Columbian Senate Debates Ban Asbestos Bill
On Tuesday, April 5, 2016 the Colombian Senate had its first debate on Bill 97 which seeks to introduce a comprehensive ban on the production, marketing, export, import and distribution of all forms of asbestos and products containing it.
The hearing began around 11 a.m. with a declaration by the Chairman of the Seventh Senate Commission that as it was an informal session, submissions would be accepted from representatives of stakeholding groups.
The first speaker was Jorge Hernán Estrada, representing Ascolfibras, a trade association that advocates the continued use of asbestos. Estrada made a rather confusing presentation citing WHO and ILO reports which he alleged supported the asbestos industrys position that asbestos could be used safely under controlled conditions.
The next speaker was the Mayor of Campamento, in the Department of Antioquia where Colombias main asbestos mine is located. The Mayor exhibited a document issued by the manager of the Campamento Hospital which stated that there were no medical records showing any asbestos-related diseases amongst patients. It is important to clarify this evidence by explaining that this hospital provides only basic primary care and does not have pulmonology departments, oncologists or physicians qualified in the diagnosis of such diseases.
Mr. Daniel Pineda, whose wife Ana Cecilia Nio has mesothelioma, presented a petition signed by 22,000 Colombians via the platform change.org calling for a national asbestos ban.
Subsequently, artist and campaigner Guillermo Villamizar, speaking on behalf of the foundation Free Colombia of Asbestos rebutted the arguments of the Ascolfibras representative highlighting the current positions of the WHO and IARC (The International Agency for Research on Cancer) which categorically agree that exposure to all types of asbestos can cause cancer and that there is no safe threshold of exposure.
Senator Nadia Blel (center) addressing the Commission.
Following these interventions, the Commissions formal session began. The first Senator to speak was Nadia Blel, rapporteur of the ban asbestos bill, who stated that there are statistics documenting an elevated incidence of unspecified lung diseases amongst residents in Campamento. She noted that while the asbestos sector is now manufacturing asbestos-free products for export, they continue to manufacture asbestos products for domestic use. After considerations in 2015 by government agencies of draft asbestos prohibitions, a four year phase-out period was proposed to give industry time to adopt asbestos-free technologies.
Former President of Colombia Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez, expressing concern about the fate of the town should a ban be introduced, highlighted the need for a just transition whereby the government would provide financial and practical support to help the town create new employment for residents.
Speaking on behalf of the Green Alliance Party, Dr. Jorge Ivan Ospina argued that considering that the right to life is an inalienable fundamental right, human health must take priority over commerce.
Leftist Senator Jesús Castilla of the Democratic Polo Party, stressed the need for guaranteed alternative employment to asbestos workers and the need to implement protocols to ensure the safe disposal of asbestos waste.
The next speaker was Liberal Senator Carlos Enrique Soto who discussed corporate occupational health measures to minimize hazardous exposures.
In her intervention, Senator Nadia Blel recommended that an open meeting be held so that industrial engineer Juan Pablo Ramos, who has undertaken environmental investigations of airborne asbestos levels experienced during the installation of automotive brake pads, be given the opportunity to present his findings to the Senate. His studies show that brake mechanics were exposed to extremely high levels of asbestos concentrations as a result of which they are at high risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases.
No final decisions were taken on Tuesday but the draft asbestos ban bill remains under consideration; a subcommittee has been tasked to further explore this legislation. It was disappointing that key members of the government did not participate or even attend the April 5 Senate hearing.
The Seventh Senate Commission is composed of 14 senators representing eight political parties. The Colombian political spectrum is fairly conservative and this initiative faces a tough challenge to win votes in the current political climate. Former President of Colombia Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez has three members of his party in the coalition, and although two of them support the ban bill, Mr. Alvaro Uribe Velez, has not yet indicated his position.
The bill, however, is being considered within a positive environment by the Senate committee and hopefully this will translate into support to enable it to overcome the obstacles it faces.
Asbestos victims are still waiting for their voices to be heard. In a debate dominated by Colombias powerful asbestos vested interests, the fact that there is no epidemiological data documenting the incidence of deadly asbestos diseases is used to good advantage by those supporting the status quo. The Government must actively engage with the injured to quantify the asbestos challenges and provide assistance to those people suffering. The Senate debate on April 5 is a sign that things may indeed change and that the voices of asbestos victims will finally be heard.
April 8, 2016