Asbestos is the collective name for six different fibrous minerals (amosite, chrysotile, crocidolite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) that occur naturally in the environment.1 Asbestos is an odourless, solid substance that is neither combustible nor soluble in water.2 Common for the asbestos minerals is that they are heat resistant and have a high mechanic strength. These properties make them resistant to high temperatures, sound and heat insulating and highly tolerant to chemicals.3
Asbestos use is currently banned in more than 60 countries worldwide, including the EU. However, despite the well-documented adverse health effects of asbestos, it is still used in many countries.4 In 2017, the largest producers of asbestos were, in decreasing order, Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Brazil.5 In 2015, the countries importing the largest amounts were India, China and Indonesia.6
In Sweden, asbestos was banned in 1982. Prior to that, it had been used in a series of applications due to its valuable technical properties, such as fire protection, heat insulation, noise reduction, reinforcement and as friction material.7 Examples of asbestos-containing products include asbestos cement for ceilings and walls (eternit), additive in mortar and sealants, plastic, electric cables, carpet sublayers, insulation material and brake linings.8, 9 Even though asbestos has been banned for many years in Sweden, it is still present in products and buildings where it was used before the ban was introduced. There is therefore a risk of being exposed to asbestos in connection with demolition, repairs and maintenance.10, 11
Sources and transportation pathways
Asbestos is emitted to the atmosphere through both natural and anthropogenic sources. Natural sources include weathering of the bedrock and erosion of land where asbestos occurs.12 Asbestos fibres can also be released through human activity during mining, milling and processing of asbestos-containing materials as well as demolition and repair of buildings.13, 14 Also housefires can result in emissions of asbestos.15 Asbestos is classified as hazardous waste and because of its health hazardous effects, it is collected in landfills where it is stored to minimize the risk of further emissions.16
Effects on environment and health
Asbestos is classified as carcinogenic and may cause long-term damage on organs and the nervous system.17 Handling asbestos-containing materials can release microscopic fibres that can be airborne for several days. Humans are exposed to these fibres through the respiratory tract, and the smaller the fibres, the further down the respiratory tract they travel. The fibres’ effect on health are determined by the properties of the material, for instance type of asbestos mineral, the size of the fibres or particles and their persistence in contact with the body’s defence mechanisms. All types of asbestos may cause asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer in the lining of the lung or abdomen) and other diseases. Smoking together with asbestos exposure increases the health risk.18
International agreements and regulations
Asbestos is regulated by the EU directive on the Prevention and reduction of environmental pollution by asbestos (87/2017/EEC) and the EU Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU). The presence of asbestos in products is for example regulated by the EU REACH regulation (EC 1907/2006) and the EU regulation on Cosmetic products (EC 1223/2009). The EU also regulates the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work (2009/148/EC).
The UN Rotterdam Convention regulates international trade with asbestos and the UN Basel Convention regulates transboundary movements of hazardous waste containing asbestos. The UN Protocol on PRTRs and the EU E-PRTR regulation regulate how data on asbestos emissions is made available.