Foreign Policy News Stories
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
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
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
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
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,