Asbestos Perspectives: Local Endeavour, Political Impotence
Exposure to asbestos has caused a global public health disaster. In the United Kingdom, the use of seven millions tonnes of this carcinogen during the last century created the countrys worst epidemic of occupational deaths, with many more to come.
Two events in which I had some involvement last month (May 2015) revealed different aspects of society's struggle with an unfolding tragedy. In the week before hundreds of United Nations delegates were due to gather in Geneva in what was to be a futile attempt to reduce the ease with which asbestos was traded globally, I had been invited to speak at the monthly meeting of an asbestos disease support group held in a rural English village. Attendees at these two events had very different priorities but, with the exception of a handful of industry stooges in Geneva out to wreck the Rotterdam Convention, all were aware that asbestos cancer was very different from other incurable conditions it was entirely avoidable.
Papworth Mesothelioma Support Group1 Meeting, May 8, 2015
As usual, the group met in the Village Hall of Hemingford Abbots, a delightful village in Huntingdonshire, where the local population of around 600 was supplemented by the 70 or so people attending the meeting during the afternoon. The Papworth support group was founded more than seven years ago and its meetings are open to anyone affected by mesothelioma; some people, I learned, had travelled considerable distances that day. Mostly they were there to meet up with fellow sufferers or support injured partners or friends; hopefully, some might also be interested in what I had to say.
The meeting began at 2 p.m. and followed the usual format: a talk or discussion first, then a chance to talk privately. After people had taken their seats, I was introduced; while it was a pleasure to see one or two people I had met before, when guest speaker in 2012,2 it was noticeable that the majority of those in the hall that Friday were new faces. This was not surprising given the nature of mesothelioma the deadly speed with which it claims its victims.
The title of my presentation was Mesothelioma Update: 2015. During my talk, I discussed work by researchers to improve outcomes for mesothelioma patients, provided details of Europes epidemic of asbestos-related diseases and described progress made by civil society campaigners in the face of resistance by governments and global asbestos lobbyists. I also gave a somewhat theatrical ad-lib account of how I expected events to pan out at the Rotterdam Convention the following week my PowerPoint notes on-screen having been rendered illegible by sunlight streaming into the room. Following my remarks, there was a lively discussion about the lack of new mesothelioma drugs and the morality of using placebos in clinical trials involving mesothelioma victims. A number of issues, including the postcode lottery for receiving experimental drugs, were raised by the wife of a mesothelioma sufferer expressing frustration that while one well-known mesowarrior was doing well after a number of years on a new drug, that drug was denied to her husband.
Also discussed during the question and answer session was a BBC1 broadcast two days previously (Wednesday May 6, 2015) of an episode of Inspector George Gently which featured a storyline about mesothelioma sufferers whose disease had been linked by a local doctor to asbestos pollution from a local factory owned by a Swiss-based multinational. The consensus of the meeting was that highlighting the asbestos legacy in a mainstream program broadcast during prime time was useful in reinforcing the awareness of continuing asbestos hazards not only to UK workers but also to the general public.
Over tea and biscuits, there was time for catching up. As it was the day after the general election, there was no shortage of topics but from what I heard, politics was not a subject much discussed during the afternoon. I was delighted to see Peter Robinson again. It was the mesothelioma contracted by Peters father-in-law that introduced him to the work of this group; since 2008 Peter has acted as the organizer of the support group. Always an enthusiastic and positive character in a quieter moment he admitted that even he was experiencing battle fatigue there had been so many funerals. He didn't need to say more so many people full of life, not only here in Papworth but across the world, about to have it snatched away increasingly, for no more than corporate greed.
Peter Robinson (2nd from left) with members of the Papworth Group and guest speaker Laurie Kazan-Allen.
During the afternoon, I made the acquaintance of Jackie Elsom, Graham Petrie, Paul and Claire Cowley,3 stalwart supporters of the Papworth Group.
From left: Jackie Elsom, Claire and Paul Cowley, Laurie Kazan-Allen.
The replacement for Gerry Slade, who had been the Papworth Mesothelioma Specialist Nurse in 2012, is Emma Harris4 who I was also pleased to meet during the afternoon.
With all these diversions, I had overlooked the opportunity to buy raffle tickets. When the raffle was drawn a lady at our table surprised us by winning two of the prizes. Somewhat frail from the ravages of her cancer she was immensely cheerful and with her husband determined to extract every ounce of happiness from their now threatened life together. Later, I watched a video produced by the group entitled: Mesotheloma: the journey It included moving accounts of how members had received diagnoses and handled the subsequent stages of their diseases starting with the difficult task of informing family and friends. The guidance material on the video is well thought-out and clear. Anyone interested should contact Emma Harris (see: footnote 4) to see if copies are available. The next meeting of the group is on June 12th when Sam Grimes, a senior dietician, will discuss Maintaining that weight!
