Review: British Asbestos Newsletter Spring 2016 

by Jock McCulloch, RMIT University,
Melbourne, Australia



The 100th Issue of the British Asbestos Newsletter, which has become a feature of the global campaign to end the use of asbestos, has just been published. The Commemorative Edition is representative of the breadth of asbestos politics. There are articles on developments in the treatment and nursing of mesothelioma patients, Parliamentary initiatives to achieve just compensation, the histories of social movements such as The Forum and SPAID, legal initiatives in Scotland, the continuing threat posed by asbestos in schools, the on-going struggles to have asbestos banned under the Rotterdam Convention, estimates of the future toll of asbestos deaths, and the industry use of art to promote its products. There are stories of individuals, social movements and regional communities.

It is difficult to date the origins of the struggle against asbestos since it has been fought globally for more than fifty years on many fronts in so many national settings. The Asbestos wars have been unusual as they have been a forum in which lying by corporations, regulatory authorities, medical specialists and research scientists has been common.

Access to information has been the key to the continued use of chrysotile and from the 1930s the industry in the US, the UK and elsewhere sought to capture and re-frame knowledge of risk using a variety of techniques. The industry suppressed or hid evidence of a hazard initially among miners and factory workers and later among those with bystander exposure. It has manufactured doubt by falsely claiming there has been insufficient evidence to justify a ban and finally it has systematically corrupted the relevant science. Like big tobacco, the asbestos industry has fought ruthlessly to keep its products in the market place despite overwhelming evidence of the damage to public health. Like tobacco, the asbestos industry has been successful in shifting its costs onto individuals, publics and states. If all the externalised health, economic and social costs of asbestos mining and manufacture generated by Johns Manville, James Hardie, Turner & Newall, Eternit and Cape Plc were included in their balance sheets, those companies would have made little or no profit.

No industry has been more polarising than asbestos. It has seen senior executives fail to act on knowledge of risk, company doctors ignore injuries to employees, scientists produce false data for financial gain or to further their careers, regulatory authorities side with employers, insurance companies refuse to honour policies, courts favour the powerful, and journalists believe the lies they have been told. On the other side are company doctors who have stood up bravely for their patients and lost their careers, state officials who have fought hard to reduce risk in the workplace, lawyers who at great personal cost have taken on cases which they had little hope of winning, and journalists who have exposed the mendacity of senior management and the failure of state authorities to regulate a hazardous industry. The one constant has been the heroism of individuals, community activitists and trade unionists in confronting powerful corporations. For twenty years the Newsletter has provided those actors with a forum.

We know that by 1956 the three principal asbestos diseases had been identified and were well understood by the major mining and manufacturing companies in the US, the UK and Western Europe. Today, more than sixty years later, around two million tons of chrysotile will be mined and consumed in the developing world. In the OECD states, while large numbers of men and women exposed before the banning of the magic mineral, will die from asbestos induced disease. So what has the BAN achieved? The Newsletter has been an important forum for discussion and a reliable source of information for social movements, carers, medical researchers, lawyers, journalists, health professionals, historians, and trade unionists. Importantly, it has also helped to bring together the disparate groups which make up the ban asbestos front

There are two ways to view the current use of asbestos. The first is frustration that a global ban still has not been achieved. The alternative is to acknowledge that without the hard work and courage of small groups who have been so well represented by BAN, asbestos would no doubt still be sold in OECD states. For this reason alone, it is time to celebrate the Commemorative Edition of the British Asbestos Newsletter.

July 9 2016



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