From wonder mineral to hazardous legacy
Asbestos is a natural substance which - as a "mineral with a thousand possibilities" - has been used in industrial and consumer-proximate areas for over 100 years. Yet asbestos poses considerable risks to health.
Between 1950 and 1990, around 4.4 million tonnes of asbestos were used in the former West Germany. In the last 100 years, asbestos has been used in the manufacturing of more than 3,500 different products. Asbestos is still mined today in the states of the Russian Federation, in China, in Kazakhstan, in Brazil and in Zimbabwe. These countries account for around 96 percent of world production. At least until the early 1990s, asbestos products were ubiquitous in Germany wherever high temperatures were present. Asbestos was used widely in high temperature insulation systems and gaskets, fire safety installations, brake and clutch discs, and protective clothing and gloves. In addition, around 900 million m² of roofs containing asbestos cement with a lifespan of 40 to 50 years were used in buildings in West Germany. Around 10 million tonnes of asbestos cement products were also used in the former GDR.
The health risks posed by asbestos – with workers being the most exposed group – first became known in the early 20th century. Lung cancer in connection with asbestosis has been officially recognised as an occupational disease in Germany since 1942. The reasons for the carcinogenic characteristics of asbestos remained unclear for a long time, however. In 1972, the scientists Pott and Stanton published their hypothesis that fibres which were sufficiently long, thin and biologically resistant could have a carcinogenic effect. The fibre hypothesis has since been substantiated by numerous results from animal testing and is now internationally recognised. Other biopersistent fibres can also be carcinogenic.
The risks at the workplace posed by asbestos were recognised far too late. It was only in 1972 that the first protective regulations were agreed. Over the following years, these regulations led to a large fall in the levels of workplace exposure to asbestos. The precautionary measures were not, however, sufficient for ensuring the health and safety of workers. In 1993, the finding that it is not possible to guarantee the "controlled handling" of asbestos products during their lifetime led to a complete ban on the manufacturing, marketing and use of asbestos products in Germany. In 2005, the European Union also decided to bring the use of asbestos to a complete end.
The average latency period between exposure to asbestos and the development of cancer is over 30 years. This means that the consequences of the insufficient occupational safety of the past are only becoming clear today. It is also the case that the use of asbestos increased in Germany on a continuous basis until the mid-1970s. In 2012, according to the National Asbestos Profile for Germany, more than 1,500 people in Germany died from an occupational disease related to asbestos exposure. In total, between 1994 and 2012, over 26,000 people died premature deaths due to asbestos exposure. Conservative estimates by the European Commission suggest that there are around 8,000 premature deaths in the EU due to asbestos exposure per year, while the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva estimates an annual worldwide figure of 100,000 asbestos-related deaths per year.
At present, there remain over 35 million tonnes of materials containing asbestos in buildings, mostly in the form of asbestos cement. Asbestos fibres and dust can be released during the demolition of, or reconstruction and maintenance work on, buildings. From 2001 to date, some four million tonnes of waste materials containing asbestos have been processed. At the end of 2012, almost 89,000 workers were still being exposed to asbestos products in Germany.
Already in 1982, the predecessor institution of the Federal Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) published a catalogue of asbestos substitute products. The German Federation of Institutions for Statutory Accident Insurance and Prevention (HVBG) also published a detailed catalogue of asbestos substitute products (in German: Asbestersatzstoff-Katalog - Erhebung über im Handel verfügbare Substitute für Asbest und asbesthaltige Produkte, HVBG, 1985). This supported the innovative efforts of industry with the search for harmless substitute products and materials. In the late 1980s, the world of industry considered a total ban on asbestos to be very damaging and only possible from the year 2000 onwards. Despite this opposition, however, the phase-out went ahead in 1990 and the total ban came into effect in Germany in 1993. The negative impact on the economy that had initially been feared, by the cement industry for example, proved unfounded.
In fact, the opposite was the case - the leading role taken by Germany enabled the manufacturers of asbestos substitutes to gain an early international competitive edge. A particular area of progress in recent years has been the targeted development of biosoluble fibres by companies in the German mineral wool industry, which has addressed the root cause of the cancers caused by airborne fibres.