Anti-asbestos activists’ logics. Myths & reality

Claims of theanti-asbestos group

In fact, the reality is...





Asbestos is a carcinogenand the only way toprotect the health ofworkers and the populationis to ban its use.



As the International LaborOrganization (ILO)recognized in 1986, and many countries afterwards,regulations on asbestos use must be based on scientificreality, not on perceptions or business interests.


Some five hundred other products and industrialprocesses are recognized as carcinogens, but thisdoes not mean that we must prohibit their use. Inaddition to the ILO, many international organizationsfavor a controlled approach over a ban.



The dangers of asbestosare widely known, and itseffects on health havebeen documented sincethe beginning of the 20thcentury.


a) Asbestos, includingamphiboles such aschrysotile, are carcinogensfor human beingsand there is no knownexposure threshold.

b) Chrysotile is associatedwith asbestosis, lungcancer and mesothelioma,based on thelevel of exposure.

c) The risk of developinglung cancer or mesotheliomaapplies to usersof products containingasbestos and to thepopulation exposed to it.


The effects of various asbestos fibers on health arewell known and documented. There is scientificconsensus on the fact that fibers in the amphibolegroup are from 100 to 500 times more harmful tohealth than chrysotile, particularly for mesothelioma.

The confusion purposely maintained by opponents tosafe chrysotile use is due to confusing two families offibers, without distinction, despite the fact that thetype, geological source, use and effects on health areradically different.

Concerningtheveryexistence of a threshold, whilethere is no consensus about the level at which it isestablished the scientific community recognizes thatthis threshold does exist. Cohorts representing tensof thousands of workers exposed only to chrysotileat levels of concentration lower than 2 fibers/cm3have been studied and clearly do not show an inordinateincrease in disease in relation to the generalpopulation.Industrial diseases related to the use of asbestosare therefore the result of excessive and prolongedexposure to chrysotile or exposure to amphiboles.

This is primarily why the ILO indicated that theasbestos issue is an issue of industrial hygiene,not a public health concern.Due to the latency period, cases of cancer orasbestosis observed today result from past workingconditions that no longer apply today.





The International Agencyfor Research on Cancer(IARC - WHO) has recognized

asbestos as a type 1carcinogen. Its use musttherefore be prohibited.


Because all types of asbestos were used incorrectlyin the past, we know that chrysotile andamphiboles have been classified as category 1carcinogens (proven carcinogenic agents),such as cadmium, chromium, nickelcompounds, silica, the sun's rays, vinyl chloride,alcoholic beverages, salted fish, tobaccosmoke, saw dust, the manufacture and repairof shoes, the manufacture of furniture andcabinets, iron and steel founderies and therubber industry.


The World HealthOrganization (WHO) classification identifiesa substance's danger, not the risk.Consequently, a substance classified in group 1does not mean that we should prohibit itsuse, only that it should be properly controlled.















All types of asbestos aredangerous—this is why thedistinction between

chrysotile and amphibolesis purely semantic.


First of all, the fact that "chrysotile" asbestosand fibers in the "amphiboles" group are

regulated differently is nothing new. This two-prongedapproach exists in Convention 162on the safe use of asbestos issued by theInternational LaborOrganization. Since"asbestos" is a trade name rather than a technicalterm, it is appropriate that the regulationtake into account the main differences betweenthe types of fibers. Furthermore, there are many studies and aninternational consensus, that show that chrysotilefiber (white asbestos) is definitely less dangerous.This certainty is the foundation of the ILOconvention, as well as of the regulations of mostcountries in the world.


Two significant scientificevents recently confirmed this fact: (1) a groupof scientists mandated by the EPA unanimouslyagreed that available studies on epidemiologyindicate that the carcinogenic potential ofamphibole fibers was one hundred times (100 x)higher than that for chrysotile fibers.


(2) Animportant study on the biological persistenceof chrysotile in the lung has shown, taking intoaccount the scientific literature to date, that thereport on this study provides solid new data thatclearly confirm the difference, from an epidemiologicalpoint of view, between chrysotile and amphiboles (1).


Chrysotile was compared to amphiboles and most prevalent substitute fibers. Asaresult, convincingevidenceof hazards of amphiboles and substitutes were obtained.


Theclearancehalf-timeofchrysotile, i.e. thenumberofdaysnecessarytoclear 50% offibersremaininginlungsaftertheexposureperiod, approximated 15 days.


At the same time, the clearance half-time of amphibole asbestos (amosite) was found to be 466 days, that of ceramic fibers – 60 days, aramid fibers – up to 90 days, and cellulose fibers – over 1,000 days.


