‘You breathe in cancer’. Well, you may not have believed this statement a few decades back but now you can. Studies have proven that prolonged exposure to asbestos can cause Mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer that develops in the body when the asbestos fibres are inhaled.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, microscopic fibrous mineral extracted from serpentine rocks. These rocks are mined and crushed and fibrous stands of asbestos are taken out and dispatched to manufacturing facilities where they are used for insulation products and other materials.
There are three main types of asbestos: blue, brown and white, all strongly linked with mesothelioma. According to a report by the International Labour Organization, asbestos is still the number one carcinogen in the world.
Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres which can be easily breathed in if they are present in the air. The fibres work their way into the pleura, lining of the lung, causing irritation and damage. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there have been reports of increase in gastrointestinal cancer from inhalation of asbestos and consequent oral ingestion.
Asbestos fibres can be carried home on clothes or personal belongings and can affect the family members too. Research studies have confirmed that the family members of people exposed to asbestos also have a high risk of developing mesothelioma.
Since the beginning of the 18th century, studies have connected asbestos with lung diseases but the link with mesothelioma came to light only in the1960's. The major victims of Mesothelioma are men; there are about 4 times as many cases in men as in women. This is mostly because of exposure to asbestos at work places like shipbuilding, construction, mining etc. comprising mainly of male workers.
Asbestos exposure affects an estimated 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry every year. This highly toxic mineral causes serious problems like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The risk is greater when exposed to large amounts of asbestos from an early age for a very long period of time. Mesothelioma may not develop until 20 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos, which is why there is a sudden increase in cases now. The number of cases is expected to peak around 2020. UK which banned the use of all asbestos in 1999 is facing increasing cases of Mesothelioma, due to an active use of Asbestos in the past. Asbestos use was also banned in US in 1989 but mesothelioma cases are still being diagnosed due to long latency period of the disease.
With wide spread awareness of Asbestos and Mesothelioma, many developed nations around the world are joining hands in a global campaign to ban asbestos. Recently, on March 1, 2007 "Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007" was introduced in the Senate.
Unfortunately no such measures are being adopted in Asia. Asia in particular has emerged as one of the largest markets for asbestos consumption, with China, India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea being the leading markets.
China is one of the leading producers and consumers of asbestos and India imports 70% of its asbestos from Canada, Russia, and Zimbabwe.
Thousands of workers in Asia are exposed to asbestos in mines and associated industries. They are not provided any protective gear nor are made aware of any kind of safety regulations.
Fortunately the tides are turning with immense pressure on Asia from the global community to ban the use of Asbestos. In Asia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were among the first countries to impose ban on asbestos usage; Japan and Vietnam are seeking to completely phase out the use of asbestos. Singapore too has drastically reduced asbestos consumption. Though changes are in the offing, many working in the asbestos industry may not live to see its implementation as many workers would be already afflicted with mesothelioma and by then it will have been too late for them.