Asbestos: A threat that still exists in Latin America

Asbestos is a mineral resistant to heat and friction, easily malleable and excellent for insulation. These characteristics have led to its extensive use in products like tiles, pipes, medical containers, engines, cauldrons, among many others. However, for example in Europe, the use of asbestos was prohibited in May 4th, 1999, because it is a highly carcinogenic material. Despite this, most Latin American countries continue to use it.

Several institutions have confirmed that asbestos represents a threat to the health of people exposed to it, because it can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) estimates that asbestos has influence in 41.000 cases of lung cancer, and in 43.000 to 59.000 cases of mesothelioma. The World Health Organization (WHO) also confirms that diseases related to asbestos cause at least 107.000 deaths every year.

Nowadays, around 50 countries prohibit the use, fabrication, and trade of asbestos, but in Latin America, only Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Peru, Honduras, and Brazil belong to this group.

The first Latin-American country to ban this mineral was Chile in 2002. Few months later, Uruguay summed to the list. In 2003, the Argentinean Government also adopted a policy that forbids the production, importation, distribution, sale, and use of all types of asbestos and products that contain it.

By 2004, Honduras embraced a stance of prohibition except for thermal or electric insulators from electro-domestics, electrical equipment, and equipment for personal protection against fires. Then, Dominican Republic signed and ratified the Rotterdam Pact and automatically banned the element. In the past years, in 2014, Peru joined the group of Latin countries.

Brazil, on the other hand, banned the production and use of all kinds of asbestos until last year November, after a session of the Supreme Court. This decision came as unexpected, considering Brazil is producer and exporter of asbestos worldwide.

Eternit, the company who stands at the leading producer of asbestos in Brazil, affirmed in a statement that asbestos is starting to be substituted by other materials in the factories inside the country through a process that will end in December 2018. Moreover, it also stated that the production of one its subsidiaries will be redirected towards the market of other countries that still permit the use of this mineral, a course of action that could harm other Latin American countries.

Peru achieved appreciable progress in 2011 with the proclamation of a law that prohibits the use of amphibole asbestos and regulates chrysotile asbestos. However, there are still a considerable amount of limitations regarding this law that continues to put at risk people’s health; especially, the ones that have direct contact with this mineral due to its use still being considered legal in several industries and activities.

In Mexico, there are still plenty of companies that use asbestos exposing more than 8.000 employees to direct contact with the material. On top of this dangerous situation, and despite the modifications of 2011 regarding the Health Law that regulates the use of asbestos, Mexican authorities have declared that the pipe system for drinking water in Mexico City was constructed with this mineral almost 60 years ago and there are no plans for it to be replaced.

Colombia is one of the South American countries with more manifestations and campaigns against the use of asbestos. The movement that stands out among them is the one lead by Ana Cecilia Niño, who was diagnosed with lung cancer after her prolonged contact with the mineral, and that eventually passed away in January 2017.

Nowadays, there is a debate inside the Congress regarding a law initiative under the name of Ana Cecilia that prohibits the use of asbestos. Nevertheless, the former denial of 6 law projects about this subject lay out an unfavorable precedent.

Other countries have started working to eradicate or regulate the use of asbestos, but the specific context of each country will present challenges in the task of eliminating this threat.

LatinAmerican Post | Daniela Mata

Copy edited by Marcela Peñaloza


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