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In the fall of 2009, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began delving into industry efforts in developing countries to promote the use of asbestos — a known carcinogen banned or restricted in 52 countries. During nine months of research, the ICIJ team in partnership with the BBC documented the activities of a global network of industry groups, led by the Canadian government-backed Chrysotile Institute, which has helped fuel use of the toxic mineral in nations such as China, India, Brazil and Mexico. With the help of industry-funded scientists, these groups have influenced government regulations and fought off attempts to ban the cheap, fire-resistant construction and insulation material.
Among our team’s findings:
- A global network of industry groups has spent nearly $100 million in public and private money since the mid-1980s to keep asbestos in commerce. Based in Montreal, Mexico City, New Delhi, and other cities, these groups share information and coordinate public-relations initiatives touting “controlled use” of chrysotile, or white, asbestos, the only form of the fiber used today.
- Because controlled use is nearly impossible to achieve in developing nations, where workplace and environmental standards are weak, the industry campaign is helping create new epidemics of asbestos-related disease, according to public health experts. Among the countries that will be hit hardest: China, the world’s top consumer; and India, where use is growing at the rate of 30 percent annually.
- The industry campaign contends that white asbestos is less toxic than blue and brown forms of the mineral, which are no longer used. Many researchers and health officials believe, however, that the science is unsettled and that white asbestos may in fact be as dangerous as blue or brown.
- Despite mounting scientific evidence of the risks of white asbestos and calls from health experts for a global ban, asbestos production is holding steady at about 2 million metric tons per year, with Russia producing nearly half of the world’s supply.
- Each year, 100,000 workers die of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, according to the International Labor Organization. Some scientists predict that asbestos will take up to 10 million lives worldwide by 2030. The World Health Organization says that 125 million workers are still exposed to asbestos.
- Canada remains a major exporter of asbestos, primarily to India, over the strong objections of health professionals, activists, and some politicians. Canada itself now uses little asbestos but its federal and provincial governments have subsidized the industry with C$35 million since 1984.
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