The painful and deadly toll that asbestos imposes on families across the globe is a public health problem of growing magnitude. In the U.S., individuals who are diagnosed today with asbestos-related disease may trace their exposure to the lethal mineral fibers back several decades. The number of new cases of asbestos-related disease in the U.S. has not yet plateaued, and may not for years. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people are currently exposed to asbestos at work or in their communities. What will come of these individuals in the years ahead when the diseases manifest themselves?? Last year the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) produced an amazing, but frightening documentary “Canada’s Ugly Secret” and when I show it to my students, I ask “what will these people look like in 20 years?” Their answers are not pretty and not hopeful.
The time has long past for the U.S. to stand up for the public’s health and pass strong laws to protect future generations from asbestos-related disease. As we mark the end of Asbestos-Disease Awareness Week (April 1-7) and begin National Public Health Week (Nov 5-11) I urged every reader of TPH to take 1 minute to read the policy resolution adopted by the American Public Health Association (APHA) in 2009 calling for the global elimination of asbestos and strong prevention measures. The resolution urges:
- Congress to pass legislation banning the manufacture, sale, export, or import of asbestos-containing products (i.e., products to which asbestos is intentionally added or products in which asbestos is a contaminant).
- NIOSH and OSHA to issue an annual statement to alert workers in high-risk occupationsof the adverse health risks associated with exposure to asbestos and include information on potential early warning symptoms in at least English, Spanish, and French.
- US Administration to support efforts for a legally binding treaty to ban asbestos mining and manufacturing throughout the world.
- Congress to ban the exportation of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials for use or destruction in developing countries.
- US Administration to use its diplomatic influence with Canada, Russia, and other countries to stop their dangerous practice of exporting asbestos.
- Global corporations and development banks to establish policies prohibiting asbestos-containing materials in new construction and disaster relief projects.
- Governments to provide income support and retraining, and funding for relocation if necessary, for workers who would lose their jobs as a result of protective legislation.
Astute public health practitioners knew as early as 1898 that exposure to the lethal miner fibers caused severe respiratory damage. When Selikoff, Churg and Hammond published their study in 1964 of cancer deaths among U.S. and Canadian asbestos insulation workers, the evidence of its harm to people’s health was incontrovertible. Yet, like the tobacco industry, individuals who profit from asbestos peddle their deadly product with no chance of being held responsible for the severe harm caused to others–especially when that harm may not appear for years and years.
By adopting all the recommendations of APHA’s resolution, the U.S. and global community can create a world in which future generations will look at asbestos-related disease as an ugly thing of the past.
Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is immediate past chair of the OHS Section of APHA. She was pleased to join fellow APHA members Barry Castleman and Linda Reinstein in drafting the resolution on asbestos adopted by the organization at its 2009 annual meeting. She is looking forward to attending the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s 6th annual international conference entitled “Knowledge is Stronger than Asbestos” on April 9-11 in Chicago, IL.