Ordinary families living in countries where asbestos is banned continue to be at risk of mesothelioma or asbestosis disease from the international trade in asbestos among developing nations. Reports have emerged of children’s crayons made in China, which were found to contain asbestos fibres.

Laboratory tests carried out in the US discovered that the talc used as a binding agent in the crayons on sale in Australia contained asbestos fibres, a banned Australian import since 2004.

A range of crayons featuring favourite characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers as well as children’s ‘crime scene’ forensic kits are available from a number of online retailers and party suppliers.

Suspicion of likely use

It’s not the first time that China has been found exporting asbestos-containing products to Australia. Previous tests by US laboratories in 2000 discovered asbestos in crayons and in the fingerprint powder of ‘crime scene’ kits in 2007.

Since 2009, more than 25,000 Chinese cars from two different manufacturers have been imported into Australia. Growing asbestos awareness and suspicion of its likely use in the vehicles was confirmed when the deadly fibres were discovered in nearly 30 different engine gaskets and the exhaust system.

China is the world’s second biggest producer of asbestos after Russia. Latest available figures from a US geological survey, 2012, show that asbestos consumption in China and India had risen to around half a million tonnes each year, more than twice the amount of Russia, which was exporting 200,000 tonnes per annum.

Asbestos use in Asian countries rose

To date, 55 countries around the world have banned the use of asbestos fibres. Over the last ten years, attempts to include white chrysotile asbestos on a list of hazardous import substances have been repeatedly blocked by countries with economic interests in protecting their growing asbestos mining and export industries.

Countries such as Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and until recently, Canada, are well known for continuing to mine and export white chrysotile asbestos to a number of developing nations, including India and Mexico. By 2013, worldwide production had actually risen by over 2.1 million tonnes to meet commercial demand by the building, aerospace and defence industries. Asbestos use in Asian countries rose from 47 per cent to 68 per cent between 2000 and 2012.

Growing risk

As figures for asbestos imports continue to spiral it is increasingly feared that there will be an impact on other countries around the world. The risk of exposure is especially acute in countries where the use of asbestos has not been banned and they do not keep a record of the incidence of mesothelioma amongst their population. Just 13 per cent of the population in China is covered by a register for cancer.

The problem of asbestos containing products made in China finding their way to countries which have banned its import, such as Australia continues to be a growing risk. In 2014, UK Trading Standards investigators found asbestos in cigarettes in the British Isles. A significant percentage of illegal and fake brand cigarettes are known to originate from China.

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, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The estimated annual global figure for cancer fatality is 7.6 million, one-third of which is preventable, according to the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).