Positive news from Thailand at the end of January as a resolution was passed by the Public Health Ministry, which called for an immediate ban on the use of white (chrysotile) asbestos despite of continued denial of a health risk from both internal and foreign commercial interests.

While Britain finally prohibited chrysotile imports in 1999 and is confirmed as a class 1 human carcinogen, several major countries continue trading in the potentially fatal mineral. Persistent raising of asbestos awareness to the growing health risk issues by the international community has led to a an increasing vocal political and medical lobby for a worldwide ban or calling for asbestos exports only be exported to countries who explicitly give their consent.

Attempts to persuade major asbestos trading countries

For many years, both national and international organisations have attempted to persuade major asbestos trading countries such as Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and up until 2012, Canada, to stop mining and exporting white asbestos to a number of developing nations, including India and Mexico. Worldwide production has actually risen by over 2.1 million tonnes to meet commercial demand by the building, aerospace and defence industries. In early 2013, it was reported that Pakistan may also be considering a limited ban, which would exempt asbestos-containing products where asbestos is sealed (encapsulated) and less likely to cause an exposure risk.

Unless urgent action is taken, the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, forecast that the current global mortality rate will double within the next 20 years as mesothelioma claims the lives of ten million or more citizens.

Pressure to overturn asbestos ban resolution

In 2011, Thailand’s National Health Commission adopted a resolution to ban asbestos, which has been closely monitored by the Thailand Ban Asbestos Network (T-BAN). Since that time, both internal and foreign commercial interests have tried to overturn the support for the government’s three year commitment to the asbestos ban policy, including allegations that Russian lobbyists exerted financial and political pressure on Thai civil servants and medical experts.

An example of alleged political pressure are evidenced by comments from Thailand’s Working Committee on Asbestos, formed in 2010 to study the health risks, which say “there was no evidence to justify a national ban” and claiming that the risk from asbestos was “similar to that from other hazards such as smoking cigarettes or eating fried pork, neither of which is prohibited.”

Growing dissatisfaction among members of the committee and a recent change of its chairmanship is said to be responsible for the latest announcement of support for an asbestos ban and progressing a working plan to be shared with Thailand’s industry, commerce and foreign affairs ministries.

Dramatic rise in Asian countries asbestos use

The change of attitude by Thailand towards the use of asbestos is to be welcomed. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of countries who had banned asbestos production rose from 18 to 55, and the number of asbestos using countries had declined from 66 to 36. By 2012, there had been a 46 per cent fall in the number of asbestos consuming countries and three times the number of countries banning its use.

However, in stark contrast to Europe where asbestos use was shown to have dropped by 35 per cent to 22 per cent, Asian countries saw a dramatic rise by 47 per cent to 68 per cent over the same period. South America only achieved a modest fall from 10 per cent to 8 per cent.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that, worldwide, around 107,000 workers now die each year from exposure to asbestos up from 92,000, between 1994 and 2008. Two-thirds of the fatalities occurred after the year 2000 when mesothelioma cancer was estimated to have been responsible for causing 6,000 deaths annually around the world. In 2011, a New Delhi report claimed that working with asbestos was currently causing 30 deaths per day in India.