Asbestos and nanotechnologies: Avoiding a second disaster?

Asbestos has a devastating impact on workers' health.

SEOUL - The devastating impact of asbestos on workers' health was the focus of a well-attended symposium organized by the ISSA during the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, on the theme "Asbestos: A Global Disaster". And nanotechnologies may present similar risks, according to specialists.

Asbestos was considered as a miracle product during much of the 20th century, and was used extensively in construction and manufacturing. Asbestos has been progressively banned in Europe and in North America since the 1970s, when the carcinogenic effects of the exposure to asbestos became apparent. In 2005, asbestos was banned in the European Union, followed by other countries. To date, over 40 countries have banned asbestos.

However, asbestos imports and use have increased in much of the world, and case studies from India and Thailand confirmed that the prolific use of asbestos is exposing workers to serious occupational risks. The WHO estimates that it is in South-East Asia that there is the largest number of workers exposed to asbestos directly.

A global disaster

The full impact on human health of asbestos cannot be measured. Asbestos-related diseases take between 20 and 60 years to appear, and in many countries, data may not be reliable. However, epidemiological studies and medical experience confirm that the effect on the health of workers is dramatic.

In Germany, more than 50,000 cases of asbestos-related diseases have been recognized to date. In the UK, it is estimated that 120,000 people may be victims of exposure to asbestos, and one in every 100 men born in the 1940s may be affected.

Annually, as many as 100,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases worldwide, representing over 54 per cent of deaths due to occupational cancers.

"Asbestos is a global disaster," said Dr. Klaus Bartels, an ISSA expert on the issue and organizer of the symposium. "Nevertheless, and despite the harmful effects on the health of workers and the ensuing negative impact on the economy, 2.5 million tons of asbestos per year are still mined worldwide," he indicated.

Studies indicate that the number of asbestos victims is likely to increase for another 5 to 10 years, even in countries that have banned asbestos, according to Dr. Kurt Straif of the International Agency for Research on Cancer. "Urgent and concerted action is needed, particularly in developing countries, to curtail a second, even bigger wave of the global asbestos disaster."

Ban asbestos

For occupational safety and social security systems, the healthcare and compensation burden of asbestos is massive. Asbestos has a direct impact on social security as it causes a major burden on worker's compensation, pension and health care schemes. Asbestos is a topic of major concern to the ISSA's Special Commission on Prevention, which adopted a Declaration to ban asbestos in 2004, and advocates for a worldwide ban.

Economic and financial burden

"Over the past 20 to 30 years, asbestos compensation payments have exerted a considerable economic strain on many industrial countries," said Michal Mekota, a legal and insurance specialist. Insurance companies estimate that the future cost of asbestos claims may be as much as US $ 200-300 billion globally. Over 60,000 jobs have been lost as a result of bankruptcy following litigation in the USA alone.

"In emerging economies, those presently exposed to asbestos may seek claims in 20-30 years, with a potentially high economic impact," warned Mekota.

Nanotechnologies: Opportunity or risk?

Could nanotechnologies be associated with the same risks as asbestos? The topic was the focus of other symposia sessions, and of a press briefing organized by the ISSA. Tiny carbon molecules have remarkable properties that are used in advanced technologies and materials, and are a rapidly-growing sector of industry.

Nanotechnologies contain tiny fibres that could trigger diseases similar to asbestos, said Dr. Markus Berges, of the German statutory insurance's (BG) Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "We have much to do to understand and distinguish the safe nanoparticles. We have to get it right," he concluded.

"Nanotechnologies represent an enormous opportunity, but they may also contain serious risks for occupational safety and health that we should identify and assess," said Dr. Jorma Rantanen, President of the International Commission on Occupational Health. "We must anticipate to avoid the disaster of asbestos."

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