Warnings Unheeded: a British Tragedy becomes a Global Disaster
Every year, two million tonnes of asbestos are being used and used in countries which are least able to protect their populations or care for their injured. Nowadays, 68% of global consumption is in Asian countries where the lack of health and safety legislation has been endemic and human life is often regarded as another commodity that can be bought and sold. So what if a worker becomes too ill to work, there are always ten more where he came from. So what if the environment becomes so toxic that people become ill from just breathing the air or using the water in some communities. Life is cheap and, after all, business is business. We know all about asbestos and business in Britain. Of course we do: much of the pioneering work regarding the commercial exploitation of asbestos took place in this country. We know the human cost of asbestos profits.
In 1899, a 33-year-old patient was admitted to a London hospital suffering from breathlessness; within 14 months he was dead. The case of the unnamed patient, reported to the British Parliament in 1906, was the world's first asbestos-related death to be officially documented. Other asbestos firsts which took place in Britain included:
Given the knowledge which had been amassed in Britain in the 20th century, a logical person might have expected that preventing hazardous exposures and providing medical care and financial compensation for the asbestos-injured would have been regarded as top priorities. She would have been wrong; harmful exposures continue at work, at home and in the environment. Today, asbestos remains the UK's greatest single cause of occupational death.
Around the world epidemics of asbestos-related diseases have been identified not only in early adopter countries like Britain, France, Italy, Spain, U.S. and Canada but also in countries which came to the asbestos party somewhat later like Japan, Korea. In some countries, e.g. India, due largely to past deficiencies in monitoring and diagnosis, cases of asbestos cancer are only now beginning to emerge; with the widespread and uncontrolled use of asbestos in Asia, there can be no doubt about the heavy toll the population will pay for the dividends paid to asbestos investors.
That asbestos has been banned in 55 countries owes much to the efforts of asbestos victims working in close cooperation with their partners in the global ban asbestos community. In recent years there has been a remarkable growth in ban asbestos activism by civil society groups around the world. Developments in the last few months illustrate the imagination and scope of projects undertaken to raise public awareness of the asbestos hazard not only in countries where asbestos is still being used but in others where it has been banned. As we know full well, even though a country has ended the use of asbestos, contaminated products hidden within the national infrastructure continue to pose a demonstrable risk.
In May, ban asbestos campaigners in Thailand exposed blatant lies told by the Oranit Company, a Thai producer of asbestos-cement roofing tiles. The company's tee shirts boldly proclaimed that:
This was an outright lie. The World Health Organization agrees with other international agencies that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic and that the best way to protect human beings from the asbestos plague is to ban the use of asbestos.
From May 1 to May 5, volunteers from the Asbestos Disease Society of Australia engaged in a 600+ kilometres trek from the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie to Perth, the capital of Western Australia, to promote public awareness of the deadly cancer epidemic amongst former residents of the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom, many of whom were children when they lived there with their families. The objective of the gruelling five-day event was to raise much-needed financial resources for the cutting edge research into the treatment of asbestos-related diseases being pioneered by scientists in WA.
On June 15, the asbestos scandal was highlighted during the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Asbestos Toxic Tour was one of the events mounted under the umbrella of the UN's Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development and included both direct and indirect action. The day started with an early morning demonstration outside an asbestos-cement production facility in the Guadalupe area of Rio. Two hundred employees work at the Eternit factory around the clock producing asbestos-containing building materials, with the early morning shift beginning at 7 a.m.
Despite the fact that the State of Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of asbestos, this factory exists within an exclusion bubble in which the toxic use of a prohibited substance persists. This state of affairs is possible because of a judicial appeal made by Eternit which threatened mass unemployment should the ban be enforced. As a result, the authorities agreed to exempt the company from Rio de Janeiro State Law 3579/2001 until a Supreme Court ruling has been issued on whether the asbestos ban is constitutional.
From outside the factory gates, the Presidents of the Asbestos Victims' Groups from the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Osasco addressed the workforce with the use of loud hailers:
Under our constitution workers must be provided with a healthy environment. Eternit's continued use of asbestos is deadly and must be stopped. How many Eternit workers have to die before the company puts health before profits?
During the afternoon, a bilingual dialogue on the global asbestos disaster took place in a tent on Flamengo beach which provided the opportunity for Brazilian asbestos victims, experts, ban asbestos campaigners and members of the public to converse with representatives from associations and groups from North America, Europe and Asia during the session entitled: The Future We Want is Asbestos-Free. As always it is the victims' testimony which speaks the loudest. Geraldo Mariano, President of the Rio de Janeiro branch of ABREA, described conditions in the Eternit factory where he worked for nearly 7 years: Asbestos was emptied into the mixer with cement to make tiles; dust covered the workers. Now, the symptoms and lumps are inside of us; we feel they are about to burst any minute.
