Making the European Region free of asbestos-related diseases

WHO

Participants at a meeting on asbestos elimination in Bonn, Germany, on 10-11 June 2014

Asbestos is one of the most severe and widespread environmental health hazards in the WHO European Region, and is responsible for half of fatal cancers linked to exposure at work. To discuss activities to put an end to asbestos-related diseases, representatives from 16 Member States in the WHO European Region and experts in occupational health and cancer registries met in Bonn, Germany, on 10–11 June 2014.

They evaluated progress made since the 2010 Parma Declaration and emphasized the need for WHO support to develop national programmes on asbestos elimination. The Parma Declaration commits governments in the European Region to take action on a range of environmental issues affecting health. This includes commitments to act on the identified risks of exposure to carcinogens, including asbestos, and to develop national programmes for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases by 2015, in collaboration with WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).  

Asbestos: a silent killer

More than 107 000 people worldwide die every year from asbestos exposure at work. This insidious killer generates fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis several decades after exposure.

In the European Region 37 countries have banned the use of all forms of asbestos, following WHO and ILO recommendations. Nevertheless, an estimated 300 million people are still exposed to asbestos at work, as well as out of work. In some countries asbestos is still produced, traded and used.

The most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all forms of asbestos because:

  • there is no safe level of asbestos exposure
  • cancer risks are increased even with very low-level exposures
  • all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans
  • asbestos can be substituted with safer materials.

Asbestos-free zone – the way forward

During the meeting participants highlighted the need to establish proper national registers on occupational diseases and on cancers, in order to:

  • assess national situations
  • promote action and take appropriate measures
  • raise awareness on the issues among policy-makers and the general population.

Training for health care practitioners in detecting and reporting asbestos-related diseases should be introduced or strengthened to track the link between exposure and disease and to gather proper data.

Issues related to asbestos removal were also discussed; this led Member States to ask for support to develop waste management strategies and to identify asbestos substitutes.

The meeting was hosted by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health and co-financed by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB).