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Last updated: 21 july, 2010 - 04:00 GMT

Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade

Many families in Kali blame the broken asbestos for skin irritations their children suffer

Many families blame asbestos for skin irritations their children suffer

Some experts warn that by 2030 asbestos could be linked to millions of deaths.

Yet, despite an international outcry, its use continues across much of the world.

The industry says it now uses only a less hazardous form of the mineral called white asbestos or chrysotile, which can be safely controlled and that lives lost should be blamed on varieties now banned .

Many scientists however, insist all forms of asbestos may cause cancer, and continuing exports could seriously prolong the epidemic.

In an exclusive worldwide investigation, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reveal the truth about asbestos use across four continents.

The investigation shows that a global network of industry groups has spent millions of dollars in public and private money since the mid-1980s to keep asbestos in commerce internationally.

Dangers in the Dust is being rolled out in a series of stories across the BBC's international services, and through ICIJ’s partner publications worldwide.

Listen again to BBC World Service programming:

Dangers in the Dust

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Canada mines and exports white asbestos or chrysotile to developing countries such as India.

The industry says that white asbestos can be used safely.

But a scientific controversy rages around the continued use of white asbestos, and the World Health Organisation says the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer and asbestosis, is to stop using all types of asbestos.

Russia: world's biggest producer

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While the EU has banned all asbestos and the United States has banned many asbestos products, other countries continue to produce and manufacture large quantities of the mineral.

The world's biggest producer is Russia.

It mines more than a million tonnes of Asbestos a year and exports large quantities of it.

Russian scientists say the EU ban is unnecessary, and a world wide ban would be a direct attack on Russian industry and jobs.

They point out the industry now mines only White Asbestos or Chrysotile which they say can be safely handled - unlike banned types of asbestos which have caused deaths.

From Moscow Rupert Wingfield Hayes reports.

Opposing sides

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The global asbestos industry earns billions of dollars and employs millions of people. It makes materials which perform a great job in buildings, in pipework and in vehicles.

But according to a panel of scientists, which reported to the World Health Organisation, all forms of it are "carcinogenic to humans".

Even though it is banned or restricted in more than 50 countries, white asbestos is widely used in many developing nations, according to "Dangers in the Dust", a joint report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC.

Asbestos surveyor Toby Hurst describes the basic qualities and the risks of white asbestos.

And the BBC's Shilpa Kannan talks to poor families in Delhi who depend on it to provide the shelter of a fire-proof roof.

Plus, Lesley Curwen interviews Dr. Guilherme Netto, the director of Brazil's environmental and occupational health department at the federal Ministry of Health. He explains that the federal government is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to impose a nationwide ban on asbestos.

India's $850m asbestos industry

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The use of white asbestos has been banned - or is subject to stringent restrictions in more than 50 countries - amid fears that it is too dangerous to public health. But in many parts of the developing world, its use is growing.

Lauded for its cheap and durable qualities, white asbestos is a popular product in places like India, where there is a strong demand for affordable housing.

One Planet comes from Ahmedabad in western India, a city where asbestos is commonplace.

Presenter Mike Williams visits a shanty town made of broken bits of asbestos sheeting, and meets the factory workers suffering breathing problems.

He hears state government officials boast there is no asbestos in the region, before changing their mind, and he tries to speak with the boss of one of the city's biggest asbestos product manufacturers.

Suffering with mesothelioma

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Steve Lee is living with the incurable cancer, mesothelioma. It is caused by exposure to asbestos. Despite his illness, Steve has continued to run and he has lived for longer than his doctors expected.

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Professor Julian Peto, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, tells Claudia Hammond how it was discovered that asbestos is so dangerous to health. He explains why currently the UK has more deaths from asbestos-related diseases than any other country.

Asbestos: the first cases

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In the early 20th Century, Turner Brothers Asbestos was the largest asbestos producer in the world.

It owned mines in Canada and southern Africa, as well as factories in the north of England which processed the mineral into a spun yarn.

The company boasted that 'new uses for asbestos are constantly being discovered, the industry may be regarded as having touched only the fringe of its immense possibilities.'

Then, in 1924, an asbestos spinner named Nellie Kershaw died and things began to change.

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