In developing nations, asbestos exposure may become more widespread, thanks to lobbying and povertyMore than 50 nations have banned asbestos outright. The U.S. has tightly restricted its use (though a full ban is nowhere in sight). Yet, in developing nations, the use of the fiber - and so, the incidence of asbestos exposure - is skyrocketing, a trend that will boost the worldwide prevalence of mesothelioma.
Why the disparity? Recently, a team of epidemiologists from Japan's University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu published a list of reasons, many of which are interrelated.
The group also addressed the central role asbestos exposure plays in the worldwide burden of occupational disease.
The team began by quoting the World Health Organization, which states that, these days, asbestos is the occupational carcinogen of note, accounting for half of all work-related cancer deaths. And far from there being a "safer" form of the fiber, all varieties of asbestos are now known to be toxic - including chrysotile.
In the report, which appeared in the journal Cancer Science, researchers explained that, in the last century - which saw a dramatic rise and then gradual decline in asbestos use - chrysotile became the go-to fiber, thanks to its natural prevalence and supposed safety.
At its peak, which the team estimated was in 1977, nearly 5.3 million tons of asbestos were being used in 85 countries. Following increasing awareness that asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma and asbestosis, the fiber was subsequently banned in many countries.
But not all nations eliminated it. Today, about 2 million tons of asbestos (almost all of it chrysotile) are mined by a few major countries, notably Canada and Russia, and sent to developing nations, where it becomes poor people's problem.
Poverty: The crux of the issue
In the new report, the Japanese team explained that the poverty of industrializing nations is one of the main reasons that these countries are using more and more asbestos. Researchers created a list of factors that play into the persistence of asbestos use worldwide. These included:
- The fiber's characteristics. Asbestos is plentiful, convenient, durable and fireproof, making it a cheap and lethal commodity.
- The difficulty in diagnosing mesothelioma. While the U.S. has advanced medical technology, many poorer nations do not, making it almost impossible for them to differentiate between mesothelioma and common lung cancers.
- The disease's long latency period. It takes nearly three or four decades for a person with asbestos exposure to develop mesothelioma, meaning that countries which recently ramped up use of the fiber may have yet to see an explosion in occupational disease.
- Above all, poverty. The pressures of lobbying groups, the convenient lack of asbestos bans and the economic growing pains of developing nations make them easy for asbestos-producing countries (like Canada) to take advantage of.
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