Trends in regulation
In recent decades there has been a considerable increase in new regulations related to health, safety, and the environment in many countries. To some extent this is against the trend of substantial economic deregulation of certain industries in some countries, including airlines, financial markets, energy, and telecommunications.(1)
A desire for more regulation in areas such as environmental protection, public health, and safety standards has grown as awareness on the issues rises and as consumers demand more amenities such as cleaner air and water and better sanitation and as trade unions raise the alarm on occupational disease risks and workers understand more of the long-term consequences of toxic exposures.
The most common economic arguments for regulatory intervention is that without government intervention, individual companies may not take into account the full social cost of their actions.(1)
In regard asbestos regulation this is a particularly relevant. The long-term health, environmental and economic cost of the use and disposal of asbestos containing materials and waste are not generally born by the manufacturing or supplying companies in countries that still allow its manufacture and use. Workers and their families and governments bear the overwhelming burden of these costs over the long term.
Costs of lack of regulation and national bans on asbestos
Many costs are associated with the continued use and production of asbestos. In addition to direct (cost of medical care and premature death) and indirect (loss of labour-force participation and tax revenues) health-care costs, countries that have been heavy users of asbestos have also incurred other societal costs, such as compensation/ litigation costs and removal costs (including waste management and disposal), as well as welfare loss, including pain and suffering.
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency of the Australian Government, in 2018 detailed the costs identified in managing the disease burden caused by exposure to chrysotile and other asbestos types for Australia, a small country by population but a heavy user of asbestos for some decades in the 20th Century.(2)
In 2015 the estimated cost to the health care system in Australia of asbestos related diseases (ARDs) was estimated at $192 million. Economic cost in total for that year alone to Australia was estimated at $321 million.
Regional disparities in asbestos related regulation and consumption
There are 67 countries publicly known to have banned all types of asbestos. Most regions of the globe have in 2020, very low consumption due to countries either banning its use fully, practically not using it even though not officially banning or using very small quantities. Asia stands out as the key region with high consumption and low regulation attached to this hazardous substance. Of the 66 countries who have totally banned 57% are from Europe (37 countries making up 84% of the European region countries), 25% from Africa and the Middle East (17 countries making up 24% of the countries in the region), 11% from the America’s and the Caribbean (7 countries making up 12% of the total region), 3% from the Pacific (2 countries making up 14% of countries in the region) and 4.5% Asia (3 countries making up 9% of countries in the region).
The global asbestos import data survey from the UN highlights the stark regional disparities in consumption of chrysotile asbestos, with Asia importing 97% of asbestos fibre globally in 2018. (3) Only eight countries in the world are left as significant importers of asbestos fibre (over 20,000 tomes/year) in 2017 and 2018 according the same UN database. They are all in Asia and are India, China, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand. Asia (excluding Middle East) in 2020 has only a few countries that have regulated national bans on chrysotile asbestos, including Japan, South Korea and Nepal.(4) It should be noted that chrysotile (white asbestos) makes up more than 90% of all asbestos ever traded.
This continued use of asbestos in Asia is despite indisputable scientific evidence as to toxicity to humans of chrysotile asbestos backed by clear repeated independent evidence and advice from WHO and ILO that elimination of use is the most effective way to eliminate asbestos diseases.
So why are there such regional disparities in translating scientific knowledge of asbestos risks to policy and regulation for preventing cancers and other diseases?
It is clear from examining the asbestos industry marketing tactics that part of that answer lies in the aggressive marketing and the industry paid ‘research’ to create uncertainty with policy makers. Reports from ban network members and a recent legal case in UK reveal these tactics involve misinformation and intimidation including threats to persons and careers as well as industrial espionage and direct policy influence by the asbestos industry, with the aim to delay or prevent asbestos regulation and bans. The result of these delays in regulation is a greater disease burden on workers and consumers and greater economic and environmental costs including lost work hours, compensation, monitoring, removal and disposal of decaying asbestos materials than would have been the case from early regulatory actions.
As Park et al. pointed out, most cases of mesothelioma are now occurring in countries producing asbestos and in developing countries using the products, where scientific knowledge of asbestos toxicity seems to have been lost in translation.(5) These are countries, where affected populations are less likely to have access to prompt diagnosis, health care or litigation, that we will observe the next wave of mesothelioma cases.
