We need to learn the lessons from asbestos

The story of asbestos is a warning of worse to come. Industry enthusiastically embraced asbestos after World War II. It was cheap and plentiful. It was easy to use and ideal for insulating things or making them more flexible. Despite warning signs, no one stopped to consider its impact on the environment or on human beings. Its effect on people who manufactured asbestos products was brushed aside because they had unusually high levels of exposure to it.

Now that the full risks of exposure to asbestos are understood, countries in the developed world have legislated to protect people from exposure to it. However, it is so widespread that it continues to pose a danger to many people. And in the developing world there are still far fewer safeguards and asbestos continues to be used.

The next big problem

Andrew Smith, a scientist working for the Health and Safety Executive, told The Observer, ‘Industry is always going to be wary of anything that looks like asbestos. The last thing they want to do is to be accused of creating the next big problem.’ [1]

But ecotoxicologist Paola Movali, who studies the impact of chemicals on the environment, says, ‘Around 350,000 substances [are being] marketed worldwide. Of these only 500 are well characterised for their exposure.’ [1] In other words, we are using chemicals in our homes and factories, on the land or even on our own bodies, without knowing whether they will harm us or the world around us. Some of them are impossible to remove.

The warning from asbestos

The story of asbestos is a warning. If we use things without first considering the effect they might have on us and our environment, we do so at our peril!

[1] You can read the Observer article here.

Picture ‘Storm cloud’ © Neil Bishop