Can asbestos be found in Australia

The deadly "miracle fiber"

In the West, the fibrous silicate business flourished until the 1980s. Until the deaths and claims for damages increased. However, emerging economies still use asbestos today.

In Australia, the village of Wittenoom symbolizes the path of destruction that the mining of the raw material asbestos has left behind worldwide. There were three asbestos mines in operation there by 1966, thanks to which the population of Wittenoom swelled to 20,000 in the 1950s. It was the largest city in the Pilbara, a region in northwest Australia that is now best known for its iron ore deposits. Around ten percent of the residents of Wittenoom died of cancer caused by the carcinogenic fibers of the raw material. Today there is little more in their homeland than a few huts, a telephone booth and signs warning of the invisible danger.

Deadly "miracle fiber"

Last week, the surprising acquittal of the former majority shareholder of the Italian Eternit, Stephan Schmidheiny, again brought the deadly raw material into focus. Schmidheiny is said to have been responsible for the deaths of 3,000 asbestos victims in Italy; the acquittal took place with reference to the statute of limitations of the case.

Asbestos is the collective term for a group of mineral, fibrous silicates. The use of the insulating and heat-resistant raw material, also known for a long time as “miracle fiber”, increased sharply in the first half of the 20th century with industrialization. He celebrated his wedding in the 1970s and 1980s; In the mid-1970s, asbestos was mined in 25 countries and around 85 countries were producing asbestos products, according to a report by the US Geological Survey (USGS). The raw material was mainly used in the form of asbestos cement and spray asbestos in the construction industry, but it was also used in shipbuilding and the electronics industry. Despite early indications, it was only in those years that it was widely recognized that asbestos fibers are highly carcinogenic; Over 50 countries, including the EU member states and, since 1989, Switzerland, have since banned its production and use.

As a result, not only did demand drop rapidly, but also a flood of successful claims for damages against thousands of companies. According to a study by the American think tank Rand, legal disputes cost industry and insurance companies $ 70 billion in the USA alone up until 2002, although this sum could one day triple; at least 73 companies went bankrupt by mid-2004. The American ABB subsidiary Combustion Engineering was placed under bankruptcy protection in the course of the affair. The bill for the Swiss group was $ 2 billion.

Yet despite its destructive power, asbestos continues to be mined and used in several countries, with consumption shifting away from developed countries and towards emerging markets, particularly Asia. According to the USGS, a total of over 2 million tons of asbestos was produced in 17 countries in 2003, with an estimated value of $ 500 million. Last year it was still just under 2 million tons, with production now being almost 100% distributed over four countries: Russia is at the top with just over half of production, followed by China (21%) and Brazil (15%) and Kazakhstan (12%). On the consumer side, China (28%) dominate ahead of India (18%), Russia (13.5%), Brazil (8.5%) and Indonesia (7%). Especially in India, the largest importer, and Indonesia, the consumption of the comparatively cheap insulation material has increased significantly since 2000. Until 2011 Canada also supplied asbestos to the two import-dependent countries. It was not until 2012 that Canada turned around when the government of the province of Quebec waived a loan to the ailing asbestos industry, ultimately giving it the fatal blow.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 125 million people around the world continue to be exposed to asbestos in their workplaces and that over 100,000 deaths are attributable to contact with the fibers every year. For years, experts have been warning of the looming epidemic, especially in China. Industry representatives meanwhile take the position that the risk of using chrysotile (white asbestos) can be controlled if the regulations are adhered to - unlike brown or blue asbestos, which have also been banned in China since 2002. However, a long-term study by researchers in Hong Kong in 2011 provided additional evidence of the higher mortality of Chinese workers exposed to white asbestos.

Again and again products that contain asbestos make it to countries that have banned its import. In 2012, an Australian car dealer had to recall 25,000 Chinese cars after asbestos was found in the engines and exhaust seals. A year later, asbestos was discovered in Chinese locomotives, which are now used in the iron ore industry in the Pilbara, even though they had been certified as free of asbestos.

Remaining contaminated sites

While some states continue to rely on asbestos, states continue to fight the contaminated sites with bans. The latency period of the diseases is up to 45 years, and asbestos repeatedly comes to light during renovations, which can trigger new diseases if improperly removed. The Australian Wittenoom also remains contaminated. It's just a ghost town now. In 2006 the government cut the electricity supply and a year later the city was also removed from the official register.

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