Asbestos is a natural mineral whose by-products are used in various industrial fields. It is found in household tools and objects such as joints, floor and wall covering and household cleaning stuff.

Asbestos' noxiousness is discarded if the product is properly conserved and confined. However, it gets very harmful when it degrades and gets porous and volatile. In fact, it is the presence of fibers in the air that could be hazardous to health. The inhalation of micro particles by people causes various serious ailments which could appear ten to forty years after exposure and even after retirement.

Asbestos: description

Asbestos is a natural mineral containing calcium, iron and magnesium hydrate silicate with fibrous texture. It is made up of two mineralogical groups:

  • The serpentines: white asbestos (chrysolite), the most common and only variety of its group
  • The amphiboles: featuring five varieties: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, amosite, and the last two items being the most used

Asbestos: Features and uses

Renowned for its high resistance to heat and fire, for its chemical inertia, its mechanic resistance, its imputrescibility, its low cost and elasticity, asbestos is used in various ways and in the following domains:

  • Building insulation
  • Lagging insulation and waterproofness
  • Shipbuilding yards, as a fire-resistant insulator
  • The textile industry for the manufacture of fireproof clothing
  • The manufacture of filters for food and pharmaceutical industries
  • Electrical insulating products
  • The automobile industry, mechanical and plastic material, iron and steel metallurgy

Asbestos is present in the makeup of more than 3000 products.

Asbestos, society stakes

In fifty years time, asbestos has become altogether :

  • A public health issue
  • A topic for policies tackling the prevention of professional hazards
  • A subject of scientific researches
  • A controversial issue and a matter of interest clashes between different pressure groups and lobbies representing producers, industrialists, organizations for the protection of the environment and for asbestos casualties, insurance companies and lawyers firms.

Asbestos: Pathologies

The size and the form of the fibers are the main factors accounting for the extent of penetration and infection of the respiratory system. The contamination causes :

  • Asbestos
  • Throat and lung cancer
  • Pleura and perisyv toneum mesotheliom

The history of asbestos hazards

asbestos The use of asbestos dates back to 1860 when its extraction started to develop with the discovery of new deposits and in the light of the industrial headway. Its exploitation and marketing had grown considerably until the mid 1970s when its use was progressively slowed down by restrictive measures.

The first suspicions about the potential danger of asbestos started to cross people's minds at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the United Kingdom which first adopted protective laws and regulations in favor of workers against exposure to asbestos in 1931. After the Second World War, France decides to assume charge of asbestos as a professional disease. Given the scale and the increase of pathologies, numerous countries decided to take radical measures.

For instance, the European Union, Australia, and Chile elaborated strict provisions restricting the use of all forms and types of asbestos and stepped up efforts to come up with replacement products. But the greater part of developing countries remains the biggest importers of asbestos.

Some figures

In France, the progression of asbestos-related diseases for all of the pathologies rose from 202 to 4 494 annual cases between 1985 and 2002. As far as cancer is concerned, the number of cases grew from 25 to 1018 cases per year for the same period. Surveys and studies have shown that contamination due to asbestos kills twice as many people as work accidents altogether.

In the United States, in the period between 1979 and 2001, 43 000 deaths due to asbestos cancer had been reported. Asbestos directly accounts for the death of 10 000 people a year, that is 30 casualties a day, and 40 000 deaths are expected for the next 40 years.

The American economy has lost 60 000 jobs following the bankruptcy of involved firms who lost compensation and damage lawsuits lodged by victims.

As far as the social aspect is concerned, retirement funds have shrunk by 25% due to the disputes pertaining to asbestos contamination, these provisions being exhausted in lawsuits and lawyers dues.

Over 8000 firms (trade, industries, construction, textile, shipbuilding yards, insurance) have stood trial for asbestos contamination accounts. More than 600 000 cases are undergoing trial and 70 000 additional lawsuits are lodged each year.

Asbestos: Social and economic impact

While asbestos cases constitute good news for lawyers firms, they mean nothing but unprecedented gloom and doom for the other economic sectors. In order to guard against this risk, some firms have been compelled to raise important funds whereby they become, somehow, their own insurers. The French group Saint-Gobain disbursed a sum of 100 million euros to the United States for its 2002 financial year.

In response to the increase of these disputes and their financial fallout, the American authorities are elaborating a plan that aims at reducing the number of cases by setting stricter medical criteria. Such a measure is likely to discard 90% of the lawsuits underway.

For a long time to come, the controversial issue of asbestos will remain a major cause of concern as trials continue to take place throughout the world: Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland, Italy and France before it starts to affect the developing countries.

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