used in the USA, the majority of which are roofing products. America is making slow progress in reducing asbestos use, with some states insisting car brake pads are now free from asbestos.
Perhaps most surprisingly in the developed world is Canada, who have yet to ban any form of asbestos. Over the past 20 years the incidence of mesothelioma in Canada has risen and is now considered to be one of the highest rates in the world.
Asbestos in Canada dates back to the late 1800s when in the 1870s, Quebec became the first province to mine the mineral. Despite hundreds of workers suffering with lung problems, the mining continued. In 1966, a professor, J Corbett McDonald, conducted a study on the effects of Canadian chrysotile mining. The study received funding of $500,000 from the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association and indicated that chrysotile was not causing lung tumours suffered by miners. However, in 1989 the same professor published a report stating that tremolite causes mesothelioma.
In 2002, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a statement urging all forms of asbestos be put on an international list of chemicals that would fall under trade controls. Then in 2005, there was an EU wide ban on chrysotile asbestos, the other forms of asbestos already having been banned in 1999.
Despite all of the evidence showing how dangerous asbestos is, Canada has still not banned asbestos. In fact, in 2012 the Quebec government put $58million in to one of the last remaining asbestos mines in the country, which shockingly, could keep it running for another 20 years.
With Canada being one of the main asbestos importers in the world, it appears their reluctance to ban the substance is sadly related to its $100million dollar chrysotile asbestos industry rather than thinking about the adverse effect on people’s health.
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