An ICIJ Investigation Dangers in the Dust

Exporting an Epidemic

The human toll reaches millions as the asbestos industry expands worldwide.

In this investigation

Dangers in the Dust
eBook: Dangers in the Dust
Dangers in the Dust
Asbestos deaths bring 16-year sentence

Key findings

  • A global network of industry groups has spent nearly $100 million in public and private money since the mid-1980s to keep asbestos in commerce. Based in Montreal, Mexico City, New Delhi, and other cities, these groups share information and coordinate public-relations initiatives touting “controlled use” of chrysotile, or white, asbestos, the only form of the fiber used today.
  • The industry campaign is helping create new epidemics of asbestos-related disease, according to public health experts. Among the countries that will be hit hardest: China, the world’s top consumer; and India, where use is growing at the rate of 30 percent annually.
  • Despite mounting scientific evidence of the risks of white asbestos and calls from health experts for a global ban, asbestos production is holding steady at about 2 million metric tons per year, with Russia producing nearly half of the world’s supply.
  • Each year, 100,000 workers die of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, according to the International Labor Organization. Some scientists predict that asbestos will take up to 10 million lives worldwide by 2030. The World Health Organization says that 125 million workers are still exposed to asbestos.
  • Canada remains a major exporter of asbestos, primarily to India, over the strong objections of health professionals, activists, and some politicians. Canada itself now uses little asbestos but its federal and provincial governments have subsidized the industry with C$35 million since 1984.

About this investigation

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For decades, asbestos was considered the “magic mineral” that helped Japan rise from the ashes after World War II. In 1974 alone, the country imported 350,000 metric tons of the fire-resistant fiber for use in residential and commercial buildings, ships, and factories.

For China, it seems, the worst is yet to come. Jukka Takala, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, says that the annual death toll from mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases in China may reach 15,000 by 2035.

Dangers in the Dust

A Growing Death Toll in Mexico

Asbestos casualties mount amid weak enforcement and a powerful lobby.

In the aptly named city of Asbest, in the Ural Mountains 900 miles (1500 km) northeast of Moscow, the dominance of Russia’s asbestos industry — the world’s largest — is on clear display.

Dangers in the Dust

The Brockovich of Brazil

Inching along at rush hour in her battered black Chevrolet Corsa, Fernanda Giannasi joked about the pariah status she’s attained with the Brazilian asbestos industry. “I have no name,” she said. “I’m just ‘That woman.’”

Every day, the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea bring misery to Alang, the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in western India’s Gujarat state. An estimated 55,000 workers, unmindful of the lethal effects of asbestos-laden material in the vessels, slave for long hours and, in the process, are exposed to deadly fibers.

Video of lnttx6fJGqw July 25, 2010, 3:00 pm Sarah Whitmire

April 25, 2012, 3:00 pm

The first sign of trouble came as Bill Rogers was mowing his lawn one morning in January 2007. “As I would go back and forth with the mower, I would run out of air,” says Rogers, 67.

Dangers in the Dust

Exporting an Epidemic

The human toll reaches millions as the asbestos industry expands worldwide.

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