Rotterdam Convention Seventh Conference of the Parties, Geneva, Switzerland
Members of the Papworth Group with mesothelioma, for the most part, contracted their cancers after asbestos exposures many decades ago. Unfortunately, millions of people around the world are still experiencing similar exposures on a daily basis. Recognizing the need to protect humanity from deadly chemicals, a United Nations protocol the Rotterdam Convention (RC) was adopted in 1998 and came into force in 2004. Decisions taken by the RC are legally binding under international law.
From May 13 to May 15, 2015, delegates at the biennial 7th Conference of the Parties to the RC (COP7) considered the inclusion of chrysotile (white) asbestos on Annex III, the list of hazardous substances, for the fifth time. In the run-up to the RC chrysotile debate, officials from the UN and the RC Secretariat indicated their growing frustration over the impasse which had prevented consensus being reached on chrysotile. On May 4, Rolph Payet, executive director of the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions, said: We cannot keep postponing issues which are of national and global importance. We cannot afford to wait more than two years to address issues agreed to by our three main subsidiary bodies 5 Two days later, UN Rapporteur Baskut Tuncak condemned the erection of obstacles to the listing of asbestos by vested interests. This obstructive behaviour was not only a denial of a basic human right the right to access information but also legally and morally unjustifiable, he told UN delegates in Geneva.
The COP7 discussion of the chrysotile asbestos hot potato took place during plenary sessions, in contact groups, side events and the conference halls informal spaces. A high profile demonstration was mounted in the iconic square outside the conference in La Place de Les Nations on May 12 by global labor federations and trade unions. The colourful and lively event was supported by representatives of campaigning bodies and non-governmental organizations. In attendance was an asbestosis victim from India; Mr. Sharad Vittnal Sawants remarks were warmly received by the protesters.6
From left in front row: Pralhad Malvadkar, Occupational Health and Safety Centre, Mumbai, India and asbestosis sufferer Sharad Vittnal Sawant, Mumbai, India.
The clamor for asbestos action at COP7 was not restricted to the conference venue and its environs. Posters with stark public health warnings about the deadly asbestos hazard were prominently displayed on the sides of trams and buses circulating in Geneva throughout COP7.7
Ninety-five per cent of the parties to the Convention backed the motion to include chrysotile asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent list with strongly worded support from representatives of the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the European Community and the delegations from Australia, Jordan, Nepal, Georgia, the Cook Islands, Benin, New Zealand, Peru, Malaysia, Honduras, Norway, Serbia, Liberia, Nigeria, Korea, Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Argentina, Uruguay, Niger, Switzerland, Mongolia, Vietnam, Congo, Israel, Cameroon, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and the U.S. (COP7 Observer).8 Although seven stakeholder countries had initially opposed listing Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, Cuba and Zimbabwe in the end it was left to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Zimbabwe to deny importing countries the right to access information about the potential health effects of human exposures to chrysotile asbestos.
Of particular relevance to the profit-driven veto achieved by industry stakeholders were comments made by delegations from industrializing countries. The representatives of Congo and Liberia spoke for many when they said that in view of the failure of the Convention to act on the chrysotile hazard, their countries had no alternative but to ban its use. Tonga said that assistance was needed and it was their sovereign right to be informed of the risks; the Cook Island and Kenya highlighted the challenges posed by handling and disposing of asbestos waste.
As the people in the Papworth Mesothelioma Support Group know, when it comes to asbestos, there is no such thing as safe use. The refusal by asbestos vested interests to allow the United Nations to progress efforts to inform vulnerable populations of the risks posed by chrysotile asbestos confirms their cold-blooded pursuit of profits at any cost. Delegates at COP7, were in no doubt as to the meaning of the chrysotile impasse. If a handful of countries could again block listing, all the fine talk of Convention officials was meaningless. In the absence of fundamental procedural change, all that remains to be done is to dig a deep hole in which the hopes and dreams of those of us who believed in the capacity of the Rotterdam Convention to deliver more sustainable economies, ensure social justice and create a greener future for the planet can be buried. The Convention, on shaky grounds before COP7, is now lying mortally wounded. Acknowledging this reality, ban asbestos activists are pursuing alternative options to achieve their goal of banning asbestos worldwide. With the number of asbestos bankruptcies mushrooming and criminal cases being brought against asbestos businessmen and lobbyists, it would be wise for asbestos profiteers to consider the punishment they may incur in the not too distant future for their complicity in this deadly trade. An asbestos-free future is possible!
June 1, 2015
1 For more on the work of the Papworth Mesothelioma Support Group see:
2 Kazan-Allen L. Mesothelioma in an English Village. October 5, 2012.
3 Leng F. Ely father Paul Cowley who suffers from Mesothelioma cancer backs campaign to raise awareness of the disease. Jan. 1, 2015
5 Chynoweth, E. UN conferences must move from science to action. May 6, 2015
6 Kazan-Allen L. Report from the Asbestos Frontline: Update from Geneva. May 14, 2015.
7 Kazan-Allen L. Welcome to Geneva! May 6, 2015.
8 ANDEVA. Rotterdam Convention 2015: Chrysotile asbestos will not be included in the list of dangerous products. May 14, 2015. http://www.andeva.fr/?14-May-2015-Rotterdam-Convention