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The Global Asbestos Ban : Impact, Challenges, and Continuing Risks of Exposure

Asbestos is known to have a lot of harmful side effects, especially on a person’s health. Due to this, asbestos has been banned in many countries of the world. When you look at a worldwide asbestos ban, it is important to keep in mind that there are two international conventions under the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN Basel Convention that offer governments around the world certain guidelines to help achieve a total asbestos ban policy. However, at the same time, the problem is that the long-term impact of these conventions and the exact policy implementation in various countries, and just how effectively the governments have been in implementing these policies still remain unknown. Read on to find out more about the impact of this asbestos ban in different countries and the current asbestos exposure risk.

What is Asbestos and Why is there a Risk of Exposure?

Asbestos is considered to be an extremely dangerous substance that causes cancer and many other deadly diseases over a period of time. In recent times, environmental and occupational exposure to asbestos has been found to contribute to a high risk of cancer, causing many deaths. It is estimated that nearly 78 percent of cancers that are caused by occupational exposure in the European Union are known to be caused by asbestos.(1,2,3) In fact, according to estimates, over 70,000 workers die from exposure to asbestos in the European Union.(4) It is estimated that the average time between the initial exposure to asbestos to experiencing the first signs of disease is nearly 30 years. Due to this, many workers are often not able to connect the cause of their disease to their past asbestos exposure.

Exposure to asbestos can cause a variety of health conditions, particularly cancer and lung diseases. Asbestos is a term given to a group of six naturally occurring mineral fibers that are known for their strength and resistant properties to fire and many chemicals. Due to these qualities, asbestos used to be a much sought-after material to provide insulation, strengthen plastics and cement, fireproof buildings, military vehicles, and textiles, and also for soundproofing. Asbestos fibers can be blue, brown, white, green, or gray in color, with the white asbestos fibers, known as chrysotile, being the most commonly used around the world.(5,6,7)

Asbestos used to be mined and used in the world, especially in North America all the way through the late 1800s. In fact, it was during World War II that manufacturers started increasing their use of asbestos significantly. Due to this, asbestos can be found in thousands of products, especially construction and building products like:

  • Millboard
  • Asbestos and cement shingles, roofing, and siding
  • Casings for electrical wires
  • Pipe, duct, and furnace insulation
  • Floor tile and adhesives
  • Soundproofing materials
  • Patching and joint compounds

Many other household products and other items may also contain asbestos, including: (8,9)

  • Certain plastics, paints, coatings, and adhesives
  • Automobile brake pads and linings, clutch facings and gaskets
  • Artificial ashes and embers that are used in gas-fired fireplaces
  • Fireproof gloves, table pads, stovetop pads, and fire-resistant fabrics like blankets, uniforms, and curtains
  • Attic insulation
  • Consumer garden products

It is important to remember that asbestos fibers are not harmful when they remain inside these products. They only become harmful when these fibers get released into the air. Once they get released, these asbestos fibers break down into smaller particles which then become airborne, and they are inhaled by people. They then collect inside the lungs and get stuck, causing scarring and inflammation. Over a period of time, this scarring and inflammation continue to build up, eventually causing cancer and many other serious diseases. Exposure to asbestos fibers increases the risk of developing the following diseases:(10,11,12)

  • Lung cancer
  • Asbestosis, a condition that causes permanent lung damage
  • Mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer of the lungs and abdomen
  • Cancer of the kidney, gastrointestinal tract, and throat
  • Pleural effusions, when fluid accumulates around the lungs
  • Scarring of the lining of the lung

Worldwide Efforts to Ban Asbestos

It was in 2010 that globally many health organizations requested for a global ban on asbestos. Amongst them, one of them was the American Public Health Association and some other international organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) has also been working non-stop to end asbestos mining and prevent the development of mesothelioma since 2005. In 2007, the World Health Assembly even launched a global campaign to end asbestos-associated health conditions. It especially targeted countries that were still using chrysotile asbestos.

In 2013, at the 66th World Health Assembly, the WHO presented a very comprehensive a global action plan for 2013 to 2020. This action plan described a full set of policies and actions to prevent non-communicable diseases as well as diseases caused by asbestos exposure. (13)

Some of the important steps the WHO described in their action plan to end asbestos-related diseases included: (14)

  • To end the global use of all forms of asbestos, especially chrysotile asbestos
  • To help countries replace materials containing asbestos with other safer substitutes
  • To improve processes for early diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation services for a variety of asbestos-linked diseases
  • To create registries of people who have been exposed to asbestos and also offer medical surveillance