Oladele A Ogunseitan in 2015 described three scientific translational gaps in regulation concerning asbestos (i) making policy decisions within the context of scientific uncertainty, (ii) the role of alternative assessments in selecting safer commercial materials, and (iii) the translation of scientific evidence into disease prevention.(5) Unfortunately, it would appear these gaps continue today.
The first gap concerns making policy decisions within the context of scientific uncertainty. For example, the representative of asbestos exporting countries repeatedly claim that there is insufficient scientific data to support listing chrysotile asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention. The latter use their veto to block its listing despite overwhelming evidence collected by the WHO as to its carcinogenic toxicity, from the 65 countries who have already banned it and from the Conventions own Chemical Review Committee of independent scientists who have recommended its listing since 2006.
The second gap Oladele A Ogunseitan(6) refers to is the role of alternatives assessments in the selection of safer materials used in consumer products. For example, at least two representatives of countries opposing the international regulation of chrysotile asbestos claim that alternative materials have not been sufficiently researched to compare the risks to human health and the environment. Although there are legitimate scientific issues to be resolved with alternative assessments, they do not amount, in the case of asbestos, to reasons for stalling policy procedures and regulation on known toxic substance such as asbestos.
The third gap identified in the efficient translation of scientific evidence to disease prevention policy is the need to acknowledge trade-offs between public health, industrial development, economic advancement, employment and political autonomy. Representatives of countries opposing the listing of asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention acknowledge that this inclusion would not imply a ban on production, but argue that it would have a negative impact on international trade and contribute to unemployment in the asbestos exporting countries. This blocking of political consensus also translates to ineffective regulatory frameworks as detractors identify and use loopholes and backdoor trading to circumvent international policy.(7)
Opportunities for improved regulation of asbestos in developing countries
Despite these challenges, the move to regulation of asbestos in developing countries including national bans have clear opportunities as awareness grows among workers and communities and policy makers better understand the risks to health, environment and economy of inaction.
ILO/ WHO Guidance and recommendations
The WHO and ILO have developed clear guidance and pathways for countries to eliminate asbestos related diseases. These give guidance to national governments on both process and policy for countries looking to embark on this pathway to avoid asbestos related diseases among its workforce and community and protect their economy and environment in coming decades.
Details are available from:
- Outline for the Development of National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases WHO 2014.
- Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases WHO 15 February 2018
- Chrysotile Asbestos Summary WHO 2014
Good Practice Regulation exists already so no need to reinvent the wheel. Example of good practice regulation framework to minimise exposure to asbestos fibre and asbestos related disease already exist in many countries that have already banned the fibre. Australia is one example and Korea and Japan are others. Australia began restricting asbestos use in the 1980’s and a complete ban came into force in 2003 after the government report on chrysotile asbestos was released in 1999.
Customs legislation banned the import and export of asbestos and asbestos containing products (2003)
Work health and safety legislation regulates the management, control and removal of asbestos remaining in the workplace including Codes of Practice for management of existing asbestos and safe removal (2005)
Environmental protection and waste legislation regulates the transportation of commercial and industrial waste; the licensing of hazardous disposal facilities (such as landfills); and notification and remediation of contaminated land
Public health legislation applies to asbestos-related activities carried out at non-workplaces e.g homes
Mining and quarrying legislation regulates the risks posed by naturally occurring asbestos that may be exposed during mining processes within the mining and quarrying industries
Transport and dangerous goods legislation contains requirements for labelling, packing and transportation.
Further information: Australian Government Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency
Two main governmental agencies regulate asbestos and asbestos-containing materials in Korea: the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) and the Ministry of Environment (MOE).
