Mainland faces explosive rise in asbestos-related lung disease

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

The mainland faces an explosive outbreak of asbestos-related lung diseases as it enters its fourth and biggest decade in the production and use of asbestos, which some call 'that other deadly white powder'.

The problem is exacerbated because the government has taken limited measures to restrict the production of asbestos and there appears to be a ban on discussion of the issue. On the face of it, that's because of government reluctance to restrict an industry that employs an estimated two million workers in mines, factories and ship-breaking facilities, many of which are in economically backward regions.

'People don't have information. They don't wear masks,' says a European expert, who declined to be named. 'Within ten years in China the health problem linked with asbestos and other chemical components will be very bad.'

'It's the price the nation will pay for being the world's top asbestos consumer and for failing until recently to address health risks associated with asbestos mining and manufacture,' said Jukka Takala, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Takala said the annual death rate from mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases on the mainland could climb to 15,000 by 2035, but other experts put the figure at 40,000 already.

Actual figures are difficult to come by as data-collection is poor, turnover is high and there's a lag of between ten and 40 years between exposure to the deadly asbestos fibres and contracting the disease.

By the time some people finally fall ill, they're not aware of the cause.

Some 52 countries have so far banned or restricted the use of asbestos, but the Chinese government has argued that chrysotile, the technical name for white asbestos, is safe and calls claims about the health threat exaggerations.

Scientists say, however, that asbestos, a proven carcinogen, is an especially dangerous threat, which means that the mainland's production and consumption of it could lead to a huge jump in occupational illnesses in the not-too-distant future.

Authorities there have made attempts to limit the effects of exposure to asbestos. Brown and blue asbestos - said to be the most dangerous forms of the material - have been banned. Signs have been placed in workplaces indicating the need to wear masks when entering work rooms.

However, visits to mining towns and factories show workers are unaware of the risks of working with asbestos and are largely unprotected, wearing just flimsy cotton masks or no masks at all.

Workers interviewed believed there was no serious danger working in such facilities. In some locations, they said they were given physical examinations once a year, but the problem is that once someone contracts an asbestos-related lung disease it is already too late.

People working adjacent to the work rooms and living in villages and cities where asbestos is produced also believed they were in no danger, although experts say that people living within a 20-kilometre radius of asbestos-producing areas may be exposed to risk.

Occupants of houses in which asbestos was used in construction may also be at risk if the asbestos in their buildings is disturbed during maintenance or renovation work.

A woman clerk working in a drug store in 'Asbestos County', so named for the proliferation of asbestos mines and factories in the area, was asked if she feared there was any risk. 'I don't know,' she replies. Asked if many people had fallen ill, she says: 'I'm not from here. I don't know about these things.'

Those responses were echoed throughout the small Sichuan mountain town.

At a dozen small workshops visited in Yuyao , Zhejiang province, workers either wear cheap gauze masks or nothing at all. A journalist peeks inside a dusty work room in the village and finds some workers wearing cheap cotton or paper masks. A few have masks hanging over their chins, and some wear no masks at all. A middle-aged worker says she's been working here for several years. 'We get physicals every year,' she says, and her health is fine.

A woman factory owner insists there is no risk if one does not enter the work room, although there are signs of dust everywhere in the yard outside her factory and strands of asbestos yarn are hanging outside in the fields to dry. 'As long as you don't go inside you're okay. I live here and my health is fine.'

'They don't know,' says the Western expert. 'You have people telling you the government says it's okay, and if they say so, then it's not dangerous. You have to understand that this is the situation in China.'

Death toll

Some say this is the number of people dying of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related diseases a year: 40,000


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