Is asbestos killing 100,000 people each year?

It’s not completely difficult for us do searching about “100,000 annual death figure from asbestos-related disease” on Google. Even if be written in any kind of language, these information are always dimly and vague. Have any person ever demanded himself where are these figure from?

In fact figures about 100.000 deaths were derived from papers Driscoll T et al,and Concha-Berrien­tos M et al. But these authors clearly differentiate risk from types of asbestos.

“Assuming a mixed fibre type, the lifetime risk of death from malignant mesothelioma is approxi­ mately 100 per 100 000/ fibre.year per ml. (This combined estimate is based on best estimates of risk of 400 per 100 000/fibre.year per ml for crocidolite, 65 per 100 000/fibre.year per ml for amosite and 2 per 100 000/fibre.year per ml for chrysorile, and the changing mixture of amphi­ boles and chrysotile that has characterised exposure 20 and 50 years ago [Hodgson and Darnton,20001].)”

(Driscoll J T el al, “The global burden of disease due to occupational carcinogens”, 2005, page7)

On the page 1687 of paper Concha-Barrientos M et al. “Selected occupational risk factors. Comparative quantification of health risks: global and regional burden of diseases attributable to selected major risk factors” author state:

“In 20 studies of over 100 000 asbestos workers, the standardized mortality rate ranged from 1.04 for chrysolite workers to 4.97 for amosite workers, with a combined relative risk of 2.00. It is difficult to determine the exposures involved because few of the studies reported measurements, and because it is a problem to convert historicaI asbestos measurements in millions of dust particles per cubic foot to gravimetric units. Nevertheless, little excess lung cancer is expected from low exposure levels.”

Very often, the anti-asbestos lobby justify its campaign against the use of asbestos by the figure that 100 000 people dies annually from the exposure to this mineral. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) seem to have accepted this data as a fact.

Since 2002, press releases by the Ban Asbestos activists within the ILO, in a repetitive way, state that from an estimate of 2 million victims each year of accidents and occupational diseases, asbestos all by itself is responsible for some 100,000 deaths annually. This data is now widely used by many people accepting and believing this data as if it were sacrosanct and not subject to challenge.

The Vietnamese presses also quote ILO’s opinion that “all types of asbestos have risks of lung cancer, especially crocidolite and amosite. However, fiber – cement industry predominantly use asbestos. There are annual 100.000 deaths from asbestos related diseases.”

It’s clear that anti-asbestos side intentionally ignores the differences of chemical, physical properties and risks of diseases between chrysotile asbestos and the amphiboles. What would be the basis to affirm that «chemicals kills x workers» or «metals are responsible for the death of x workers»? Nonsense. Chemical and metals include a wide variety of products with different properties, uses and health risk.

It is the same with asbestos. There is no justification to put in the same basket the health risk of being exposed to chrysotile and to amphiboles fibres. In their review of many scientific studies about workers exposed to various types of asbestos, Hodgson and Darnton (2000) estimated that the risk for lung cancer from working with amphiboles is 100 times what it is for chrysotile. In fact, the 100 000 death estimates is established form a «combined relative risk» for asbestos, therefore attributing a mortality ratio from exposure to amphiboles to workers working with chrysotile. As logical as saying that a mix of water and poison would kill people; half of them from the ingesting the poison, the other half from water!

Moreover, the 100,000 deaths estimate does not take into account the fact that exposure levels have dramatically decreased in the last decades. In the latest report published under the aegis of the WHO, the authors acknowledges that there is a difference in risk between chrysotile asbestos and the amphibole varieties and that the risk from low exposure levels is undetectable.

This estimate is based on data collected from European countries and extrapolated to the rest of the world. This approach is not taking into account different fibre types, structure and composition of the industry and past uncontrolled heavy exposures.

Manfred Neuberger and Christian Vutuc in their ankle “Three decades of pleural cancer and me­sothelioma registration in Austria where asbestos cement was invented”, Int Arch Occup EnvironHealth (2003) 76: 61-166.) stated:

“Uncritical extrapolation of results from countries with a high incidence of asbestos-induced mesothelioma to countries with a low incidence could beharmful, because in countries with a low incidence other risk factors of mesothelioma [6, 11, 12. 19, 20. 23. 33. 34] of possible higher future importance could be investigated only if self – fulfilling prophecies do not disturb the investigations”.

”The calculations made use of some questionable indicatorsfor under-and over diagnosis and of ratios such as excess lung cancer to mesothelioma in historical cohort studies which. infaa. differed largely between countries and periods due to different cumulative exposures and different uses of amphibole asbestos.”

Moreover, the 100,000 deaths estimate does not take into account the fact that only chrysotile are used commercially. Directly exposure levels have dramatically decreased in the last decades thanks to development of technology. Nowadays, controlled use of chrysotile is more and more popular.

Undoubtedly, bad work conditions and the use of various amphiboles fibres have causes diseases among asbestos workers. Because of the latency period, the diseases appearing today are the results of exposures that were encountered 20 to 40 years ago.

In fact, the rate of asbestos related diseases have started to decline, thanks to the improvement in working conditions implemented from the 1970’s and the prohibitions of amphiboles in the late 1980’s. The concern today is the presence of amphiboles and friable products in buildings that have to be properly managed in order to prevent the apparition of industrial diseases. To do so, proper information, good work practices and appropriate control measures – not a blind prohibition – will help to achieve this objective.

The 100,000 death figure is misleading, because it implies that asbestos is used nowadays in the same way it was managed 50 years ago.

And yet, many scientific studies published in the last 25 years have shown that the rates of industrial diseases of workers of the asbestos-cement industry do not exceed the national average.