Asbestos: Ignominy, Corruption and Retribution
A paper published some weeks ago in the American Journal of Public Heath detailed the commercial strategy deployed during the 20th century by US vested interests to control the national asbestos debate and forestall regulations which would adversely affect sales of asbestos-containing materials.1 Reflecting on the deadly impact of their lobbying efforts, Matthew Swetonic, the first executive director of the Asbestos Information Association/North America (AIA/NA), noted that:
During a relatively short period of time from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the magic mineral was exposed for what it really was probably the most hazardous industrial material ever unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Although domestic sales dramatically decreased, the use of asbestos remains legal in the US and the AIA/NA continues to collaborate with others to sell asbestos around the world.
Methods such as those pioneered by the AIA/NA continue to bear fruit in countries like Nepal where demand for asbestos-containing roofing products remains robust despite the country having adopted legislation last year (2015) which banned the import, sale, distribution or use of asbestos as a matter of public safety.2 It is not hard to predict the repercussions of the continued use of this acknowledged carcinogen. People in Nepal will succumb to ill health and premature deaths from their exposures just like their counterparts in Brazil, a country which both mines and manufactures asbestos.
A landmark decision handed down on February 26, 2016, by a Brazilian Circuit Court, indicates, however, that justice for Brazils asbestos victims may soon become a reality. Judge Raquel Gabbai de Oliveira ordered Eternit S.A., Brazils asbestos giant, to pay more than 400 million reais (US$110 million) in damages for occupational asbestos exposures at its factory in Osasco, São Paulo. Provisions in her decision, which has been called truly historic, innovative and forward-looking, stipulated that a US$25m fund be established to support the injured and a US$125m fund be set up to reimburse people for pain and suffering and compensate relatives of those who have died. Eternit was also ordered to pay each asbestos-exposed worker from the Osasco factory the sum of US$12,500.3 A similar lawsuit is pending for injured Eternit workers from Rio de Janeiro; other actions are being considered over hazardous exposures at Eternit facilities in the States of Bahia and Curitiba. In light of the ferocity of the judgment, Brazilian campaigners believe that a national asbestos ban is unavoidable.
Even as the pursuit of asbestos justice progresses, work continues on defence strategies by those facing huge liabilities for their asbestos profiteering. An exposé published last month (February 2016) by the Center for Public Integrity cited internal corporate memos which showed that the Ford Motor Company spent $40 million to reshape asbestos science [and] change the narrative on the risks of asbestos brakes.4 Crucial ammunition for asbestos defendants facing claims from auto mechanics and others is provided by research commissioned from toxicologists Dennis Paustenbach, David Bernstein et al; their findings support the company line that chrysotile (white) asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions. It is amazing just how much science money can buy! While it is not surprising that Russian scientists vehemently maintain that their asbestos is completely innocuous Russia being the worlds largest producer of chrysotile asbestos and that there is no reliable scientific evidence to justify banning or restricting asbestos,5 it is disappointing to report that British scientists have shown a remarkable willingness to defend chrysotile the most common and last remaining form of asbestos in commercial use 6
On May 2, 2016 a plenary session at the International Mesothelioma Interest Group Conference in Birmingham will offer US scientist Dr David Egilman, Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health and Clinical Professor of Medicine at Brown University, the opportunity to detail the damning evidence showing the link between exposure to chrysotile asbestos and the occurrence of several debilitating and deadly diseases.7 In the session entitled The Chrysotile Debate Egilman will focus on the issue of mesothelioma causation along with Professor Julian Peto, a British epidemiologist, who holds opposing views.
March 22, 2016
1 Markowitz G, Rosner D. Unleashed on an Unsuspecting World: The Asbestos Information Association and Its Role in Perpetuating a National Epidemic. Am J Public Health. 2016 Feb 18:e1-e7.
2 Charitra S. Overhead hazard: Asbestos used as roofing in houses and schools has become a growing cancer risk. March 20, 2016.
3 Eternit é condenada a pagar mais de R$ 400 milhes a ex-funcionários [Eternit is sentenced to pay more than 400 million reais US$100 million to former employees]. February 27, 2016.
4 Morris J. Ford spent $40 million to reshape asbestos science. February 16, 2016.
7 International Mesothelioma Interest Group Conference.