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What is Asbestos?
Find out more about what asbestos is, what it is used for and how it damages human health.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a natural silicate material made up of long and fibrous crystals which is mined from the earth. Whilst asbestos has been in human use for at least 4,500 years, it was not until the industrial revolution that asbestos use accelerated, valued as a cheap and efficient insulator with flame retardant properties. Asbestos is concentrated in the construction (especially in asbestos fortified cement), shipbuilding and manufacturing sectors and is present in more than 3000 manufactured products. As such, asbestos use is a particular occupational health and safety risk to workers either through direct mining or transportation and packaging of asbestos, working in conditions where asbestos can leak into the air (such as deteriorating, unsafely renovated or poorly maintained workplaces) or dry cutting of asbestos material, such as in production of asbestos products or recycling asbestos material.
There are two main groups of asbestos - Serpentine or white asbestos (including chrysotile asbestos - the main type of asbestos used) and Amphibole asbestos ( including 'brown' and 'blue' asbestos) which is rarely mined or utilised.
Sadly, asbestos hazards extend beyond the workplace, constituting a wider public health emergency. Millions of people live with asbestos in their homes and are exposed to asbestos fibres as buildings deteriorate. Conflict and natural disaster can destroy buildings, spreading asbestos fibres into the wider environment and affecting millions more, as evidenced in East Timor, Aceh and Sri Lanka.
The Health effects of Asbestos
There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and asbestos diseases are not curable. A range of fatal conditions can develop from exposure, usually many years after the incident including cancers, such as mesothelioma, and fatal lung damage disorders, such as asbestosis.
Although the incidence and risk of developing an asbestos-related disease varies with the specific fibre length, size, dose and level of processing of the type of asbestos, the World Heath Organisation has categorically determined that that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic . Exposure to chrysotile, the so called 'safer asbestos' promoted by the asbestos industry, has been proven by the International Program on Chemical Safety to increase the risks of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a relationship directly related to the level of fibre ingestion (with no minimum 'safe' threshold identified). The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified all forms of asbestos as Category 1 - 'Carcinogenic to humans'.
If there was any doubt, a 37 year cohort study of Chinese workers exposed to crysotile asbestos was published in late 2011. The study found that exposed workers were three times more likely to develop lung cancer and respiratory disease than non-exposed workers. The authors concluded that "data from this 37-year prospective cohort confirmed excessive risks for mortality, in particular, from lung cancer and non-malignant respiratory diseases, in asbestos workers".
The World Health Organisation estimates asbestos is one of the most important occupational carcinogens, responsible for about half of world-wide deaths from occupational cancer or around 100,000 deaths a year and that 125 million workers are exposed to it in the workplace , most of them without even basic personal protective equipment.
In many developed countries, in the most affected age groups, mesothelioma may account for 1% of all deaths alone. In addition to this 5-7% of all lung cancers can be attributed to occupational exposure to asbestos . There is reason to believe that in developing countries, where occupational health and safety systems and procedures are not strong, cancer figures may be even higher in the relevant generations. The sustained free and unsafe use of asbestos over the last fifty years, ongoing in many countries, represents a public health time bomb now and into the future.
Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA
Ph: (02) 9264 9343
Fax: (02) 9261 1118
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