Inconvenient truths

Australia is on the wrong track

It seems that Australia has clearly lost its way in its all-out attacks against the use of asbestos fibers around the world, especially when it voluntarily and indiscriminately includes the chrysotile fiber, the only one currently commercialized, in its denunciations. The position taken by its Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA), as summarized in a Fact Sheet, is not new and was determinedly denounced by the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) in 2019. For the past two years it has nevertheless persevered in its omissions and scientific errors, including the shocking dissimulation of the historic reality of Australia’s own amphibole production.

The true story of asbestos in Australia

For almost thirty years, in the middle of the last century, Australia was one of the world’s largest producer, user and exporter of an amphibole asbestos fiber, crocidolite, commonly referred to as blue asbestos. Today, it is scientifically established and widely recognized that this type of fiber carries a high risk for both human health and the environment. The exploitation of crocidolite that took place in Wittenoon, Australia, between 1937 and 1966 was infamous and responsible for a wide range of diseases that affected the people who worked in the mines and at the mills. The health of other people, who weren’t necessarily living in the area, was also impacted. Potential risk analyses reveal that 6 % of the manpower, 1,9% of the women and 1,1% of the children who were living in the area and were exposed to that environment could possibly suffer from a very serious pulmonary cancer, called mesothelioma. According to an article published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, blue asbestos was produced in Australia between 1880 and 2003. It is also well documented that, in the 1950s, Australia was, per capita, the world’s largest asbestos consumer. Besides crocidolite, the country also exported another type of amphibole, called amosite, namely to Japan. Australia also exploited chrysotile fiber (serpentine) during the 20th century with output reaching its peak in the seventies, following the closing of the Wittenoon crocidolite mine. It lasted into the eighties. It is thus clear that during all those years asbestos production in Australia was dominated by amphibole type fibers. Australia and South Africa were the fibers’ most important producers and exporters during that period.

In the context of the current debate on health and the environment, it is troubling to realize that a country like Australia, through an agency it has created for the sole purpose of justifying its calls for a global banishment, can willingly increase the level of confusion around the mineral fibers commonly called asbestos and their respective levels of dangerousness. Quite obviously, too many so-called stakeholders are only, in fact, mere loudspeakers who lack knowledge and competencies, namely on the issue of the differentiation between the various fibers. Yet, many recently published scientific studies have clearly established that amphibole fibers are 10 times more bio persistent in human lungs than chrysotile. Other studies have also demonstrated that chrysotile is not the substance responsible for diseases, contrary to claims made by the anti-asbestos lobby – a fact that the Australian authorities simply can’t ignore. It is most regrettable that a country should allow one of its agencies, in this case the ASEA, to spread around affirmations which aren’t in any way scientifically based and to maliciously confuse Asbestos and Chrysotile.

An anti-asbestos crusade, led by a few international organizations and some unions

The crusade led by a few international organizations and some union against asbestos, regardless of the type of fibers, ignores the consequences that a total banishment would have on the lives of vulnerable populations. Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA), also known as Union Aid Abroad, is a non-governmental organization of the Australian union movement established in 1984 as the international aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Its goal is to promote global justice through “stronger union and social movements, sustainable development programs, global solidarity and support in times of crisis”. It is currently working in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Southern Africa. The four key areas of APHEDA’s focus are dignity at work, social justice, economic equality, and human rights.

Under the guise of these objectives, this organization’s spokespersons are leading an aggressive campaign for the global banishment of asbestos, including chrysotile. The International Chrysotile Association (ICA) considers that they should firstly answer some questions, namely on the financing of their activities, especially those which entail travelling costs for many people (it should be noted that 53 % of APHEDA’s operating budget comes from the Australian government). Furthermore, the organization’s support for replacement products and fibers suggests close relationships with those industries which produce them, which raises a number of questions. To say the least, the smear campaign against chrysotile seems to have become a very lucrative activity in several countries. The fact that the Australian government supports and funds APHEDA’s role in this crusade should worry this country’s competent authorities. The true questions that should be asked are: who benefits from this crusade? And is the people’s health this organization’s sole objective, as it claims?

With up-to-date methods and practices and the use of chrysotile in high density products, the risk for workers’ health and the general population as well as for the environment is almost undetectable while the assertion that using replacement product is safer than chrysotile has not yet been scientifically demonstrated, contrary to what organizations such as APHEDA claim. All the while one can only note that anti groups and some countries such as Australia remain strangely silent on the issue of risks associated with the use of replacement products and fibers. Their propaganda is fueled by confusion, extrapolations, exaggeration, and the desire to scare. This is even more to be deplored because a country such as Australia has all the means to refuse to be associated to such a sham and that all its positions should be based on science.

Banishment if necessary but not necessarily banishment. The issue lies with the conditions of use and the degree of security associated with specific uses. The rules applied for chrysotile should necessarily be the same than those used for all other replacement products and fibers. Nowadays, the principle of companies’ full responsibilities with the products they put on the market which have an associated risk for human health and the environment, is largely recognized in all industrial and regulatory processes, throughout the products’ life cycles. Whether it is for chrysotile asbestos or for any other potentially risky product, prevention is mandatory, through an efficient management of the creation of a quality workplace, involving all its stakeholders. True engagement is the key. In our complex world, the use of any product must be based on the best solutions, which take into account science-based lessons on protecting health and the environment. There is no room here for fudging issues.

Australia applies a double standard

By waging an indiscriminate and scientifically unfounded campaign and increasing the confusion through the systematic use of the word “asbestos” to describe all types of fibers, Australia is making a serious mistake. Nowadays, it is well known that asbestos is an antiquated commercial term that was generically used in the past when referring to a group of fibrous minerals. Numerous published scientific studies have demonstrated the huge differences between amphibole type of fibers and the serpentine type of fiber, called CHRYSOTILE. These notable differences were demonstrated both in terms of their chemical composition and of their respective risk levels for human health and the environment. Numerous sponsored advertising messages aimed at banning chrysotile are filled with speculation, extrapolation, and unhealthy propaganda. The goal is always the same: scare the public by amalgamating all fibers under the same banner. At no time did the Australian anti-asbestos lobby recognize, for example, that the fiber mostly responsible for the lung cancer called mesothelioma is not the chrysotile fiber but rather the amphibole type fibers – a fact exemplified by numerous scientific studies.

Intentionally sowing confusion around the different type of fibers is not only intellectually dishonest: it also hampers all efforts made towards the safe and responsible use developed over the years by the chrysotile industry. These efforts resulted in safe use programs that namely allow emerging countries to safely and responsibly use an efficient and affordable material to build sorely needed sanitary infrastructures.

The expression “banishment if necessary but not necessarily banishment” should guide governments’ decisions. Anti-asbestos crusaders from various parts of the world, including Australia, who have important vested interests in the replacement products industry, are very well aware that the controlled and safe use is realistic, because they promote it for a wide range of other products, including silica. If it works for silica, why would not it be appropriate for chrysotile? When it comes to a certain class of products and fibers, there is no such thing as zero risk, which means that rigorous processes must be put in place to adequately manage and reduce such risk. To that end, one of many studies is highly instructive.

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