This fundamental difference is also recognized by thegroup of experts brought together by the WorldHealth Organization, who, as early as 1989, recommended,based on scientific data, that chrysotileasbestos should be regulated to 1 fiber per cubiccentimeter, while amphiboles should be prohibited.


Thus, over 60 countries have adopted the principlefor using chrysotile safely, with an allowable exposurelevel in accordance with this recommendation.






Controlled use ofchrysotile does not takethe latency period fordiseases associated withasbestos into account,which may take up to30 years to appear.


A law adopted by governments takes into accountthe scientific reality that stipulates that for thegeneral population, the health hazards from high-densityproducts with chrysotile content (asbestoscement, brakes, plastics, treated fabrics) are undetectable.As for workers, the law requires users of chrysotileto implement controls that allow its use whileprotecting the health and bodily integrity of workers.


By introducing a prohibition on amphiboles, theauthorities caused a significant reduction in futurecases of mesothelioma, which is imperceptible untilafter the latency period for those who have beenexposed.










Preventive measures arenot sufficient to protectthe health of workers.Workers are often nottrained to apply thesemeasures or to implementsafe methods. In the1970s, the NIOSH (UnitedStates) claimed that onlya ban on asbestos couldensure complete protectionfrom the carcinogeniceffects of this product.


Prevention methods were suggested in the late 1970sand integrated into the Code of Practice on asbestosby the ILO in 1984. They provided proof of their applicabilityand effectiveness.All construction materials contain elements that arelikely to be harmful to the health of workers if usedincorrectly. Workers must make sure they are usingthe appropriate equipment and recommended workmethods, regardless of the materials they use. Thisis true for chrysotile, as well as for many othersubstances that are sometimes more harmful.


The position of the National Institute forOccupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in theUnited States has evolved somewhat since that early1970s when the effects of various types of asbestoson health were not as well documented.


Duringpublic hearings by the U.S. Congress in July 2001,the directors of the Occupational Safety and HealthAdministration (OSHA) and NIOSH expressedtheir opposition to banning chrysotileasbestos and stated that the current legislationwas the most appropriate to protectworkers.3The ILO's Code of Practice calls for continuingtraining of workers, and the latest recommendationsfrom this organization, particularlysince the adoption of the Code of Practice onthe Use of Fiberglass, call for extensive trainingof workers in all companies.












Safe use is a utopian viewfor the following reasons:


a) Anyone can purchaseasbestos, including individualswho are not awareof safe working methods.

b) The general populationis exposed to a hazard dueto products that containasbestos.

c) Applying controlmeasures is impossible.We must follow theexample of the UnitedStates and the EuropeanUnion, which have prohibitedasbestos.


European scientists haveshown that, based on thecircumstances, certainexposure levels are sufficientlyhigh to present arisk of developing a diseaseassociated with asbestos.


Chrysotile has not been sold to individuals fora long time, although certain groups claim thecontrary. Shipments are only made to responsiblecompanies that apply the principles setout in the ILO's Code of Practice.


With regardto finished products, it has been demonstratedmany times that they do not present a risk tothe general population.Products manufactured in the last 20 years orso, encapsulate the fibers in solid materials,such as cement or resin.


The conditionsdescribed by supporters of a ban, such as BanAsbestos, have not existed for many years withrespect to chrysotile. The conditions theydescribe as health hazards do however applyto substitute fibers and to many otherdangerous products that are unregulated.This is an opinion based on impressions and areality that no longer exists. This stretch ofreality is unfounded.


Approximately 60 countrieshave adopted the principle of controlleduse. Chrysotile is easy to control given thelimited number of sources of supply, and it canbe used in complete safety. Why would this beeasier to accomplish with potentially harmfulsubstitute fibers, when they have never beenshown to be safer than chrysotile and giventhat they are not subject to regulation toprotect the health of workers?


Contrary to the claims of ban asbestos advocates,the United States have repeated theirconfidence in the principle of safe use duringpublic hearings of the July 2001 Congress, and in themandate granted by the Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA) to a group of experts in May 2000.


InEurope, the ban was applauded by the entire industrialworld simply to support business interests. In theAmericas, only Chile has applied a ban on chrysotile,without scientific justification, to support theeconomic interests of the cellulose fiber industry andprevent imports of chrysotile-cement, which the localmanufacturers cannot competeeffectively against.The "established circumstances" to which groupsopposing asbestos refer existed in the 1970s. Thesecircumstances resulted in many cases of industrialdiseases that are being diagnosed today and that canbe attributed to this material.


At the time, workerscould have been exposed to average concentrationsmuch higher than 20 fibers/cm3. Today, those whohandle chrysotile work in an environment wherethe measured concentration is less than 1 fiber/cm3.At this level, the health hazard is undetectable.