On June 30, 300 asbestos victims and health campaigners from Japan and Korea joined together at a conference to mark the 7th anniversary of the Kubota Shock, a term commonly used to refer to Japan's awakening to the existence of a national epidemic of asbestos-related diseases and deaths. Days later (July 4), relatives of asbestos victims and campaigners mounted a protest outside the Canadian Consulate in Nagoya against government funding for a new asbestos underground mine in Quebec. News of the government support for the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine also motivated a protest (July 3), outside the Canadian Embassy in Seoul. Members of the Ban Asbestos Network of Korea, wearing vests made out of sacks from the Quebec LAB chrysotile mine and holding signs calling for the banning of asbestos, expressed their outrage at the $58 million of financial aid being given by the government so that Canada might resume asbestos mining operations. The age range of the demonstrators, from 19 to 70, reveals the wide range of support that this issue has in Korea.
The Changing Asbestos Landscape
The examples discussed above represent just a handful of recent events mounted by ban asbestos activists to generate public awareness of the asbestos hazard and build support for the campaign to ban its use. The effectiveness of civil society in revolutionizing the perception of asbestos is illustrated by the changes which have taken place in global asbestos consumption trends this century.
Changing Asbestos Panorama 2012 versus 2000
|Year||National Bans||Asbestos-Using |
|Percentage of Global Use|
There has been a 46% decrease in the number of asbestos consuming countries and a 3-fold increase in the number of countries banning its use. An analysis of the timing of national bans is informative.
Implementation of National Bans
In the last eleven years, the number of national bans adopted exceeded those achieved over the previous twenty.
At the turn of the 21st century, the internet was the latest technology; the replacement by emails of letters and faxes had revolutionized the ability of grass-roots activists to share information. Since then there has been an explosion in the modes of online interaction e.g. Skype, twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn which has increased the speed of communication as well as the types of information which can be shared. The daily trip to the post office to dispatch documents to colleagues around the world is a thing of the past.
It is not only the methods of communication which have changed, but also the nature of the discussion and the terms of reference which have evolved. Whereas asbestos-related disease was formerly part of the fringe debate about occupational health, today it takes centre stage as a recognized threat to public health; workers, their relatives, members of the public, consumers, bystanders; in short, the entire population of an asbestos-using country is endangered by the use of asbestos. Even in countries which have banned asbestos, the risk from hazardous products incorporated into national infrastructures remains a real and present danger. And yet, the right to live and work in an asbestos-free environment is now considered a fundamental human right, a right which has been endorsed by international agencies, regional bodies, national governments, and judicial authorities as well as by independent medical and scientific experts.
In old American movies, before the killer shot his victim he would often comment: it's nothing personal, just business... The export of asbestos, a class 1 carcinogen, is highly personal. Mohit Gupta, a campaigner based in New Delhi, condemned Canadian sales of asbestos to India as both racist and hateful. This trade is, he wrote an appalling travesty of all ethical codes of human behavior. Reacting to Canadian plans to increase asbestos sales to India, Gupta asked whether only light-skinned people are entitled to breathe clean air and drink clean water.
There exists an unresolvable conflict between the use of asbestos and the pursuit by democratic societies of human rights, social equality and environmental justice. If health is, as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote, a human right to be fought for, how can civil society condone the use of a technology which is hazardous to humans and damaging for the environment. It is beyond belief that at Rio+ 20, a UN conference designed to tackle the world's most urgent environmental challenges, asbestos was nowhere to be found on the official agenda.
Over more than one hundred years, a public health disaster has unfolded in Britain which has claimed more lives than any other occupational epidemic. This humanitarian catastrophe was caused by industry's use of asbestos, an imported substance. Corporate executives as well as government ministers, civil servants and elected representatives were responsible for unleashing a ferocious onslaught on ordinary men and women who were powerless in the face of this deadly carcinogen.
The same excuses advanced to prolong the use of asbestos in Britain are still being promoted by vested interests in countries where asbestos use remains legal. The dimensions and severity of the British asbestos experience should be more than enough to convince a reasonable person that humanity has a right to live in an asbestos-free atmosphere. Knowing what we know, we cannot stand idly by and watch other people go to their graves. We cannot and do not accept that a new asbestos mine, funded by government money, is under construction in Canada.
Today on Action Mesothelioma Day groups around the UK are holding events, conferences, meetings and happenings, to raise awareness of the country's tragic asbestos legacy. As we remember those we have lost to asbestos, we reaffirm our commitment to combating the asbestos scourge and to work towards the asbestos-free world we want not only for our children and grandchildren but for future generations in countries the world over.
Let me conclude by sending a message to Canada's asbestos businessmen; and I mean you Baljit Chadha and your investors, all of whom prefer to remain in the shadows. Be warned and be on your guard; the people of Liverpool are not done with you. We are as one when we say we will not allow you to profit while others die. You may have convinced Quebec's asbestos cabal to fund your dastardly project but that was just the first battle. The war over the new Jeffrey Asbestos Mine continues. This is NOT over!
1 This paper forms the basis for the presentation made by Laurie Kazan-Allen on July 6, 2012 at the Liverpool Action Mesothelioma Day conference organized by the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group and the Cheshire Asbestos Victim Support Group.