Despite its use as a building material for over half a century, asbestos is now banned in New Zealand. The health complications and illnesses caused by asbestos fibre inhalation are well documented, and many New Zealanders have already taken steps to ensure their peace of mind.
This could be through asbestos testing and sampling—to determine the presence of the mineral in building materials—or a complete asbestos survey. For home or business owners who have discovered asbestos on their property, encapsulation or full asbestos removal will likely have been performed to limit any risk—and should be if it hasn’t already.
Elsewhere in the world, however, the asbestos market is still strong. Which countries are continuing to mine and manufacture the mineral, and for what purpose? Below, we’ll look at asbestos in other countries, and why it still has valuable properties—when not placing humans at risk of illness or death.
How much asbestos did we use in the past?
More than 100 years after the discovery of major asbestos deposits in Canada, the mineral entered the mainstream marketplace.
At first, asbestos was used as an insulating material—its fire-retardant properties made it a popular choice for lining the outside of furnaces. The success of this initial application opened the world up to the idea of more asbestos-containing materials, and soon thousands of products were being made with the mineral.
By the 1920s and ‘30s, asbestos became increasingly commonplace. It was used in everything from brakes, to textiles, and insulating materials and, by the 1940s, became a major product in the construction industry.
By the early 1970s, the United States recorded using nearly 800,000 tonnes each year, with asbestos present in many ships and homes constructed during that period.
During this period—the 1930s to the ‘70s in particular—asbestos was used around the world to a staggering degree. After all, its harmful properties hadn’t been discovered as of yet, and the many benefits of the mineral—flexible, cheap to manufacture, fire-resistant to name a few—were lauded by tradesmen.
Had the negative health effects of asbestos exposure not existed, there’s no doubt it would have remained the ideal choice for insulation in nearly every application.
However, the results of asbestos exposure were soon discovered, and countries rapidly assessed the potential damage to their population and called for the material to be banned outright.
Which countries have banned asbestos?
Almost 30 years ago, many countries looked to ban asbestos in all its forms. Once the health risks of asbestos exposure became more well-known, and governments recognised the potential harm caused to the population, its use in construction declined.
The negative health effects caused by asbestos take considerable time to develop. It can take years or even decades for some symptoms to appear, which makes the total banning of asbestos in those early days a significant point of difference for health improvement. One of the first countries to ban asbestos was Sweden, where cases of mesothelioma have reduced noticeably in the past few decades.
Now, 55 countries have committed to banning asbestos completely. Notable inclusions are Australia, Croatia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The United States, however, is not on the list, and a number of countries are still major producers and exporters of the material on a global scale.
Where is asbestos still used around the world?
As many countries began reducing and eventually banning asbestos-containing materials, other parts of the world were only increasing their use of the deadly fibre. Notable producers and exporters of asbestos include Brazil, China, and Russia, which benefit from exporting the fibre to countries with little-to-no environmental or occupational regulations.
Interestingly, many of the major exporters of asbestos use barely any of the material on their home soil—with the except of China, one of the major consumers. Despite this, there is still considerable knowledge of and discussion about the use of asbestos in these countries.
In China, the government was openly vocal about venues and buildings constructed for the 2008 Olympic Games not containing asbestos cement. This was most likely done to address the health concerns of visiting sportspeople, who would possibly refuse to enter the grounds were there any risk of exposure.
This acknowledgement of public opinion around asbestos-containing products is further illustrated by China’s exporting of car parts. Having previously supplied many countries with asbestos-containing brakes, all automotive parts and accessories now made in China are shown to have no asbestos present in any of the components. This indicates that legislation will be the driving force behind asbestos safety in the future—by reducing the chances of asbestos-containing materials being present in construction, major suppliers will have to think of other uses where human contact will be minimal.
One such example of this is India, a country producing only a fraction of asbestos each year compared to other exporters, but a major importer due to the use of asbestos in cementing and pipe insulation. It’s clear asbestos still has many useful properties, if kept in good condition and used in a responsible manner.
Why is asbestos still being used in some countries?
In general, prolific use of asbestos is often a case of government regulations—either a lack of regulations on safe asbestos use or by imposing taxes and tariffs on cheaper and safer artificial materials.
This serves to encourage the notion that asbestos is incredibly cheap to make, where the cost difference between similar, man-made products is—in reality—marginal. Often, the government taxes placed on these substitutes will strengthen the case for asbestos use and, as the effects of asbestos on the citizens of developing countries won’t likely be seen for a further decade or two, there’s little argument against it for now.
As many of the countries importing asbestos are in lower-economic standing to the exporter countries, asbestos-containing materials are unfortunately more of a necessity than a choice. Hopefully, as further awareness about the fibrous material is shown by the public, and a greater number of countries advise on strict regulation, the use of safer substitutes will rise.
Is there still asbestos in New Zealand?
Thanks to the early construction and environmental regulations on asbestos developed in Europe by Iceland and Sweden, many countries that still use even a small amount of asbestos have strict controls in place.
In New Zealand, there’s a high chance that many buildings yet to be inspected and surveyed for asbestos will contain the fibre in some form. Thankfully, if the asbestos is still in optimal condition and not yet friable, there are methods available to reinforce the surroundings of the material and prevent the release of any asbestos fibres.
Importantly, our country has increased its awareness of asbestos as a whole. We now have established methods for detecting and managing asbestos in buildings which, if we follow the same success as Sweden, will mean the cases of asbestos-related illness is bound to decrease in the decades to come.
As experts on asbestos testing, sampling, and full asbestos removal or encapsulation, the team at Chemcare do their best to keep fellow Kiwis informed. If you believe there may be asbestos present in your home or workplace, call one of our asbestos testing and removal specialists today.