Asbestos is a severe cancer-causing agent, causing about half of all deaths from occupational-related types of cancer. Currently, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at their workplaces. To date, significant data gaps exist in the African Region in regard to the occupational exposure of asbestos and subsequent asbestos-related disease.
These gaps and competing priorities have prevented many countries from banning the mining, export and use of asbestos and implementing national programmes for elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos is known to be used in thousands of products for a vast number of applications such as roofing panels and shingles, insulation materials, fire blankets, water supply lines, cement pipes as well as clutches, brake linings and pads, and gaskets for automobiles.
Exposure to asbestos is closely linked to cancer of the lungs, larynx and ovaries, mesothelioma (a form of cancer affecting the inner linings of the lungs) and asbestosis (scarring of the lungs). In addition, the co-exposure to tobacco smoke and asbestos substantially increases the risk of lung cancers.
In order to prevent its devastating health effects, it is not recommended to engage in any work that can cause asbestos to become airborne. The types of work that can cause asbestos to become airborne include: maintenance or construction work, asbestos abatement or remediation work, and any work that cleans up damaged or deteriorated asbestos-based materials.
If such work is required, it should only be carried out under strict control measures to avoid direct and secondary exposures. This includes the use of personal protective equipment such as special respirators, safety goggles, protective gloves and clothing, and the provision of hazardous waste facilities for decontamination and disposal.
Despite the severe health warnings and considerable hazards, asbestos is still widely used in mining, manufacturing and construction applications in many developing countries in the African Region. This is primarily due to lack of comprehensive occupational exposure legislation and enforcement policies.
South Africa and Mozambique are two examples of countries in the African Region who have successfully prohibited the use, processing, and manufacturing of asbestos and asbestos-containing products. The enforcement of these occupational health and safety regulations has resulted in the protection of people who live and work in an environment where asbestos may be present.
However, the burden of asbestos-related diseases is still rising; even in countries that banned the use of asbestos in the early 1990s.This is due to long periods of time between exposures and the resulting development of diseases. Stopping the use of asbestos now will only result in a decrease in the number of asbestos-related diseases and deaths after several decades.
“The World Health Organization’s policy on asbestos is unequivocal and asbestos-related diseases can and should be prevented. The most efficient way to prevent direct and secondary exposures to asbestos is to stop the production and use of all forms, including chrysotile,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
To further promote a healthy environment, the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa is committed to working towards the elimination of asbestos-related diseases through planning for and implementing comprehensive national strategies including the development of national profiles, public awareness campaigns, institutional frameworks, and capacity building activities, to protect the public from contact with asbestos.