Asbestos Use on the Decline around the World

There was a time when asbestos was commonly used in fiber cement products as a binder that served to strengthen the cement.  Hardie Fibrolite was the first major fiber cement product to hit the market, quickly gaining popularity in the 1950s as an alternative to increasingly expensive timber and brick materials.  Since then, fiber cement siding, roofing, and other products (like fencing) have become widely used in many parts of the world, with overall demand for fiber cement totaling $10 billion in 2018, according to data from The Freedonia Group. 

However, while fiber cement’s worldwide popularity hasn’t diminished, the same can’t be said for asbestos.

Asbestos Has Fallen out of Favor in Many Countries…

In the 1980s, concerns about the serious health issues caused by exposure to asbestos – such as lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other chronic conditions – as well as the rising threat of related lawsuits led to the phasing out of asbestos-based fiber cement products in the US and Australia. Since then, governments around the world have taken steps to combat its use.  For example:

  • Over 60 countries – including the 28 member states of the EU – have outlawed the mining and/or use of asbestos.
  • In June 2011, China banned the use of asbestos in siding and wall construction materials.
  • In 2017, Brazil – previously one of the top asbestos producers in the world – banned the production distribution, and use of asbestos.

As a result, most fiber cement manufacturers have replaced the asbestos in their products with cellulose or other fibers. For instance, market leader James Hardie’s products became 100 percent asbestos-free in 1987.  Another leader, Etex, banned asbestos from its manufacturing processes over a decade ago.  Siam Cement and Mahaphant have also ceased their use in asbestos in fiber cement roof tile. 

…But Remains Popular in Others

However, there are certain applications in some countries for which asbestos remains a popular raw material choice.  One example of this is in India, where there is a large market for asbestos cement roofing sheet and pressure pipe. 

Other sizable markets for asbestos-based products include China and other, less developed parts of Asia, as well as Russia and other Eastern European countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

An Asbestos Comeback in the United States?

Curiously, while most countries are strengthening restrictions on asbestos, the United States may be moving in the opposite direction. In July 2018, the Environmental Production Agency (EPA) under President Donald Trump announced that it would be not banning new asbestos products outright on public health grounds.

This is not entirely surprising. In the past, Trump has referred to asbestos as "100 percent safe," and has even remarked that “the World Trade Center would never have burned down” had the asbestos inside its walls not been removed.  However, it should be noted that no asbestos is currently used in fiber cement production in the US.

Still, Asbestos Alternatives to Remain in Control

Overall, the use of asbestos in fiber cement has declined over the past decade, and should continue to do so going forward (offset somewhat by growth in countries like India, where use of the material is legal and demand will be strong).

Even if the rules surrounding asbestos use are loosened in developed countries like the US, it’s unlikely to have much impact. The cellulosic fibers that can be used as a replacement are effective, widely available, and don’t add substantially to the overall cost of manufacturing fiber cement product, meaning that there is little reason for most major fiber cement manufacturers to switch back. 

To Learn More

For more information about the global fiber cement market, check out Global Fiber Cement, 3rd edition, a new study from the Freedonia Group.

About the Author:

Nick Cunningham