Asbestos: The foremost occupational health hazard

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO) approximately 250,000 people globally die due to Asbestos exposure every year, and the real numbers maybe much more as data collection is poor in many developing countries.

Dr. Arthur L. Frank, Professor and Chair Emeritus, Public Health, Drexel University, School of Public Health, Philadelphia, USA while presenting a talk ‘What is the big deal about Asbestos ? ‘ at the India International Centre(IIC) on Tuesday described Asbestos as the world’s foremost occupational health hazard.

“70 countries have banned Asbestos use thus far and the ban has greatly helped, Sweden which had banned it 30 years back has seen reduction in Asbestos related health hazards. Canadians, Finns, Brazilians, Columbians who used to be major producers of Asbestos have all closed down their Asbestos mines, but the United States, China and India are some major economies that are still using it. The situation is particularly worrying for India as 25 pc of the Global Asbestos is sent to India” said Dr Frank.

Dr Frank explained the health hazards caused by Asbestos, he pointed out that exposure to asbestos coupled with smoking is a particularly dangerous combination. “Asbestos causes several kinds of cancer, Asbestos exposure in combination with smoking increases the likely hood of lung cancer. Those who don’t smoke and have no exposure to asbestos- their likely hood of getting lung cancer is very low, those who are exposed to asbestos but don’t smoke there likely hood of lung cancer increases five fold, those who smoke (on an average one packet of cigarette a day) but have no exposure to asbestos their likely hood of lung cancer rises by 10 to 11%. Those who smoke and have exposure to asbestos the impact is not additive but their likely hood of getting lung cancer goes up 50 times.”

Dr Frank explained why asbestos is such a dangerous occupational health hazard. “Even a single day’s exposure to asbestos can cause health problems in a person, if one works in a factory where there is asbestos exposure for one month his likely hood of getting lung cancer doubles, if someone were to work in such a place for 2 years the lightly hood of lung cancer would go up 7 times. Asbestos is also contagious, workers exposed to asbestos have been seen to bring it home and infect their family as well.”

He identifies construction workers, ship builders, rail workers, demolition workers, ship repair workers as most exposed sections of the workforce to asbestos. “Construction workers are particularly susceptible, it is estimated that in the US 25 million tons of asbestos is there in standing buildings”.

He explains that the health impact of exposure to asbestos may manifest itself several years, even decades later.

“Even if we were to totally ban asbestos use today health issues due to asbestos exposure would likely continue for decades as symptoms sometimes manifest even after many decades.”

He says that alternatives to asbestos have been found and are becoming more widely used. “Vietnam has been very innovative and used forest weeds as fibres in construction in lieu of asbestos. In the US asbestos was used for noise damping material in buildings, now fibre created from newspapers are being used as an alternative”

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