NEWS

Uncontrolled use in Greece over period of four decades

Over the past few decades Greece has ranked seventh in the world in asbestos mining and manufacturing. The first factory, ELLENIT in Nea Lampsako on the island of Evia, opened in 1961 and quickly became notorious for the health problems which befell its workers. ELLENIT closed in the early 1990s, and of its 250 workers, 200 have since died of cancer. Greece’s asbestos deposits are in Western Macedonia and Epirus. The largest deposit is located in Zidani in the prefecture of Kozani, where mining began in the 1970s. Asbestos was widely used during this decade, even though health officials abroad were questioning its use due to its toxicity and links to cancer. In the early 1970s, the US banned use of asbestos, but Greece continued to support the industry, and it flourished. Greece had four asbestos plants and a production capacity that reached 300,000 tons annually in 1995. On March 16, 1983 came the first rumblings against the controversial mineral form. The Union of Greek Chemists held an «Asbestos Trial» with the participation of the General Confederation of Greek Workers, modeled after a similar trial in Canada in July 1982. The chemists condemned asbestos, but Greece continued to use it. According to Spyros Drivas, secretary-general of the Greek Association of Labor and Environmental Medicine, the unbridled growth of asbestos products and their widespread use has exposed thousands of unsuspecting Greeks to it. «It is estimated that at least 100,000 people have been exposed to (asbestos) during the course of their work, since large numbers of workers were employed in workplaces where asbestos was present,» he said. «The low cost of producing it and its physical and chemical properties made it popular in more than 3,000 applications over the past four decades.» Asbestos harms people who inhale it. The most common victims include workers in asbestos mines that closed in the 1990s and in places where it is processed and transported. Other victims are construction workers or workers who handle asbestos tiles, insulation materials, and pipes covered in asbestos; those who repair brakes on older vehicles, electrical appliances such as old irons and hair dryers; and, to some extent, those who work with home repair materials. Because asbestos-related diseases have not been recorded, it is not known how many people have fallen ill because of it. The policy in Greece was to conceal the number of cases to avoid compensation claims. A bright spot in the asbestos dilemma is the recent establishment of a work-related diseases unit at a local hospital. «Cases of workers who become ill because of exposure to asbestos have doubled over the past six years and, unfortunately, we expect a further increase in the next few years,» said Michalis Pantentalakis, a pulmonary specialist and director of the Sismanogleio Hospital’s work-related diseases and tuberculosis unit, where 12 cases of asbestos-related diseases were recorded in 1997, rising to 31 in 2003 and 26 last year. Pantentalakis said the country needs to know exactly who has been exposed to asbestos fibers, particularly over the past 25 years, since these are the people who may now be developing symptoms. «Unfortunately, no official organization has looked into this,» Pantentalakis said. «There is no organized state service staffed by experts who know about asbestos, and there are no specialized clinics. I have a unit at the Sismanogleio. I am the director but I have nothing but four beds.» No safe limit According to the World Health Organization, humans should not be exposed to asbestos at all. When asbestos is broken up or worn down, it releases fibers that enter deep into the respiratory system, blocking the air passages. Even one or two fibers can remain in the lungs for life, causing permanent irritation that can lead to problems even 20 or 40 years later. Risk increases with the level exposure – how much and for how long it is inhaled. International research confirms a 10.4 percent rate of asbestosis after exposure lasting one to four years, 44.1 percent for 10-19 years,72.8 percent for 20-29 years and 94.2 percent when the exposure is longer than 40 years. Furthermore, smokers significantly hike their already-high risk of lung cancer if they breathe in asbestos fibers. Smokers exposed to asbestos are 90 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers. There is no evidence that asbestos fibers enter the digestive tract. That means water pipes, which have a large asbestos content, are not a risk factor.