Strengthening a culture of prevention to mitigate asbestos exposure

When I speak with people outside of the health and safety community, they are shocked to hear asbestos is still a threat. The look on their faces is one of disbelief when I tell them the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 107,000 workers around the world will die every year of an asbestos-related disease and 125 million people across the world will be exposed to asbestos in the workplace.

Asbestos statistics for the UK

The BBC reported that in a British Lung Foundation (BLF) survey of “2,000 adults showed that only 22% knew that all forms of asbestos were finally banned in the 1990s, while 67% said they could not confidently identify asbestos around the house.”

I’m looking forward to discussing the Three Waves of asbestos exposure at this year’s SHExpo when I present “Progress and Challenges in Mitigating Asbestos Exposure” at noon on June 22 at the Occupational Health Theatre in London sponsored by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS).

Asbestos is a very current issue

While many know asbestos is hazardous, they are also under the dangerous impression that asbestos is a problem of the past. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  I remember all too well when I heard my Alan’s mesothelioma diagnosis.  His three-year battle lead us to the inevitable, as there is no cure to deadly mesothelioma and the other asbestos-caused diseases.  Although Alan’s death has caused me to question what I know and how I feel about our government’s inaction, turning my anger into action for prevention, truth, and justice has connected me with leaders of health and safety who exemplify the power of successful advocacy.

Asbestos mining continues today with an estimated 2,000,000 metric tons of asbestos being mined globally last year. Asbestos has not been banned in the United States, and imports continue to enter our country to “meet manufacturing needs”. In many respects, America stands in the shadow of the U.K., which not only banned asbestos in 1999, but also implemented asbestos regulations requiring that before starting any construction on a site that might contain asbestos, there must be an assessment of where and what type of asbestos is present and steps must be taken to manage risk. But still, throughout the world, problems exist in homes, communities, workplaces, and the environment.

Misconceptions about asbestos must be corrected because although promising research continues, exposure prevention is currently the only cure for asbestos-caused diseases. We have our work cut out for us, as it can be difficult to fully understand the century old asbestos tragedy. Commonly, it is described in three waves.

Three waves of asbestos tragedies

The Wave One of asbestos diseases and deaths occurred in the early 1900s among workers who mined, milled, or transported raw asbestos. The Wave Two exposure is concentrated in high-risk industries, including construction, automotive, shipbuilding and the military, which worked with or around materials containing asbestos. Wave Three is the structural, environmental, and secondary exposures. In many respects it is the most pervasive and currently threatening.

Environmental exposure happens in structures built with materials containing asbestos. When Do-It-Yourself or commercial repairs and remodels are done to structures containing asbestos, the fibers can be released into the environment. The same risk occurs when asbestos-filled structures are demolished, be it intentional or due to disaster. The 9/11 attack in New York City is a harrowing example of this. Untold amounts of asbestos were released into the air when the Twin Towers went down, and the firefighters who risked their lives responding to the disaster have seen a 19% spike in cancer rates compared to New York firefighters who weren’t at Ground Zero. Infrastructure can also be a source of environmental exposure. City water pipes, for example, often contain asbestos, and when one bursts, fibers can be dislodged.

The other especially tragic side of Wave Three is secondary exposure, or as I call it “Deadly Hugs and Chores”. It happens when workers bring asbestos fibres home on their clothes, and expose their children and families who lovingly greet them with a hug or clean the clothes they wore at work. Tragically, people who were exposed this way as children are now dying from mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases in their 20s and 30s.

How to prevent asbestos-caused diseases

Through awareness, prevention, and policy, asbestos-caused diseases can be eliminated. Most people can’t identify asbestos, and therefore can’t mitigate their own risks. Educating people, especially those with elevated exposure risk like construction workers and firefighters, is a key first step. Trade unions have been crucial to spreading awareness, and advocating for protecting workers, both in the U.S. and the U.K.

ADAO is excited about two global educational campaigns.  First, “Hear Asbestos. Think Prevention.” With this campaign we are not only educating the public, but also our elected officials to ensure they work on legislation that to not only bans asbestos, but also calls for its safe and expedient removal from our environment. Secondly, this year for the 12th Global Asbestos Awareness Week (GAAW) from April 1 – 7 we had phenomenal collaboration. To ensure our messages were communicated globally, we once again decided to join forces with The McOnie Agency, a specialist PR agency with expertise spanning the occupational health, manufacturing and industrial markets. This effort resulted in the GAAW material being translated into 21 different languages of including Arabic, Hungarian and Romanian.

By encouraging asbestos victims and health and safety professionals worldwide to share, learn and most importantly, take action, the hope is that exposure to asbestos will ultimately reduce unnecessary death. With greater awareness, global partnerships, and a true sense of responsibility exposures and deaths can be prevented.

Join the global safety and health conversation by following us, @SHExpo, @BOHSworld, @McOnieAgency, and @linda_ADAO, on Twitter!

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