At its peak, until the late 1970s and early 80s, around 5 million metric tonnes of asbestos was being used by around 25 countries every year as well as a further 85 countries involved in industrial scale manufacture of asbestos products.

As the passing of national bans increased from 18 to 55, the number of asbestos using countries reduced from 66 to 36 between 2000 and 2012. In other parts of the world, the asbestos economy continued to flourish leading to a report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stating that more than 92,000 deaths worldwide were caused by mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases, between 1994 and 2008.

Russia still maintains its position as the world’s largest producer (followed by China, Brazil, and Kazakhstan), with an annual production of around 2 million tons of chrysotile, a quarter of all global asbestos production today.

British asbestos import peak

In Britain, despite growing asbestos awareness and concern by doctors and medical researchers of the long-term health risks, only the Voluntary Asbestos Import Ban was introduced in 1970. At this time asbestos imports were at their peak at nearly 155,000 tons, rising from just over 95,000 tons in 1940.

The voluntary ban allowed British asbestos using industries to halt blue (crocidolite) asbestos imports knowing that the mineral was the smallest quantity of asbestos imported into Britain in 1970 at just over 560 tons compared to over 132,000 tons of white chrysotile asbestos. Mined only in South Africa, crocidolite also represented just 3 per cent of global production.

Exactly ten years later, another voluntary ban was introduced in Britain, focusing just on the 500 tons of brown (amosite) asbestos imported in 1980 compared to just over 94,100 tons of white asbestos. By the time of the Asbestos Prohibition Regulations in 1985, which replaced a voluntary ban with the enforced prohibition of importing and using both blue and brown asbestos, there was still 37,600 tons of white asbestos coming into the country.

Mesothelioma increased by more than 100-fold

The ban on blue and brown asbestos only encouraged the idea that white asbestos fibres were of less risk to continue to use in many building products that are still found in thousands of properties today. When white asbestos was finally banned in 1999, more than 1,800 tons were still being imported. At the same time, cases of mesothelioma were found to be increasing by more than 100-fold from the 153 cases reported in 1968 to 1,848 in 2001.

The long gestation period of up to 50 years or more from initial exposure to first appearance of asbestosis symptoms has produced 22,471 reported UK deaths from mesothelioma in the first ten years of the 21st century.

According to the latest figures available from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), in 2013, the UK’s annual mesothelioma death rate had increased to 1,967 by 2010, rising to 2,291 deaths in 2011, one of the highest figures, worldwide, and is forecast to further rise over the next ten years at least.

The future of global asbestos-related deaths continue to be of increasing concern as a result of expanding asbestos exports from Russia ( and China), and it has been forecast that mortality figures could hit 10 million within the next 20 years.