In the years that followed, the WHO continued to increase and raise awareness amongst people about the many dangers of asbestos-containing materials and exposure to asbestos. As per the WHO, asbestos-containing debris is classified as hazardous waste.(15,16)

Ban on Asbestos and the Rotterdam Convention

The Rotterdam Convention is an international treaty that works especially to facilitate informed decision-making by countries when it comes to trading in hazardous chemicals. The Convention establishes a list of hazardous chemicals and it requires parties that are thinking about exporting a chemical on the list of the convention to establish that the importing country has consented to this import. It was in 2006 that the Rotterdam Convention in its third meeting of the Conference of the Parties wanted to adopt the decision to put chrysotile asbestos on the list of hazardous chemicals. However, this kept getting put off and they have not been able to reach a consensus on asbestos. Many countries want to include chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention Hazardous Substances list, which has been developed from a United Nationals treaty.(17,18)

Five of the six types of asbestos are already included in the hazardous substances list. Some countries still argue against the scientific data and claim that chrysotile is safe. As recent as the 2015 Rotterdam Convention, seven countries voted against adding chrysotile asbestos, including India, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. Most nations, though, had voted in favor of classifying chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance, but unfortunately, the Rotterdam Convention needs to have a unanimous consensus in order for a vote to pass through.(19,20)

Is Asbestos Still Being Used?

As shocking as it may sound, even today countries like India, Russia, China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan remain world leaders in the production of asbestos. In 2017, Brazil had announced a complete ban on the use and production of asbestos. While the last asbestos mine in Canada closed down in 2012, it was only in 2018 that the Canadian government announced a complete ban on asbestos. Colombia joined the increasing number of countries to impose a complete ban on asbestos in 2019, with the government overseeing the transition away from asbestos use to safer substances.(21)

As of 2023, a research report that looked at various databases found that countries with the higher gross domestic product per capita, human development index, and asbestos exposure also had significantly higher rates of mesothelioma.(22) For example, China, which is the world’s biggest consumer of asbestos, was estimated to have used 570,006 metric tons of asbestos in 2013. This is nearly 765 times more than what is consumed in countries like the US in the same year. Even though currently China is yet to match up to the incidence rates of asbestos-related diseases as seen in Europe and the US, scientists are of the opinion that the country will soon close this gap as consumption of asbestos had remained quite low all the way up to the 1970s.

Russia remains the second largest asbestos consumer in the work, and it has only banned the amphibole form of asbestos in 1999. Today Russia continues to supply nearly 60 to 75 percent of all the asbestos used globally.

What is the Risk of Asbestos Exposure Today?

Despite the ban on asbestos, you can still be at risk of being exposed to asbestos even today. You can be at the risk of asbestos exposure if you inhale asbestos fibers from products, buildings, automobile parts, and various industrial materials. The toxic asbestos mineral dust can become airborne and remain in the air for several hours. This places anyone who walks from that place or is placed nearby in danger of ingesting or inhaling these fibers. In fact, if asbestos particles linger in the air in an environment where there are very few disturbances, it might even take 48 to 72 hours for the fibers to finally settle down. At the same time, if this dust is disturbed, it can easily get airborne once again since it is so lightweight.

Of course, many people continue to get exposed to asbestos because of their work. Even though asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, most exposure to asbestos takes place from its use in commercial, domestic, and industrial products or buildings. For example, even though the majority of companies based in the US stopped using asbestos way back in the 1980s itself, but there are still many asbestos-containing materials that continue to remain in thousands of older buildings in the country. There is also a risk of asbestos exposure if you use or disturb asbestos-containing products like cosmetics.(23)

Workers may also bring asbestos dust or fibers home with them and cause secondary asbestos exposure to their family members.


It is important to understand that aside from the huge number of lives lost to asbestos-related diseases, the use of asbestos can also lead to harmful effects on the economy. For several years after the ban on asbestos use, the economy of a country is often left with the added burden of having to compensate and pay victims for their health care costs. Even after the ban on asbestos, the cost of compensation and treatment of mesothelioma and other such diseases can have a huge impact on a country’s economy for years to come.


  1. Lippmann, M., 1988. Asbestos exposure indices. Environmental research, 46(1), pp.86-106.
  2. Bunderson-Schelvan, M., Pfau, J.C., Crouch, R. and Holian, A., 2011. Nonpulmonary outcomes of asbestos exposure. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 14(1-4), pp.122-152.
  3. Goswami, E., Craven, V., Dahlstrom, D.L., Alexander, D. and Mowat, F., 2013. Domestic asbestos exposure: a review of epidemiologic and exposure data. International journal of environmental research and public health, 10(11), pp.5629-5670.
  4. Cowi et al. (2021) Study on collecting information on substances with the view to analyse health, socio-economic and environmental impacts in connection with possible amendments of Directive 98/24/EC (Chemical Agents) and directive 2009/148/EC (asbestos) : Final report for asbestos., Photo of Publications Office of the European Union. Publications Office of the European Union. Available at: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/45581742-5e23-11ec-9c6c-01aa75ed71a1/language-en (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  5. Landrigan, P.J., Nicholson, W.J., Suzuki, Y. and LaDou, J., 1999. The hazards of chrysotile asbestos: a critical review. Industrial Health, 37(3), pp.271-280.
  6. Smith, A.H. and Wright, C.C., 1996. Chrysotile asbestos is the main cause of pleural mesothelioma. American journal of industrial medicine, 30(3), pp.252-266.
  7. Stayner, L.T., Dankovic, D. and Lemen, R., 1996. Occupational exposure to chrysotile asbestos and cancer risk: a review of the amphibole hypothesis. American Journal of Public Health, 86(2), pp.179-186.
  8. Donovan, E.P., Donovan, B.L., McKinley, M.A., Cowan, D.M. and Paustenbach, D.J., 2012. Evaluation of take home (para-occupational) exposure to asbestos and disease: a review of the literature. Critical reviews in toxicology, 42(9), pp.703-731.
  9. Marsh, G.M., Riordan, A.S., Keeton, K.A. and Benson, S.M., 2017. Non-occupational exposure to asbestos and risk of pleural mesothelioma: review and meta-analysis. Occupational and environmental medicine, 74(11), pp.838-846.
  10. Manning, C.B., Vallyathan, V. and Mossman, B.T., 2002. Diseases caused by asbestos: mechanisms of injury and disease development. International immunopharmacology, 2(2-3), pp.191-200.
  11. Kamp, D.W., 2009. Asbestos-induced lung diseases: an update. Translational Research, 153(4), pp.143-152.
  12. Furuya, S., Chimed-Ochir, O., Takahashi, K., David, A. and Takala, J., 2018. Global asbestos disaster. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(5), p.1000.
  13. World Health Organization, 2013. Universal health coverage for workers: side event at the 66th World Health Assembly, 22 May 2013, Palais des Natons, Geneva, Switzerland (No. HSE/PHE/IHE/OEH/2013/0001). World Health Organization.
  14. O’Reilly, K.M., Mclaughlin, A.M., Beckett, W.S. and Sime, P.J., 2007. Asbestos-related lung disease. American family physician, 75(5), pp.683-688.
  15. (no date) EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/epa-actions-protect-public-exposure-asbestos (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  16. Asbestos: Elimination of asbestos-related diseases (no date) World Health Organization. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/asbestos-elimination-of-asbestos-related-diseases (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  17. Convention, R. (no date) Chrysotile asbestos, Rotterdam Convention website. Available at: http://www.pic.int/TheConvention/Chemicals/RecommendedtoCOP/Chrysotileasbestos/tabid/1186/language/en-US/Default.aspx (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  18. Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade – United States Department of State (2021) U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State. Available at: https://www.state.gov/key-topics-office-of-environmental-quality-and-transboundary-issues/rotterdam-convention-on-the-prior-informed-consent-procedure-for-certain-hazardous-chemicals-and-pesticides-in-international-trade/(Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  19. Krishna, G. (2022) India may disagree – but UN should list chrysotile asbestos as ‘hazardous’, The Wire Science. Available at: https://science.thewire.in/health/india-disagree-chrysotile-asbestos-rotterdam-convention-annex-iii/ (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  20. Chrysotile asbestos blocked for 6th time from the Rotterdam Convention (no date) etui. Available at: https://www.etui.org/topics/health-safety-working-conditions/chrysotile-asbestos-blocked-for-6th-time-from-the-rotterdam-convention (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  21. Asbestos Safety and Eradication Authority (2019) Countries with asbestos bans, Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. Asbestos Safety and Eradication Authority. Available at: https://www.asbestossafety.gov.au/importing-advice/countries-asbestos-bans (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  22. Huang, J. et al. (2023) Global incidence, risk factors, and temporal trends of mesothelioma: A population-based study, Journal of Thoracic Oncology. Elsevier. Available at: https://www.jto.org/article/S1556-0864(23)00125-9/fulltext (Accessed: March 14, 2023).
  23. Pass, H.I., Lott, D., Lonardo, F., Harbut, M., Liu, Z., Tang, N., Carbone, M., Webb, C. and Wali, A., 2005. Asbestos exposure, pleural mesothelioma, and serum osteopontin levels. New England Journal of Medicine, 353(15), pp.1564-1573.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:June 5, 2023

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