Despite widespread acknowledgment decades ago that asbestos in all its forms is carcinogenic, its use has greatly increased, leading to a pervasive presence in houses, commercial buildings, ships, vehicles, and thousands of products, according to a new paper.
To date, 10 countries continue to block a 15-year-old motion by the United Nations to label chrysotile asbestos as especially hazardous, according to the paper published in The Lancet Oncology by Dr. Nico van Zandwijk, professor emeritus in the faculty of medicine and health at The University of Sydney.
Forty years ago, the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that all forms of asbestos were carcinogenic.
“As the global malignant mesothelioma epidemic shows no sign of abating, oncologists should reinforce the idea that the continued harm caused by asbestos cannot be reduced without ceasing all asbestos mining and trade, increasing public awareness, enforcing regulations, and improving diagnosis and treatment,” the paper said.
What is Mesothelioma?
Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium that lines the lung, chest wall, and abdomen. It is a relatively rare disease in the United States, with about 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The major risk factor of the disease is asbestos exposure, and diagnosis usually occurs decades after initial exposure. While the disease was first limited to asbestos workers, diagnoses grew with an increase in non-occupational exposure.
The Continued Threat of Asbestos
The paper urged oncologists, clinicians, and health officials to help increase public awareness and reinforce how malignant mesothelioma, caused by asbestos, cannot be cured without ceasing all asbestos mining and trade.
“Asbestos exposure and asbestos-related cancers are not issues of the past, and that this epidemic continues because of an absence of regulations, lack of awareness, and disinformation from pro-asbestos lobbyists,” the paper said.
Asbestos has been known to cause cancer of the lungs, particularly when inhaled. Asbestos describes six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin threads for commercial and industrial uses. The fibers are resistant to heat, fire, and chemicals and do not conduct electricity.
The History of Asbestos Use
Asbestos has been used widely in many industries, such as building and construction, for strengthening cement and plastics, as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing, and sound absorption. The shipbuilding industry has used asbestos to insulate boilers, steam pipes, and hot water pipes. The automotive industry uses asbestos in vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads. Asbestos has also been used in ceiling and floor tiles, paints, coatings and adhesives, and plastics.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and gas fireplaces because the fibers could be released during use. In 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned all new uses of asbestos. However, uses developed before 1989 are still allowed in the United States.
The paper highlighted the ongoing role of the pro-asbestos lobby in how many low- and middle-income countries continue to allow asbestos despite the link to cancer. “Weak occupational and environmental regulations combined with dubious studies sponsored by the pro-asbestos lobby were used to promote chrysotile trade,” the paper said.
Aside from the continued use of asbestos, another critical issue is the failure to safely dispose of asbestos-related waste, creating an environmental crisis, the paper said. It acknowledged that a worldwide, immediate ban on asbestos would not address the risks associated with the cancer-causing fibers but advocated for research and regulations.
“Stricter regulations and an intensification of translational and clinical research into prevention and treatment will all be needed to reduce the deadly impact of the continuing self-inflicted malignant mesothelioma epidemic,” the paper said.
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