For many people, the word “asbestos” inspires a negative reaction. In some countries, especially in Western Europe, this is even an obsessive fear. We all know now that the bad conditions to which workers were subjected in the past, in mines, manufacturing plants and in spraying pulverized products, are the responsible for incurable, sometimes fatal, industrial diseases. With improved scientific knowledge in toxicology and epidemiology, it is now recognized that diseases related to asbestos have a long latency period (from 20 to 40 years) and that chrysotile is much less problematic than amphiboles. It is not surprising to diagnose today diseases related to the past use of asbestos. They are the sad consequences of the past, but they have nothing to do with working conditions prevailing now, even though precautions must always be taken as it is the case for all products, substances or fibres presenting a potential health risk.
People are more influenced by alarmist views than by concrete facts. It is easy to generate fear, to simplistically associate today’s diseases with current conditions of use and to confirm without solid proof that substitute fibres are probably less harmful. This is false. In such a context, the solution also appears very simple — ban rather than regulate. But this is also trickery.
Reality is quite different. Between 1950 and 1999, over 22 million tonnes of asbestos were used in the fifteen countries that formed the European Union for the construction of commercial buildings and distribution systems for drinking water and waste water. Europe would have had a very difficult time reaching its current level of development without this considerable uses of asbestos products. Now that major infrastructure work has been completed in Europe, high-technology industries are producing expensive substitute fibres. Finished products that contain these fibres are of equal or inferior quality than those containing chrysotile, but their prices are much higher and their lifespan is more limited. It is not surprising to see supporters of substitute products interested in feeding the current psychosis over asbestos in various countries where they wish to expand their market.
Make no mistake about it: The basis for the current debate is not only an occupational health and safety issue. We are witnessing a crusade with huge economic stakes.