World Health Organization: 1 in 3 Europeans potentially exposed to asbestos at work

WHO’s Regional Office for Europe holds high-level summit in Haifa.

Woman using laptop in office corridor  (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Woman using laptop in office corridor
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
At least one in three inhabitants of Europe are potentially exposed to asbestos in their workplaces and environment, a new World Health Organization report revealed.
About a third of the 900 million people living in the WHO European Region reside in countries that have not yet banned use of all forms of asbestos, and even in those that have, exposure persists from past use, the report said. Exposure to asbestos can cause cancer of the lungs, ovaries and larynx, as well as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe published the report during a three-day, high-level summit on European-region environment and health held in Haifa last week. At the meeting’s closure, the participants called upon all European countries to eliminate asbestos-related disease.
“We cannot afford losing almost 15,000 lives a year in Europe, especially workers, from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos,” said Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe.
“Every death from asbestos-related diseases is avoidable.”
More than 200 representatives from European governments and non-governmental organizations gathered at last week’s summit to evaluate compliance to pledges made in March 2010 during WHO’s Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Parma, Italy.
In Parma, officials from 53 governments adopted a declaration committing to reducing the adverse health impact of environmental threats in the next decade.
The Parma gathering was the fifth in a line of conferences initiated as part of the European Environment and Health Process, which began in the late 1980s. The participating governments agreed to implement national programs to provide equal opportunities to each child by 2020, according to WHO.
One of the first specific and more measurable goals agreed upon by Parma conference attendees was the development of plans to eliminate asbestos-related diseases by the end of 2015, Dr. Srdan Matic, environment and health coordinator in WHO’s Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment told The Jerusalem Post in a March interview.
By this deadline, Matic said the majority of the members will have plans in place, and that 37 of the countries have already implemented relevant policies.
Despite these positive steps, two members – Russia and Kazakhstan – are still asbestos producers, Matic said. While asbestos producers claim that a certain form of the material – chrysotile asbestos – does not pose the same danger as other forms, Matic argued that science “undoubtedly shows toxicity of all forms.”
Nonetheless, asbestos-manufacturing nations have a problem simply calling off production due to their economic dependence on sales of the material, and manufacturers’ roles as major employers.
The WHO report, entitled “Progress toward the elimination of asbestos- related diseases,” indicated that the material is responsible for about half of all the deaths from work-related cancers. In addition, the study showed that deaths from mesothelioma in 15 European countries cost them collectively more than 1.5 billion euros annually.
Although 37 of the 53 WHO European Region member states – including Israel – have banned asbestos use entirely, 16 are still using the material, the report said.
Those are Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Monaco, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The Israeli government passed a law in 2011 prohibiting all new use and import of asbestos. Simultaneously, it began the process of removing friable – dislodged and easily respirable – asbestos and the guided disposal of the material, said Environmental Protection Ministry director-general David Lefler.
In addition, an ongoing asbestos removal project in the Western Galilee has already brought about the removal of 80 thousand cubic meters of waste from 221 sites by December 2014, he added.
“Elimination of asbestos-related diseases is a priority for Israel,” Lefler said. “Databases on asbestos-related diseases are considered key to monitor asbestos’s health effects and are regularly maintained.”