The entire world is leaningtowards a ban. We mustfollow this trend.International expertssupport the ban. As proof,INSERM (France) claimsthat chrysotile cannot bedissociated as a cause ofpleural mesothelioma. TheWorld Trade Organization(WTO) claimed that nocountry could claim tohave implemented responsiblemanagement of therisk of using a dangeroussubstance withoutfavoring its replacement.


Those who oppose the use of chrysotile have beenvery short-sighted in selecting quotations that matchtheir views and objectives, but that do not representthe opinions of experts or international organizations.


What about the experts convened by the WorldHealth Organization, the ILO and the EPA in theUnited States, to name only a few, who supportcontrolled use of chrysotile. After all, these organizationshave much more expertise and credibility thanthese groups of militants from many places.The collective expertise of the Institute national desanté et de recherchemédicale (INSERM, France) wascriticized by peers of holding a political positionrather than a scientific position.


As for the WTO'sreport, panelists were very careful to clarify that theissue to be debated before the panel was a businessissue and that no health determination was made,the topic of health being beyond their jurisdiction.




Asbestos is primarily usedin countries that have noregulations about its use,and it is handled byuntrained workers whohave no access to medicalexaminations.


26 countries ratified Convention 162 on theSafe Use of Asbestos and approximately40 others incorporated its principles into theirnational laws or regulations. Since 1986, theAsbestos Institute, in collaboration with theILO, has organized seminars and training workshopsin many countries to ensure that users ofchrysotile fiber have the necessary expertiseand equipment to handle it safely.








It is possible to replaceasbestos.


Substituting chrysotile by other industrialfibers is technically possible. Since severalEuropean countries have demanded importsof products that are free of chrysotile,manufacturers have developed productionprocesses that use one or more alternativeproducts.


First of all, finished products manufacturedwithout chrysotile are more expensive and oflower quality than those containing chrysotileand have never been scientifically recognizedas less hazardous to health.


If the Europeanmarket can allow itself the luxury of usingmore expensive, less durable and uncontrolledproducts, they can decide to do so.But why impose this on other countries?As we saw in Chile, England, Italy andFrance, chrysotile free products have beensold using smear campaigns against chrysotileresulting in its prohibition, thereby openingup the market to new products for whichmany technical problems are surfacing astheir use becomes more widespread.


Secondly, the fibers usually used to replacechrysotile, such as cellulose, aramid fibersand ceramic fiber, are more persistent inlung tissue and therefore potentially more

hazardous to health.


By prohibiting the useof chrysotile under the pretext of protectingworkers, there is a chance of creating thereverse effect by promoting the developmentof unregulated fibers that are possibly morehazardous to the health of workers.








The global trend isclearly leaning in favorof banning all types of

asbestos.Furthermore, countries arepreparing to include alltypes of asbestos in theRotterdam Convention.


Speaking of a European campaign as an internationaltrend is an exaggeration. The countries of theEuropean Union have adopted the principle ofbanning chrysotile effective in 2005, and are stronglyencouraging other countries to do the same to createan opening for substitute fibers. Outside of Europe,less than a half dozen countries are following suit.Curiously, these are countries that export substitutefibers, such as Australia and Chile.


Is it a trend considering that more than 60 countrieshave adopted the principles of controlled usesuggested by the ILO in their legislation on chrysotile?


In terms of the Rotterdam Convention, we must firstclarify that it is not in force. The signatory countriesare studying a request from the European Union,Chile and Australia to require importing countries tohave an import license to use chrysotile. This measure,which has nothing to do with a ban, is closer to theprinciple of responsible use put forth by the internationalchrysotile industry in 1996.






Countries are responsiblefor taking all necessarymeasures to protect

thehealth of workers and thepopulation. The prohibitionof asbestos is one of

these imperative measures.


By adopting a law that supports controlled use ofchrysotile, the regulatory authorities in the variouscountries demonstrate their concern for protectingthe health and safety of workers, while ensuring thatdurable, inexpensive and completely safe productsare available to consumers.Moreover, this legislation is compatible with the principlesput forth by the ILO and WHO.


We salute the determination of governments thathave based their decisions on science rather thansuccumbing to industrial and political pressures.

Obviously it will soon be necessary to extend themeasures adopted for chrysotile to all respirableindustrial fibers whose dangers (biological persistence)are greater than or equal to chrysotile. Theseare true concerns about protecting the health ofworkers and the population.



(1)David M. Bernstein, Rick Rogers, Paul Smith, The Biopersistence of Canadian Chrysotile Asbestos Following Inhalation, accepted for publication in Inhalation Toxicology, November 2003.