Addressing Spains Asbestos Legacy 2021
A proposal by Basque parliamentarians, which was approved almost unanimously on April 13, 2021 by the Spanish Parliament, will establish a national asbestos compensation fund. Addressing Parliament last week, Maitane Ipiñaraz, deputy of the Basque Nationalist Party, highlighted the ubiquity of asbestos-containing material throughout the country, saying that this contamination had caused a real public health problem, which demanded a comprehensive response with protocols to prevent exposure, monitor health and make restitution to victims. It is no coincidence that the impetus for this legislation came from Basque Parliamentarians. Amongst the 20 Spanish cities with the highest excesses of pleural cancer mortality, nine (45%) are situated in the Basque Country, home to less than 5% of Spains population.1
The government scheme which will be funded by contributions from public and private employers and mutual insurance companies for accidents at work and occupational diseases2 will be modelled on similar ones in France, the Netherlands and Belgium, and will award compensation to the injured for the States failure to take timely and appropriate action on the asbestos hazard. Government critics allege that had Spain banned the use of asbestos before 2002, tens of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. While no apology has been forthcoming, the official recognition of the diseases incurred by asbestos victims is seen as a tacit admission by the Government of the wrong that had been done.3
Spains most infamous manufacturer of asbestos building products was Uralite. For decades, Uralite workers and people living near Uralite factories have suffered from a variety of asbestos-related diseases and cancers due to exposures to Uralite asbestos. Efforts to obtain official recognition of their diseases has been beset by a hostile legal climate, administrative obstacles and the intransigence of commercial as well as government defendants. The fact that the Spanish TV company RTVE refused to recognize as occupationally-caused, the asbestos cancer death of one of the countrys most famous broadcasters José María Íñigo was indicative of the lengths to which most employers were willing to go to prevent claims from succeeding.4
The widespread and unrecorded use of 2.5 million tonnes of asbestos5 in Spain has, say medical experts, created a public health emergency. Epidemiologists have predicted that by 2050, there could be a further 52,000 asbestos-related deaths in Spain if steps are not taken to prevent toxic exposures. The situation in Galicia, an autonomous community in Spains northwest corner, is typical. According to the Galician Association of Asbestos Victims, more than 30,000 workers in Galicia have contracted asbestos-related diseases.6 Confirming the seriousness of the situation, Pulmonologist Carmen Diego said: In Galicia, for example, we have a lot of Uralita; in this sense it is an emergency because many workers became ill and others continue to become ill. Diego supported calls by campaigners for the establishment of a national compensation fund which would be open to claims from all those who had suffered.
Media coverage has highlighted the disconnect between the asbestos reality in Spain and European Union recommendations. Whereas a 2013 European Parliament resolution advised member states to introduce mandatory asbestos audits of buildings, ships, trains, machinery, bunkers, tunnels, galleries, pipes in public and private water distribution networks and landfills prior to removal work,7 recent revelations about asbestos in the Madrid8 and Barcelona9 public transport systems, schools10 and road tunnels, discoveries of asbestos in Alicantes schools, news of unsafe working practices in the asbestos removal sector in Aragon and protests arising from asbestos contamination of the environment in Toledo and Valencia are manifestations of a systemic and profound failure of public policy to grasp the severity and complexity of the countrys asbestos challenges. Lets hope the new law is evidence of a political commitment to right the asbestos wrongs that have caused so much heartache in Spain.
April 23, 2021
1 Garcia, I.V. Study of lung asbestos content in a Spanish population. 2014.
2 El Congreso da luz verde a la tramitación de la Proposición de Ley de creación de un fondo de compensación para las víctimas del amianto [Congress gives the green light to the processing of the Bill to create a compensation fund for asbestos victims]. April 14, 2021.
3 El triunfo de los olvidados del amianto [The triumph of the forgotten asbestos]. April 16, 2021.
Also see: El amianto, una deuda pendiente e invisible con salud pública en España [Asbestos, an on-going and invisible debt to public health in Spain]. April 15, 2021.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. José María Íñigos Last Battle. January 20, 2021.
5 Garcia-Gomez, M. et al. Medical costs of asbestos-related diseases in Spain between 2004 and 2011. 2017.
6 El Congreso vota este mes el fondo de compensación del amianto [Congress votes this month on asbestos compensation fund]. April 1, 2021.
7 Asbestos-related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos. March 14, 2013.
8 Nuevo parón en la investigación por la muerte de dos operarios del metro de Madrid por amianto [New stoppage in the investigation into the death of two Madrid metro operators due to asbestos]. January 12, 2021.
Also see: El sindicato de maquinistas denuncia que el metro de Madrid está lleno de amianto: "Han muerto 3 personas" [The trainers union denounces claim that the Madrid metro is asbestos-free: Another 3 deaths] March 25, 2021.
9 Retirados dos tercios del amianto identificado en el metro de Barcelona [Two-thirds of the asbestos identified in the Barcelona metro has been removed]. November 12, 2020.
10 El mapa de los colegios públicos afectados por el amianto en la Comunidad de Madrid [The map of the public schools affected by asbestos in the Community of Madrid]. April 19, 2021.