Causes of public concern

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The claim that asbestos is responsible for 100,000 deaths worldwide each year is untrue. The figure is misleading because it implies that asbestos is currently used the same way as 50 years ago. It is based on data collected from European countries and extrapolated to the rest of the world. Several studies note that under the controlled levels of exposure to chrysotile that exist today, the risks for lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis are low.

In 1940s, the massive use of all types of asbestos, accompanied by minimal occupation hygiene, exposed millions of people to high levels of fibres. This led to an inevitable consequence that lasted over two or three subsequent decades – a high level of asbestos related diseases in Western countries. Asbestosis (fibrosis) is the condition where asbestos has damaged the lung tissue and caused scars to form. These scars interfere with the lungs’ working process, which is transmitting oxygen from the air into the blood. People, as a consequent, have asbestosis suffer from difficulty in breathing. It is important to remember, though, as a cause of death, pneumoconiosis has never been reliably recorded on death certificates (EHC 203, 1998).

There are four diseases related to asbestos, two benign and two malignant. Two forms of pleural disease are diffuse pleural thickening, which is linked with asbestosis, and pleural plaques. Scars caused by these conditions occur outside the lungs and in the chest wall. They are not harmful even though the appearance on chest X-ray can be quite startling. On the other hand, the two malignant diseases are mesothelioma and lung cancer. Mesothelioma is a condition where cancer develops in the pleura – the outer covering of the lungs, which is invariably fatal. Lung cancer is similar to the condition caused by smoking. Even with the best treatment, patients suffering from this disease have only a five-year survival chance of less than 10%.

Asbestos-related disease today is the consequence unregulated and uncontrolled use of all mineral fibre types in widespread application in the past. How dangerous a product is depends on how easy it can release fibres and the type of asbestos used to produce it. Studies over 60 years have established that high-density chrysotile, or white asbestos, has the lowest risks, for example, products such as corrugated cement sheeting. The most dangerous would be poorly bonded or loose fill uses of amphiboles, which are blue and brown asbestos. Those occupationally exposed in mining and milling asbestos containing rock or making the myriad products are ones who face with the greatest risks to health.

Fear that has grown up around all asbestos products should be clarified around the dangers of amphibole materials while the safety of high-density chrysotile products should be realised. Demonising products that have no effects on health and safety would cost the population an expensive price once they lose an economical, durable, eco-friendly material option.

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