Global Asbestos Awareness Week: Asbestos still an issue for union and trade workers around the world

by Interfaith Worker Justice

The consequences of asbestos have been known for decades, but issues involving trade workers coming into contact with the toxic material are still making headlines. Just last week, subway workers in Buenos Aires went on strike regarding rail cars allegedly containing asbestos. 

Earlier this month in Australia, the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union stated that its members were exposed to asbestos at a Sydney Airport construction project. The union claims the New South Wales workplace health and safety regulator failed to identify contaminated material. 

The first week of April is Global Asbestos Awareness Week, dedicated to others about asbestos exposure and asking whether or not the government is doing enough to keep trade workers safe. 

Brief history of asbestos, its risks, and its use today

Introduced to the market in the 1800s, asbestos was used as a fire-resistant material in the construction, shipbuilding, and automotive industries. Considered a miracle material, asbestos provided a cheap and efficient way to insulate pipes and boilers, line tanks and ovens, build automobile brakes and clutches, insulate skyscrapers, and construct homes.

The risk of asbestos was discovered as early as 1918, but is still legal in more than 70% of the world today, including the United States. Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer within the lining of the lungs. Asbestos-related diseases are almost entirely preventable, but without a ban, asbestos is likely to kill about 200,000 people globally each year.

What countries around the world are doing to eradicate it from their infrastructure 

Despite asbestos proven link to cancer, Canada remained one of the world's major exporters of the mineral until 2011. Asbestos was responsible for more than 2,000 cancer cases in 2011 alone, costing their health system more than $1 million per case. The Canadian federal health and environment departments have since acknowledged the danger of asbestos and are sponsoring a proposed ban of the use, sale, import and export of asbestos along with products that contain the material.

The Dutch government is working to ban asbestos roofs by 2024. The use, storing, selling and importing of asbestos has been banned in the Netherlands since 1993, and the roofing ban is another step to prevent unnecessary cancer diagnosis in the future. Failure to remove a damaged asbestos roof will result in a fine. 

Asbestos Legislation at Home

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), founders of the awareness week, has worked with the U.S. Senate to establish 13 resolutions and five U.S. Surgeon General asbestos warnings. The organization also recently introduced the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act to the U.S. Senate. If the bill is signed into law, it would fully ban asbestos in the U.S. within 18 months. Though there is a long way to go, Global Asbestos Awareness Week is making strides towards protective legislation in the United States. With a continued effort to education and inform as many people as possible, its possible to make asbestos use a thing of the past.