One in three people living in Europe are potentially exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment, according to a report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the end of April 2015.

Of the one third of 900 million European citizens who are believed to be at risk of regular exposure, nearly 15,000 lives are lost every year to asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Urgent appeal

At a large meeting held by World Health Organisation (WHO) between 28-30 April to evaluate progress on environment and health, an urgent appeal was made to more than 200 delegates in attendance.

The Regional Director for Europe at WHO said, “There is very little time left…” and called upon “… all countries to fulfil their 2010 commitment and develop policies by the end of this year that will eliminate asbestos-related diseases from the face of Europe.” WHO predict that mesothelioma fatality rates worldwide are expected to rise above 10 million within the next two decades.

Plans to eliminate asbestos disease

In March 2010, at the fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health held in Parma, Italy, 53 governments from across the entire European region agreed to commit to reducing the adverse health impact of environmental threats in the next decade.

One of the first goals to be undertaken by the Parma conference attendees was for the development of plans to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by the end of 2015. By this deadline, it was expected that the majority of the members would have put plans in place, and 37 of the countries already implementing relevant policies.

Unable to reduce production

However, the reality is that those nations who continue to manufacture asbestos are unable to reduce production because of their economic dependence on asbestos exports, which also provides key employment to millions of workers. Despite of overwhelming medical evidence, some asbestos producing countries also argue that white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos is ‘low risk’ and does not pose the same danger as other types.

As a result, five years on from the Parma conference, the general view is that while progress has been made it has been “uneven” between “different countries and different issues.”

Two million tonnes exported annually

Positive steps were taken in January 2012 when a resolution was passed by the Public Health Ministry of Thailand, which called for an immediate ban on the use of white asbestos. In the same year, Canada began to stop mining and exporting white asbestos to a number of developing nations, including India and Mexico. In early 2013, it was reported that Pakistan may also be considering a limited ban.

By 2013 global asbestos production had passed 2,019,000 tonnes. Currently, 55 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos fibres as an insulating material but still two million tonnes of the deadly mineral are mined and exported annually to developing industrial economies.

Biggest asbestos producer

Of the 16 countries who still continue to produce and export asbestos, Russia is now the world’s biggest asbestos producer, with around 1 million tonnes mined in 2012, more than twice the amount produced by the second largest producer, China. Around 90 per cent of asbestos was being imported by Asian countries 2011/13. Other high asbestos importing countries include Thailand, Ukraine and Pakistan who, between them, consume a total of 110,000 tonnes, while around 10 per cent of asbestos goes to just five countries – Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia.

The complete list of 16 countries that have not yet banned all forms of asbestos are: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Monaco, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, according to WHO.