Evidence shows banning asbestos has no negative economic impact

WHO

Sound scientific evidence shows that any exposure to asbestos fibres poses significant health risks. Despite this, the mineral continues to be present, as well as extensively used and traded, both globally and in the WHO European Region. According to WHO recommendations, the most effective way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is through a ban on the use, production and trade of all forms of the substance.

Some countries, however, have struggled to develop strong policies on asbestos, such as bans, due to the assumed negative economic impact of such measures. This underscores the importance of assessing the actual economic dimension of the burden of diseases to better promote more efficient and effective policies on the environment and health.

Substantial progress has been made in terms of available methodologies, tools and applications for economic assessment at the global, regional and national level. In the case of asbestos-related diseases, the large costs of the health impact of asbestos have been documented in several different countries. But these economic assessments need to be taken further, to develop the available tools and to strengthen capacities in countries to conduct analysis of the economic dimension and societal costs and/or benefits of banning asbestos.

To help meet this need, WHO and the economic consulting company NERA conducted an assessment of the economic costs to society of asbestos production and use. The findings were published in a report, launched in 2017. It aims to provide country-level decision-makers with the relevant evidence needed to justify policies that enable a shift towards safe asbestos substitutes and that prevent occupational and environmental exposure to asbestos.

Key report findings

The global asbestos industry is shrinking as countries increasingly move away from reliance on asbestos, and country-level data show no negative economic impact from asbestos bans or declines in asbestos production or use. This analysis suggests that countries currently consuming and/or producing asbestos – in quantities similar to countries that have already banned asbestos – would not experience an observable effect on gross domestic product from a ban on or decline in asbestos consumption and/or production.

The report emphasizes that, whereas the shift away from asbestos has not had an observable persistent negative economic impact, the continued use of asbestos carries substantial costs related to health, remediation and litigation. For example, the annual global health-care costs associated with the health effects of asbestos are estimated to be US$ 2.4–3.9 billion, excluding the additional costs of pain, suffering and welfare losses. In the United States alone, asbestos litigation costs have been estimated at another US$ 2.3 billion per year.

A summary of the key methods and findings of this report was recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in the special issue “Global panorama of national experiences in public health actions to ban asbestos".