What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals with current or historical commercial interest due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor thermal conductivity, and relative resistance to chemical attack. For these reasons, asbestos is used for insulation in buildings and as a component in a number of products, such as roofing sheets, water supply lines, and fire covers, as well as clutches, brake linings, gaskets, and pads for automobiles.
The main forms of asbestos are chrysotile (white asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). Other forms include amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite.
Why is asbestos a problem?
All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary, as well as mesothelioma (cancer of the pleural and peritoneal lining). Exposure to asbestos is also responsible for other diseases such as fibrosis of the lungs, plaques, thickening and effusion of the pleura.
Currently, about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos in the workplace. It is estimated that nearly half of occupational cancer deaths are caused by asbestos. In addition, it is estimated that several thousand deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to asbestos in the home.
It has also been shown that combined exposure to tobacco smoke and asbestos fibers significantly increases the risk of developing lung cancer – and the more you smoke, the higher the risk.
What about alternative materials for asbestos?
Many of the fiber substitutes for chrysotile asbestos that have been evaluated by the World Health Organization pose a relatively low risk to human health, although the cancer risk for some fiber substitutes has been high. However, there are many non-fibrous, low-risk materials that can replace chrysotile asbestos in various uses, such as traditional building materials.
World Health Assembly resolution 58.22 on cancer prevention urges Member States to pay special attention to cancers for which avoidable exposure is a factor, including exposure to chemicals in the workplace and in the environment.
By Resolution 60.26, the World Health Assembly requested the World Health Organization to undertake a global campaign to eliminate asbestos-related diseases “… taking into account a different approach to regulating its various forms – in line with relevant international legal instruments and the latest evidence for effective interventions… “. Cost-effective interventions for the prevention of occupational lung diseases resulting from exposure to asbestos are among the policy options for implementingGlobal action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases(2013-2020), as endorsed by the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly in Resolution WHA66.10 in 2013.
Elimination of asbestos-related diseases is particularly targeted at countries that still use chrysotile asbestos, as well as assistance with exposures arising from the historical use of all forms of asbestos.
The World Health Organization, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization and other intergovernmental organizations and civil society, is working with countries to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by:
- Recognizing that the most effective way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
- Providing information on solutions to replace asbestos with safer alternatives and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
- Take measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (mitigation);
- Improving early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases;
- Create records of people who have been exposed in the past and/or present to asbestos and organize medical monitoring of exposed workers; And
- Providing information on the risks associated with asbestos-containing materials and products, and by raising awareness that asbestos-containing waste should be treated as hazardous waste.