Asbestos kills more people per year than excessive sun exposure, yet it receives much less attention. Tom Douglas (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics) explains why asbestos is still a serious public health threat and what steps should be undertaken to reduce this threat. And yes, the snow in The Wizard of Oz was asbestos!
Written by Tom Douglas
Headlines such as these occur with monotonous regularity. Widespread asbestos use throughout much of the 20th century has ensured that the next contamination scandal is never far off, and asbestos-related legal decisions and personal tragedies often make the news as well. But despite the ongoing media attention, asbestos has not captured the public imagination as a public health threat, at least, not in comparison to other comparable threats like excessive sun exposure and drink driving.
Asbestos is a versatile fibrous mineral that can be cheaply mined and has unusual fire resistance and durability. Its use exploded in the twentieth century, when it was included in such diverse products as automobile brake linings, pipe insulation, ceiling and floor tiles, textured paints, concrete, mattresses, electric blankets, heaters, ironing boards and even piano felts. There is no safe threshold for exposure to asbestos dust, with even single exposures having been linked to cancer. Rates of asbestos-related cancer have recently been on the rise in Europe and Japan and look set to climb in many developing countries where asbestos is still being widely used, often without safety precautions. According to WHO estimates, asbestos now causes more deaths globally than excessive sun exposure. In the UK it is estimated to cause almost three times as many deaths as road traffic accidents.