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U.S. Exports Death: The Third World Asbestos Industry

SYNOPSIS: Much attention has been focused recently on the health hazards of asbestos, particularly with its use in school classroom ceilings and in hair dryers. That health danger, however, is not as great as the danger posed to persons who work in asbestos plants.

Research indicates that people who work in asbestos plants and inhale the fibers run a significantly higher risk of contracting lung cancer (20 times higher than for people who smoke). Other ailments include the respiratory disease asbestosis and mesothelioma. There also is a 300 to 400 percent increase in gastrointestinal cancer due to the fact that those who inhale the fibers also swallow them.

The situation is all the more tragic in light of the fact that the asbestos industry has been aware of the deadliness of their product since the 1930s and has done nothing about it. Finally, in the late 1960s, the U.S. government began regulating the asbestos industry.
What the American public does not know is that the asbestos manufacturers responded to the new regulations by simply moving their factories to Third World nations such as Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea, India, and Brazil where the regulations were either minimal or nonexistent. Additionally, the corporate profits in these locations were even higher because of the lower wages.

The working conditions in these foreign plants are horrendous. Investigations of asbestos manufacturing plants such as Amatax, which has plants just across the border from El Paso, Texas, and Douglas, Arizona, found the air in the factories thick with asbestos fibers and large clumps of the material clinging to nearby bushes and fences where children play. The penchant young children have for putting things in their mouths makes the situation there all the more frightening.


UPDATE: By the 1980s, corporate America finally acknowledged the tragic hazards of asbestos. Major asbestos producers gave up the business either by choice or by bankruptcy; the largest to quit included U.S. Gypsum, Manville Corp., and UNR Industries Inc. of Chicago. The demise of the industry was hastened by a series of EPA orders starting in 1982 and climaxing in 1989 with the Asbestos Ban & Phaseout Rule, which provides for the elimination of 94 percent of all asbestos used in the U.S. by 1997 (Chicago Tribune, 4/30/96).

But, as reported by The National Journal (6/23/84), seven years after our Censored story, multinational corporations were still exporting some of their dirty industries, like asbestos, to Third World countries with weak environmental regulations. Eleven years later, the Mining Annual Review (July 1995) updated this continuing trend by reporting a "dramatic upturn in fortunes" for the asbestos industry, now found mostly in developing countries including Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Siberia, and Greece.

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