Asbestos has become a dirty word to environmentalists and health advocates throughout the Western world. That doesn't bode well for the future of at least one Russian city Asbest, a small metropolis in the Sverdlovsk Oblast named after its one and only industry.
That's why Sverdlovsk Gov. Eduard Rossel has sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking for his support for the beleaguered sector, particularly in the face of a European Union ruling to ban asbestos products from Jan. 1, 2005.
Asbestos, once widely used in construction and industry throughout the world, fell out of favor when it became accepted in the 1960s that the fibers, when inhaled in high volumes, could cause death and permanent disability. Russian proponents say the type used here, chrysotile, or white asbestos, is perfectly safe and should be allowed in all types of industry.
In 1991, the EU banned the use of all types of asbestos except chrysotile. White asbestos was exempted until safer substitutes were found, which EU officials say is now the case.
"A full ban on asbestos, including chrysotile, has been adopted," Ingeborg Gaspard, an EU spokesman, told The Russia Journal from Brussels. "This decision has been adopted precisely because the EU believes that chrysotile asbestos in buildings, automobiles and other industries can cause diseases."
He cited an EU report that said that "all forms" of asbestos are proven carcinogens. "They can cause asbestosis [serious scarring of the lung], lung cancer and mesothelioma [cancer of the lining of the lung]," the report said. "In the case of white asbestos, which is now used in asbestos cement products, it has taken more time to develop suitable substitutes that are less dangerous to human health."
While Sverdlovsk regional authorities would not disclose the exact contents of Rossel's letter to Putin, they said it includes a request for state support of the industry in its fight against world-wide "asbestophobia."
Nowhere is the need for help felt more than in Asbest, home to the massive Uralasbest company, the center of the Russian asbestos industry and the world's largest asbestos extraction facility. It employs 9,700 in the mountainous city of about 100,000. The city was founded in the 1920s solely as a manufacturing base for the material.
Tamara Pozhidaeva, head of the Ministry of Health's Sanitary Epidemiological Inspection Department, said that white asbestos fibers do not contain any carcinogens and are not harmful in normal usage. Russian experts say that, as opposed to the hazardous amphibole type of asbestos fibers, white asbestos fibers do not hang in the air, and the human immune system can quickly eliminate them if inhaled.
Industry officials said studies have provided evidence of the mineral's safety.
"Today's asbestos industry, with all its modern protection techniques, is absolutely harmless," said Tatiana Kochetova of the Asbest-based Institute Asbestos Project, a state-run scientific organization that studies the asbestos mineral. "There hasn't been one case of asbestos-caused disease for many years in Asbest which has the world's largest asbestos factory. Locally produced asbestos does not cause any harm."
Yevgeny Yanin, a specialist from Institute of Mineralogy and Geochemistry of Rare Elements, backed that view, adding that asbestos occurs all over the planet in its natural state. "The fibers are released from crumbled rocks, carried by the wind. Thus, an average human inhales more than 10,000 fibers a day," he added.
Meanwhile, the Institute Asbestos' Kochetova accused chemical industry giants of pushing the worldwide anti-asbestos movement for their own gains.
"Germany and France have a developed chemical industry," she said. "Huge players in the market in these countries have fueled anti-asbestos public opinion in order to substitute their artificially produced fiber for natural asbestos."
She said that the artificially produced variety cannot match the qualities of the natural. "It is used in the manufacture of roofing slate, piping and conduits as a component of asbestos cement, in the textile industry for producing fireproof clothing, heat insulation, wiring, in the automobile industry for brake linings," said Kochetova. "There is no material that has the same important qualities of noncombustibility, flexibility, rot-resistance and low price."
Totally dry up'
Valery Ushakov, vice director of the Uralasbest factory, said in a telephone interview from Asbest that the EU action could sound the death knell for the Russian industry. "The ban on the use of asbestos in the EU is harmful to the Russian asbestos industry," he said. "If the EU does ban the product in Europe, the action is likely to spread 'asbestophobia' to other parts of the world, and our export markets will totally dry up."
"The EU ban doesn't only affect the European Union," he added. "The EU gives credits to developing countries on the condition that they do not use asbestos in their industrial processes."
"We're doing everything to protect our industry. We've initiated active penetration into the Asian market. This area is important to us Southeast Asia is the main destination for our exports."
The world production of asbestos is estimated at about 2 million tons a year, worth about $900 million. This year, Uralasbest is forecasting production of about 450,000 tons, giving it a significant portion of the world market. Russia also has smaller asbestos plants in the Tuva and Orenburg regions.
In 1999, Uralasbest's net profit was 133 million rubles ($4.75 million), officials said, while 1999 sales reached 1.46 billion rubles.
"Unfortunately, our exports are declining due a worldwide oversupply of asbestos," said Ushakov. "In 2000, Uralasbest expects to export around 130,000 tons down from about 151,500 tons in 1998."
After the 1998 financial crisis, the asbestos industry, like many other Russian export-orientated industries, became more profitable as ruble devaluation made its products less expensive than foreign goods. Uralasbest officials said the company recorded its first profit in 1998 since its privatization in 1993 and was able to pay off much of its debt to the Russian pension fund, although they would not give specific details. Officials said the company is a public company owned by workers and several commercial firms.
"We managed to overcome the most dangerous and unprofitable times because of increasing of our export revenues," said Ushakov. "Now, the foreign market for asbestos is deteriorating. We have expanded production somewhat, but it's only because the Russian building industry [is expanding]."
He said he supported Rossel's move to enlist Putin's help for the industry.
"We need state support to survive in this situation," he said. "The Canadian government, for instance, backs its asbestos industry all the way. The governor of the Sverdlovsk region, where our factory is located, did his best to draw attention to the need for state support for the asbestos industry."
Oleg Sigayev, who supervises the Urals region for the Presidential Administration in Moscow, confirmed that Putin had received a letter and had responded, but he would not disclose the president's response. He refused to make any further comment on the asbestos issue.