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Annual conference puts spotlight on global asbestos threat

International experts, health officials and advocates for victims of asbestos-related disease are gathering in Atlanta this week to discuss the impact of the known carcinogen on public health, the environment and the global economy.


The 7th annual Global Asbestos Awareness Week will feature speakers from Canada, Mexico, Japan, South America, India and Great Britain. The seven-day conference includes sessions on treatment options, worker safety, exposure prevention and the “Global Asbestos Battle,” the ongoing effort to ban the mining, manufacture and use of asbestos, which is blamed for more than 100,000 deaths worldwide each year.


"These aren't just numbers,” said Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy group that sponsored the annual conference. “These are people who are patients, families and friends who have been impacted by preventable deadly asbestos diseases."


A naturally occurring mineral, asbestos was first mined in North America in the late 1800s. It’s been used in more than 5,000 products, according to some estimates, to insulate boilers and pipes; fireproof building materials; strengthen cement and plastics; and make automotive parts.


Both the U.S. government and the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed decades ago that asbestos causes asbestosis, a progressive fibrotic disease of the lungs; lung and gastrointestinal cancers; and malignant mesothelioma, a deadly disease that attacks the lining on the lung and abdomen.


The Environmental Protection Agency began to regulate asbestos in the 1970s. In 1989, the agency tried to ban most asbestos-containing products, but courts overturned the regulation. Today, the EPA says, asbestos is banned in flooring felt, rollboard and corrugated, commercial or specialty paper and in new products that have not historically contained asbestos.


However, asbestos may still be used in cement, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, floor tile, millboard, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disc brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings, and roof coatings.


Intact asbestos — in which the dangerous fibers are contained — is not considered a health hazard. But the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization and public health officials have long called for a global ban on all forms of asbestos. Fifty-two countries already ban the mineral, although the “controlled use” of chrysotile asbestos is exempted in some countries with bans.


Among the speakers at this week’s conference is Ken Takahashi, acting director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Occupational Health at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Japan. Takahashi has studied the use of asbestos in the developing world, where it is still imported and exported and used in many products.


In research published earlier this year, Takahashi and a group of colleagues predicted those countries — Russia, Kazakhstan, China, India and Thailand, in particular — will experience an epidemic of asbestos-related disease in the coming decades. Their research has found that cumulative use of the mineral has doubled since 1970, from 65 million tons in 1970 to 124 million tons. In some countries, the use of asbestos has increased by a factor of five.


The study also estimated that for every four or five reported cases of mesothelioma, one has been overlooked. From 1994 to 2008, according to the research, mesothelioma killed 174,300 people in 56 countries that collect data on asbestos-related disease. The researchers estimated that in 33 countries without reported data, another 38,900 died from the disease during the same 15-year period.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 18,068 Americans died of mesothelioma from 1999 to 2005, when number of annual deaths rose from 2,482 to 2,704.