Skip navigation

“No way” to use asbestos safely, say epidemiologists

International committee calls for end to mining and export of the material.


A group of international health organizations is calling on Canada and other asbestos-producing countries to stop mining and exporting the hazardous material commonly used in construction and manufacturing.

The position statement was issued in late July by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology, a consortium of international epidemiology organizations including the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the American College of Epidemiology. More than 180 individuals and public health groups from 21 countries have endorsed the statement.

After a broad review of available epidemiology evidence, the Joint Policy Committee concluded that all types of asbestos are dangerous and capable of causing cancer of the lung, ovaries and larynx as well as asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung diseases. Asbestos includes several types of fibrous minerals used in building materials such as roofing, flooring and insulation.
The statement should put to rest any uncertainty about the health hazards of asbestos and dispel notions that some types are not dangerous, said Colin Soskolne, professor of epidemiology at the University of Alberta and a member of the Joint Policy Committee.

“We are confident that it will set aside any ability of vested interests to continue to lie about the potential safe uses of this product,” said Dr. Soskolne, who played a key role in formulating the statement. “There is no way of using it safely.”

More than 50 countries have banned the use of asbestos while other industrialized nations, including Canada, have virtually stopped using it domestically. But several countries continue to mine and export the product. Global asbestos use totals about two million tonnes a year. Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil and China account for more than 90 percent of total production.

The debate over the safety of some types of asbestos fibre has been contentious in Canada, particularly in Quebec, which has a long history of mining asbestos. The controversy has at times ensnared university researchers. Production is currently suspended in the province but plans are under way to restart the Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Quebec. The Quebec government announced in June that it would provide $58 million in loans to support the project.

Dr. Soskolne accused Canada of having a double standard. While the Canadian government has spent millions of dollars to remove asbestos from the Parliament buildings and the Prime Minister’s residence, it refuses to ban the production and export of the product largely to developing countries with lax health regulations.

The use of asbestos is increasing in China, India and other developing nations. “If unstopped, this continued and increasing use of asbestos will lead to a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come in those countries, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialized countries that used asbestos in the past,” the statement warned.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 107,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases. The study notes that from 1999 to 2008, 70 percent of deaths from occupational diseases in Quebec were caused by asbestos, and that asbestos remains the biggest single cause of occupational disease across Canada.

The Joint Policy Committee’s statement singles out the role of the Canadian asbestos industry and some university researchers in defending the continued use of the product. It notes that the Canadian asbestos industry is largely responsible for promoting the idea that chrysotile asbestos, the type mined in Quebec, is safe if handled properly. An independent review of studies carried out by McGill University researchers promoting this view and funded by the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association revealed “unsound selection, sampling and analytical techniques,” the report said.

“Canada’s role in fomenting doubt about the different roles of the different types of asbestos has been profound in terms of causing harm to advancing science and the pursuit of truth,” said Dr. Soskolne, who is past president of the Canadian Society for Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “This is simply a fabrication.” The researchers, he added, “were basically in the pocket of the industry.”

The statement accuses asbestos manufacturers of adopting the same tactics as the tobacco industry to promote its product, including manipulating research. “The asbestos industry has also used the tactic of legal intimidation against scientists and academics to impede their writing about the threat to health posed by the use of chrysotile asbestos,” the statement said. This tactic is being used in India, Brazil and Thailand, it added.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Marjorie Coey / August 22, 2012 at 20:18

    It is a shameful thing to mine this product and send it anywhere!

    Close the mines and safely dispose of what is left.

  2. Michaela Keyserlingk / August 28, 2012 at 13:43

    Canada is the last western country to export deadly asbestos. Instead of spending $58 million to revive a practically dead Canadian chrysotile asbestos industry, we should have used that and even more money to remove asbestos from our schools and public buildings. I am glad our politicians and civil servants are looked after, but how about our children and teachers? Does anybody care for Canada’s asbestos victims  in developing countries?

    What are we waiting for?

    Michaela Keyserlingk

    Chrysotile asbestos widow

  3. Jacqueline / October 16, 2012 at 16:44

    I came across this article then extensively researched about the use of asbestos and its dangers.

    As a citizen of a developing country, I remember being taught in elementary school that iron sheets made of asbestos were the best and most durable.

    I lived in an asbestos iron sheets house and my parents unknowingly have been in business suppying asbestos- iron sheets etc.

    In my country, 90% of roofs are made from iron sheets made of this material, we build houses out of this sheets because it is more affordable in comparison to bricks, water tanks are made out if this material, except they are coated with tar to prevent rusting. In other words Kenya among other African countries is a big asbestos market. The public is mainly unaware of the harzard.

    I am obviously not an expert or a scientist, but it inspires me to do something. Maybe public awareness campaign and a motion to regulate use of asbestos product and to protect the workers in this area.

    It seems like just an idea but it has to start from somewhere. Kenya is a big market with a growing middle class i.e a bigger market for such, could you do something?

Click to fill out a quick survey