Asbestos as an example for the long duration for a fight for the prohibition of a dangerous industrial activity

Nowadays it is known that asbestos is the main cause of mesothelioma, a disease with a very long incubation time, which once it manifests is normally fatal within one year. Health experts estimate that in the European Union (EU) alone, some 250,000 – 400,000 deaths from mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis will occur over the next 35 years, as a consequence of exposure to asbestos in the past.

Mining for asbestos began in 1879. At that time science was not aware of the dangers of asbestos. The annual production of asbestos worldwide grew to 2 million tonnes in 1998. Imports to the EU peaked in the mid 1970s and remained above 800,000 tonnes a year until 1980, falling to 100,000 tonnes in 1993. There is a delay of 50 to 60 years between the peak in import of asbestos and the peak in occurrence of mesothelioma in a country.

Early warnings and actions are summarized in the following timeline:

1898 UK Factory Inspector Lucy Deane warns of harmful and ‘evil’ effects of asbestos dust

1906 French factory report of 50 deaths in female asbestos textile workers and recommendation for controls 1911 ‘Reasonable grounds’ for suspicion, from experiments on rats, that asbestos dust is harmful 1911 and 1917 UK Factory Department finds insufficient evidence to justify further actions

1930 UK ‘Merewether Report’ finds 66 % of long-term workers in Rochdale factory with asbestosis

1931 UK Asbestos Regulations specify dust control in manufacturing only and compensation for asbestosis, but this is poorly implemented

1935–1949 Lung cancer cases reported in asbestos manufacturing workers

1955 Research by Richard Doll ( UK) establishes high lung cancer risk in Rochdale asbestos workers

1959–1964 Mesothelioma cancer identified in workers, neighborhood ‘bystanders’ and the public in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, amongst others

1998–1999 EU and France ban all forms of asbestos

2000–2001 WTO upholds EU/French bans against Canadian appeal