Since the ban in 1985 on the import and use of the most lethal forms of asbestos, i.e. crocidolite (blue asbestos) and amosite (brown asbestos) by the UK Asbestos (Prohibition) Regulations, the less dangerous but still toxic chrysotile (white asbestos) continued being used. Mostly mixed with construction materials for building and decorating homes, flats, schools and offices, it was not until 1992 that the use of white chrysotile asbestos was included in the prohibition regulations, although use of chrysotile was still in evidence for some years later.

Despite considerable efforts by medical research, government legislation and the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to increase asbestos awareness by information, training and protection, all the while a myth grew that claimed white asbestos was not dangerous. While the UK, US, EU and most of the developed world have completely banned its’ use, industrial-scale white asbestos industries have mushroomed in other parts of the world including Canada, China, India and Mexico.

White asbestos chrysotile has been recommended for inclusion in Prior Informed Consent at the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty that restricts the global trade in hazardous materials, being held this week in Geneva, Switzerland. The addition of chrysotile asbestos to the list of hazardous materials would make it harder for countries to export the deadly material and would only be permitted to countries that explicitly consent to imports.

The Canadian Medical Association has repeatedly criticised it’s own government – a major global exporter of 90 per cent of the deadly material – and opposes its’ inclusion in the Convention. Over 100 countries, represented at the Convention by scientists, physicians and environmentalists, are almost unanimous in calling for asbestos to be included on the list, which forces asbestos exporting countries to supply written warnings to encourage safer handling by the importing countries.

White asbestos chrysotile, along with other forms of asbestos, is considered to be a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Throughout most of the twentieth century, industrial workers were constantly exposed to the deadly asbestos fibre dust in key manufacturing, construction, heavy engineering and ship building industries.

The unique long period of gestation would mean that the many thousands of asbestos exposure victims would only see the asbestosis symptoms of the deadly incurable cancer, mesothelioma, some 30 to 40 years later when the disease is at an advanced stage, and asbestos treatments may have scant affect on a prognosis of little more than around 12 months.

Naturally-occurring chrysotile fibres range in length from several millimetres to more than ten centimetres and can be easily crumbled. If asbestos material is accidentally discovered in a building, it must not be disturbed as it is likely to be in a highly friable and unstable condition.

Although often described as low-risk exposure, due to the persistence of the chrysotile ‘myth’, the reality is that the slightest intervention could lead to the release of the fibres, which once breathed in, will permanently stick to the lung cavity linings and could lead to health risk complication such as pleural plaques, pleural effusions, as well as the fatal mesothelioma.