In parts of Asia, carrying 500 grams of one lethal white powder – heroin – can draw a death sentence. But importing 1,000 tonnes of another is both legal and profitable. Asbestos, a known carcinogen banned in much of the world, is a common and dangerous building block of much of Asia’s development and construction boom. According to Medical News Today, it causes 100,000 occupational deaths per year. Figures from China make that number improbably conservative.
While images of children with heroin-loaded needles stuck in their arms spark public outrage, clouds of asbestos fibres in factories and on construction sites often draw official shrugs and denials. Illicit drug use does not rank among the top ten causes of death in young adults, according to a 2009 study of global adolescent health. But, in some Asian nations, including China, asbestos is high on the list of causes of occupational disease in labourers, some of whom were exposed as working children.
Across much of Asia, white asbestos, also known as chrysotile, is widely used to make construction materials such as roofing tiles, wall panels and expansion joints as well as brake linings and gaskets in buses and trucks. As modernisation and economic development take hold, people are trading their insect-filled, flammable grass roofs and woven bamboo walls for asbestos-cement materials.
Like a sleeping bear, asbestos can be deadly when disturbed and, all through the mining, manufacturing, installation, cutting and deconstruction processes, the mineral is turned into air-borne fibres that lodge in the lungs and cause fatal respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma, a form of cancer.
A few years ago, at a state-owned roof-tile factory in Vietnam, I saw young male workers, clad only in shorts, carrying bags labelled “Asbestos-Kazakhstan”. The air was thick with white dust huffing up like steam from lava. Visiting occupational health and safety experts held their breath as long as they could; some smothered their faces in dust masks. The workers did not have that luxury. Their only protection was handkerchiefs, tied bandit-style over their mouths and noses, as they climbed the sides of the hoppers. “I know it’s dangerous,” said the manager spreading his hands and shrugging. “But it’s also cheap – and people only want to buy cheap tiles.”
But some people refuse to acknowledge the risks. “It’s just a PR campaign when they say that asbestos can kill,” Viktor Ivanov told journalists in 2007, when he was head of the Chrysotile Association, an industry group based in the Russian town of Asbest. His company is Uralasbest – the Ural Asbestos Mining & Ore Dressing Company – which, on its website, claims to be the world’s “oldest and largest manufacturer and supplier of chrysotile”.
In 2005, the Russian firm produced about a quarter of the world’s chrysotile asbestos and exported it to 35 countries: 53% to countries such as China, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand, outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and 13% to countries within the CIS, which were formerly part of the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Its website vigorously contests critical claims about the dangers of asbestos and the calls to eliminate its use.
Vietnam cannot agree with Uralasbest’s contentions. A rising tide of workers ill with asbestos lung disease arising from situations like the one described above, has led the government to collaborate with the Australian trade union aid agency APHEDA, to develop a coordinated approach to dealing with asbestos.
The country joins a growing list of nations attempting to tackle the trade. Very little asbestos ends up in the west. More than 60 countries have either partially or completely banned the substance, including the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea. The European Union has outlawed both brown amphibole and white chrysotile asbestos and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified all types as human carcinogens.
But asbestos merchants, in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence, claim that chrysotile is safe. “Today’s asbestos industry, with all its modern protection techniques, is absolutely harmless,” Tatiana Kochetova of the Asbest-based Institute for Asbestos Projects told the Russian Journal. “There hasn’t been one case of asbestos-caused disease here for many years. Locally produced asbestos does not cause any harm.” Researchers Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale have indeed documented rates of malignancies dropping in Asbest. But this only happened after the introduction of dust control technologies – and the dispersal of ill workers. Those same safety measures, which, in any case, mitigate rather than eliminate risk, are largely lacking in the countries to which Russian asbestos is exported.
Asbest is a classic monogorod, or single-industry town, in Bazhenouskoye in northern Kazakhstan, along the eastern slope of the Ural ridge. The open-pit mine covers 90 square kilometres and is 11.5 kilometres long, 1.8 kilometres wide and almost 300 metres deep. There, some 10,000 workers turn out more than 500,000 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos each year.
In 2009, Uralasbest was forecasting production of 450,000 tonnes, “a significant portion of the world market”, and its full-year revenues in 2006 were US$192 million (1.3 billion yuan), according to Rye, Man & Gor Securities. Russia produced 925,000 tonnes of asbestos in 2008, according to the US Geological Survey, almost half the estimated world production of about 2 million tonnes a year, and worth US$900 million (6.1 billion yuan).
Once state-owned, Uralasbest is now privatised. More than half of its share capital is owned through a Russian regional bank (Ural Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Stroyexport, another Russian company, owns 14% and two South Africa-registered companies, Petrov & Co. and Mavrol Management, own 21%. The top managers control about 30% of the company. In 2007, Uralasbest entered into a joint venture with Swiss Minmet Financing Company to recover magnesium from its asbestos-mine tailings. This move was meant as a hedge against the global decline in construction.
Perhaps more threatening to Uralasbest’s economic future than recession is the growing awareness that asbestos is toxic and alternatives are available. In 2000, citing Canada’s high level support for their industry as a model, Russian asbestos sector officials sought Vladimir Putin’s assistance in countering "asbestphobia".
Russian corporations also looked to Canadian and Kazakh marketing efforts in newly rich Asian nations. That strategy has produced rich results according to the World Asbestos Reports. And the World Health Organisation confirms that some countries have reduced restrictions and increased production and use of chrysotile.
Melody Kemp is a freelance writer and a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in south-east Asia.
An earlier version of this article was published as "The Other Deadly White Dust: Russia, China, India and the Campaign to Ban Asbestos”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 13-1-10, March 29, 2010.
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