A global network of lobby groups has spent nearly $100 million since the mid-1980s to preserve the international market for asbestos, a known carcinogen that's taken millions of lives and is banned or restricted in 52 countries, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has found in a nine-month investigation.
Backed by public and private money and aided by scientists and friendly governments, the groups helped facilitate the sale of 2.2 million tons of asbestos last year, mostly in developing nations. Anchored by the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute, the network stretches from New Delhi to Mexico City to the city of Asbest in Russia's Ural Mountains. Its message is that asbestos can be used safely under "controlled" conditions.
As a result, asbestos use is growing rapidly in countries such as China and India, prompting health experts to warn of future epidemics of lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, an aggressive malignancy that usually attacks the lining of the lungs.
The World Health Organization says that 125 million people still encounter asbestos in the workplace, and the United Nations' International Labor Organization estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Thousands more perish from exposures outside the workplace.
Dr. James Leigh, the retired director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia, has forecast a total of 5 million to 10 million deaths from asbestos-related cancers by 2030, an estimate he considers conservative.
"It's totally unethical," Jukka Takala, the director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and a former International Labor Organization official, said of the pro-asbestos campaign. "It's almost criminal. Asbestos cannot be used safely. It is clearly a carcinogen. It kills people."