Russia, the world's leading producer of asbestos, protested on Wednesday as an international forum in Moscow urged a global ban on the use of the material because of health risks.
"It's just a PR campaign when they say that asbestos can kill," said Viktor Ivanov, head of the Chrysotile Association, an industry group based in the Russian town of Asbestos in the Ural mountains region.
Yevgeny Kovalevsky, a forum delegate from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "For the general population, there aren't significant risks... I haven't seen a single scientific study that shows the need for a ban."
But international public health experts at the first World Social Security Forum in the Russian capital on Wednesday urged a global ban, saying that up to 100,000 people die every year of asbestos-related diseases.
"Asbestos is the source of a major humanitarian crisis on a global scale," said Annie Leprince, a medical expert from the National Research and Safety Institute in France, who was the main speaker at the forum.
Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, head of the International Social Security Association (ISSA), also warned of the economic costs of asbestos-related diseases. "The impact is simply so devastating," Konkolewsky said.
Asbestos, which is prized for its fire-resistant properties, is a naturally occurring mineral that has been widely used in construction and engineering for more than a century.
Russia accounts for by far the largest share, around 40 percent, of world asbestos production. Other major producers include Brazil, Canada, China and Kazakhstan.
Forty countries, including the entire European Union, have banned asbestos.
"There is a clear scientific consensus internationally that asbestos, in all its forms, and even at low doses, is a proven human carcinogen," ISSA said in a damning report last year.
The report warned that "while asbestos may still be seen as a 'miracle mineral,' it is above all a time bomb and the moment has now come to ban it once and for all."
Russian experts played down the risks of chrysotile, a type of asbestos produced in Russia, and warned that up to 500,000 workers in the country could lose their jobs as a result of a global ban.
Commenting on the EU ban on asbestos use imposed in 2005, Ivanov said: "European countries can afford more expensive construction materials but poor countries can't. Millions of people still don't have a roof over their heads."
For Alexei Kiselyov, head of the toxic substances programme at Greenpeace in Moscow, the main problem in Russia is that there is insufficient monitoring and research on the potential health risks of asbestos.
"It's difficult to judge the dangers in Russia because the monitoring doesn't work in practice. I don't remember any research that analysed the effects of asbestos," Kiselyov said.
But some Russian construction companies are already taking their cue from Europe and are banning asbestos use, even though the substance is still widely present in older Soviet-era buildings, he added.
Ultimately, he continued, Russia's opposition to a ban "is about business."