The Reality in the WHO Secretariat's Recommendation to ban Asbestos

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The World Health Assembly (WHA), the WHO’s supreme decision-making body that determines the WHO’s policies, issued Resolution 60.26 in May 2007. The resolution requested the WHO to carry out a global campaign for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases "…bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms …".

In August/September 2007, the Joint ILO/WHO Committee on Occupational Health issued its Outline for the Development of National Programmes for Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases, which stated that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos”. By calling for a total ban on asbestos, the working document is contrary to the WHA resolution, which called for differentiation of the various forms of asbestos and how to address them. 



The WHO Secretariat’s recommendation to ban asbestos is inconsistent with the stated policy of the World Health Assembly (WHA), its supreme decision-making body that determines the policies of the WHO.

According to the final text adopted by the 60th World Health Assembly in May 2007, its official position is to “eliminate asbestos-related disease”. This resolution, a result of debate and decision between member countries, does not recommend banning the use of all types of asbestos. Rather, it endorses a differentiated approach that allows countries to choose among different routes, including safe use policies. In recommending a ban on asbestos, the WHO Secretariat has chosen to inaccurately interpret the WHA Resolution. 

There is no evidence to support the claim that “107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease”, especially in the context of Thailand.

The number 107,000 is misleading, an extrapolation based on the presence of amphiboles. In Thailand, where amphiboles are banned and safe use regulations are firmly in place for the use of chrysotile, there are no medical studies or statistics to show that chrysotile containing products have caused any health problem in the last 50 years of manufacturing, production, installation and usage in the country.

In fact figures about 107 000 deaths were derived from papers Driscoll T et al , and Concha-Barrientos et al . But these authors clearly differentiate risk from types of asbestos. On the page 1687 of paper Concha-Barrientos et al state:

“In 20 studies of over 100,000 asbestos workers, the standardized mortality rate ranged from 1.04 for chrysotile workers to 4.97 for amosite workers, with a combined relative risk of 2.00. It is difficult to determine the exposures involved because few of the studies reported measurements, and because it is a problem to convert historical asbestos measurements in millions of dust particles per cubic foot to gravimetric units. Nevertheless, little excess lung cancer is expected from low exposure levels.”


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1. Does the WHO recommend the banning of chrysotile asbestos?

No, the World Health Assembly (WHA) recommends a differentiated approach. The WHA is the Executive Body that determines the policies of the WHO.

2. Is it true that 107,000 people die a year because of asbestos-related disease?

No. This figure is misleading because it implies that asbestos is currently used the same way as 50 years ago. It is based on data collected from European countries and extrapolated to the rest of the world. This approach does not take into account the difference between the past uncontrolled heavy exposure that was common in Europe and modern controlled exposure in the present workplace (less than one fibre/cc); the current use of safe packaging techniques and practices to comply with standards of dustiness, and that exposure levels have dramatically decreased in the last decades.

3. Has there been any mortality case in Thailand?

No. In Thailand, zero deaths from asbestos have been recorded in the last 50 years.

4. Are all types of asbestos equal?

No. Asbestos is a differentiated product and various forms affect the human body differently.

5. Is there scientific evidence to back this up?

Yes. The epidemiological evidence from asbestos workers and well-conducted animal tests shows that while all types of asbestos share the same hazards (e.g. the potential of an early death from lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma) they have varying degrees of risk (the likelihood that death from one of the hazards will occur). The relative risk from crocidolite asbestos is some 500 times greater than chrysotile asbestos and the relative risk from amosite asbestos is 100 times greater than chrysotile asbestos. This means that the type/s of asbestos in the product are particularly significant when assessing risk.

6. What does the “100,000 Deaths” claim mean exactly?

Scientific studies always refer to an exposure level below which there is no measurable health risk. Several activists refuse to consider this, as if the risk is the same regardless of the level of exposure or type of fibres. The “100,000 deaths” claim is not actual people counted, but projected statistical deaths. As several epidemiological studies show, workers subject to chrysotile exposure at approximately 1 fibre/cc are not at measurable risk.

7. How does a ban weigh against managing the risks?

Chrysotile is a natural substance. It has been shown that it can be used in a way that does not present an unacceptable health risk. Lobbying in favour of a global ban of chrysotile is unwise if we do not question the risk of replacement products or fibres. The health issues for substitute substances have not been thoroughly assessed in scientific terms. Additionally, a ban on chrysotile would impact the Thai economy. Calculations made in an economic impact study show that the total cost to both manufacturers and consumers will be 464 billion Baht.

8. If people are saying chrysotile is dangerous, is there already a trend of banning it around the globe?

No. Majority of the world is still using chrysotile, including Canada, the USA, India and Brazil.

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