For most of us, asbestos is a term associated with severe health risks and disease. For over five decades, we have known about the link between asbestos exposure and certain types of cancers and lung diseases. While thousands of people continue to suffer the ill effects of asbestos exposure, fortunately, in most countries, government regulations and enforcement have brought bans of its use and other strong protections against exposure. However, asbestos continues to be a major issue at the global level. And while governments in the western world have done a lot to protect their own citizens, at the same time, some of them are exporting known health risks to the large parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, where bans maybe don’t exist, regulations are weak, and enforcement is flawed.
Workers in the developed world, and particularly Asian countries, face the severe health risks of asbestos that first-world workers are now generally protected from. In Asian ship-breaking yards in India, Bangladesh and China, for example, it is common for asbestos insulation to be removed by hand, laid out to dry in the sun, and then later re-sold. All this time, the workers are breathing asbestos-laden air. In factories in Hong Kong, workers cut asbestos bags open manually or with hammers, sending asbestos dust into the air, coating all the surfaces of the factory. Industrial factories lack proper ventilation systems and workers are not provided with appropriate masks to protect their lungs.
Tragically, developed nations play all too big of a role in creating and maintaining these hazardous working conditions. Canada, in particular, has played a central role in promoting the sale of asbestos to developing countries. Despite nearly universal calls for stopping the production and use of chrysotile asbestos, and despite its ban in most industrialized countries, Canada continues to promote it on a global scale. Many of these tactics seem particularly underhanded: Investing millions of dollars in promoting asbestos in developing countries; misinformation campaigns about the hazards of asbestos; use of intimidation, trade threats, and political interference in other countries to prevent bans and regulations; and preventing information about the dangers of asbestos from getting to developing countries. In the year 2000, Canada was the world’s largest exporter of asbestos. Today, it is fourth, behind Russia, Kazakhstan and Brazil. As the developed world has put the brakes on the use of asbestos, countries like Canada turn to less developed regions of the world to keep their profits intact.
Over the last several decades, global campaigns have fought to get governments around the world to put in place stronger legislation and regulation to protect workers against asbestos exposure. Today, a major part of the struggle to protect these workers is now getting countries to stop exporting asbestos and to put a halt to companies profiting off of such a deadly substance.