The Occupational Safety and Health Act started to regulate asbestos as a chemical that can only be used with permission of MOEL in 1990, and prohibited crocidolite and amosite in 1997 and anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite asbestos in 2003. The occupational exposure limit of asbestos was reduced from 2 f/cc for chrysotile, 0.5 f/cc for amosite, 0.2 f/cc for crocidolite and 2 f/cc for other types of asbestos to 0.1 f/cc for all types of asbestos. In 2009, MOEL made major revision for the protection of asbestos construction workers by mandating the asbestos surveying of buildings and the abatement of asbestos by designated contractors. MOEL also prohibited the manufacture, import, transfer, offer and use of asbestos-containing products in 2007. In April 2011, MOE issued the Safe Asbestos Control Act to protect human health and the environment from asbestos and this Act came into force in 2012. In addition to the Acts controlling current and future asbestos exposure, MOE issued the Asbestos Victim Compensation Act in March 2010 to provide financial compensation for victims suffering from asbestos-related diseases.(8)
> Specific References South Korea (9-14)
Banning asbestos has not had a significant impacted on the economy or employment of any country that has banned it. A study done by Allen et al. 2017 of countries across the world that had banned asbestos at that time assessed the economic impact of declines in asbestos production and consumption and banning of asbestos use. According to country-level data, no negative economic impact on those countries was observed. Since the importance of asbestos to the economies of current producer/consumer countries is similar to that of other countries that have already banned its use, this analysis suggests that countries currently consuming/ producing asbestos would not experience an observable effect on gross domestic product from a ban on or a decline in asbestos consumption/production. In addition, the continued use of asbestos carries substantial costs related to health, remediation and litigation.(15) All existing asbestos containing materials now have safer substitutes available.
> Further information: (8)
With 67 countries banning asbestos in recent decades there has been great advances in development of substitute materials covering all sectors where asbestos materials were found. In countries around the world Information has been gathered for the World Bank and the WHO on the products available to replace asbestos-cement construction materials and other asbestos products. In a paper published by WHO in 201215 these substitute substances are detailed including information on providers of alternative products and substitute synthetic and natural fibres.
The report outlines substitute construction products of fibre-cements made with polymeric and plant fibres, as well as wholly different product compositions that serve the same functions as asbestos-cement sheets, pipes, and water storage tanks. Increased costs for producing fibre-cement sheets from polymeric fibres (polyvinyl alcohol or polypropylene) combined with cellulose are 10-15%. Some of the substitute products can be made with locally available materials and labour, using simple, portable equipment in remote locations.
The paper also outlines regulation to review import duties that favour asbestos in some countries can be adjusted to favour asbestos substitution. Long-term operating costs for properly maintaining and renovating structures made with asbestos, not to mention the constant health threat to workers and building occupants, favour constructing the next generation of infrastructure with an increasing array of safer substitute materials.
Reform of the Rotterdam Convention
Hazardous chemical regulation is linked, for some countries, to listing of that chemical onto Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention. This is especially the case for some countries from the global south e.g. Tanzania. While the convention itself relates to Prior Informed Consent for exporting listed chemicals, a result of that listing is often national regulation of that chemical. This is likely the reason chrysotile exporting countries and their allies have blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos for 15 years and counting. As the convention requires consensus of all parties for listing onto Annex III just an objection on any grounds by one Party is enough to block its listing under the current procedures. An opportunity exists however to modernise the Convention and strengthen the Convention in its effectiveness with specific proposals for reform that preserve the consensus principle for the vast majority of chemicals, but also provide a place on the Convention for chemicals recommended for listing by the Chemical Review Committee of the Convention and supported by more than 75% of the Parties to the Convention. If a proposal such as this were to succeed, and chrysotile asbestos was listed, it would significantly change the regulatory outlook and encourage national governments to act to impose stricter national regulations on chrysotile asbestos.
Growth of national, regional and global ban asbestos networks
The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat was established in 2000. It provides a conduit for the exchange of information between groups and individuals working to achieve a global asbestos ban and seeking to alleviate the damage caused by widespread asbestos use.
Since 2009 the Asia Ban Asbestos Network has also been active in the region. In 2020 there were ten National Ban Asbestos networks across Asia. These networks bring together workers and their trade unions, health experts, victims groups, scientists, NGO’s and academics among others, working together to raise awareness on asbestos exposure risk, fight the pro-asbestos industries misinformation and influence within governments, bringing local voices of those that are suffering as well as local and international evidence on asbestos related diseases to the attention of national and regional policy makers. The work of these networks and activists is raising the alarm to workers, consumers and policy makers and advocating for national bans on asbestos import and use and proper management of remaining asbestos products and waste material to minimise exposure.