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Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases

Fact sheet N°343
July 2014


Key facts

  • About 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace.
  • According to WHO estimates, more than 107 000 deaths each year are attributable to occupational exposure to asbestos.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals with current or historical commercial usefulness due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack. For these reasons, asbestos is used for insulation in buildings and as an ingredient in a number of products, such as roofing shingles, water supply lines and fire blankets, as well as clutches and brake linings, gaskets and pads for automobiles.

The main forms of asbestos are chrysotile (white asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). Other forms are amosite, anthophylite, tremolite and actinolite.

Why is asbestos a problem?

All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings). Asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), and plaques, thickening and effusion in the pleura.

Currently, about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. According to the most recent WHO estimates, more than 107 000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from exposure at work. Approximately half of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. In addition, it is estimated that several thousand deaths annually can be attributed to exposure to asbestos in the home.

It has also been shown that co-exposure to tobacco smoke and asbestos fibres substantially increases the risk for lung cancer – and the heavier the smoking the greater the risk.

WHO response

The World Health Assembly Resolution 58.22 on cancer prevention urges Member States to pay special attention to cancers for which avoidable exposure is a factor, including exposure to chemicals at the workplace and in the environment.

With Resolution 60.26, the World Health Assembly requested WHO to carry out a global campaign for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases "…bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms - in line with the relevant international legal instruments and the latest evidence for effective interventions…". …". Cost-effective interventions for prevention of occupational lung diseases from exposure to asbestos are among the policy options for implementing the global action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases (2013-2020), as endorsed by the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly in resolution WHA66.10 in 2013.

Eliminating asbestos-related diseases is particularly targeted at countries still using chrysotile asbestos, in addition to assistance in relation to exposures arising from historical use of all forms of asbestos.

WHO, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and other intergovernmental organizations and civil society, works with countries towards elimination of asbestos-related diseases in the following ways:

  • by recognizing that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
  • by providing information about solutions for replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
  • by taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement);
  • by improving early diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases;
  • by establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos and organizing medical surveillance of exposed workers;
  • by providing information on the hazards associated with asbestos-containing materials and products, and by raising awareness that waste containing asbestos should be treated as hazardous waste.
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