Inconvenient truths

What is Chrysotile?

Chrysotile is a mineral that does not burn or decompose.

This naturally occurring fibrous material is highly flexible and strong and is resistant to most chemicals.

Chrysotile was first mined commercially in the Russian Urals, Italy and Canada in the 19th Century, but its unique properties were first harnessed by ancient civilizations more than two thousand years ago and used in cremation cloths and oil lamp wicks.

Today chrysotile is used for precision industrial products and is a key component in lightweight reinforced cement, high-temperature seals and gaskets and friction-resistant materials.

From asbestos to Chrysotile

Modern chrysotile-based products are far removed from the hazardous asbestos materials used in the past.

Today other forms of asbestos, blue and brown amphibole fibres (crocidolite and amosite), have been, rightly, banned and only chrysotile is safe to use.

The old products, mainly used for insulation, frequently crumbled and turned to a fine dust under pressure.

But now industry only produces dense and non-friable materials, which do not easily break down, in which the chrysotile fibre is encased in cement or resin, stopping it from becoming airborne.

These safe products include chrysotile-cement building materials, gaskets and some plastics.

Health concerns

Claims that asbestos is responsible for 100,000 deaths around the world each year are totally false.

The figure is misleading because it is based on statistics collected in a few western European countries and then extrapolated out to produce a highly speculatively figure for the rest of the world.

The data is based on countries like the UK, where, from the 1940s onwards, people were exposed to dangerous blue and brown asbestos on a huge scale and, historically, adopted few measures to protect their health.

This has led to high levels of asbestos-related diseases in these Western countries, including asbestosis (fibrosis), a condition where the lung tissue is damaged and causing scaring stopping them from working properly making breathing difficult, and mesothelioma, a condition where cancer develops in the pleura — the outer covering of the lungs — which is usually fatal.

However, asbestos-related disease today is the consequence of unregulated and uncontrolled use of the material in the past.

The risks associated with various products are directly related to how easily it is for asbestos fibres to be released into the air and the type of asbestos used in the product.

According to scientific studies over the past 60 years, high-density chrysotile, or white asbestos, can be used safely, especially when the fibres are sealed in products such as corrugated cement sheeting.

In contrast, the most dangerous materials are poorly bonded or loose-filled using amphiboles — blue and brown asbestos.

Workers involved in mining and milling asbestos containing rock and making various asbestos-containing face the biggest health risks.

But the concerns that have built up around all asbestos products should focus instead on the dangers posed by amphibole materials while acknowledging the safety of high-density chrysotile products.

Demonising an economic, durable and eco-friendly material like chrysotile, which poses no risk to health and safety, makes no sense.