Asbestos – Still a Killer 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Following closely after the debacle which was the June 20-24, 2011 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention (RC) in Geneva, the occurrence of the seminar “Asbestos – Still a Killer”1 in the European Parliament provided the opportunity for civil society representatives to express their outrage at the self-serving and obstructive behavior of the Canadian RC delegation. The June 30 Brussels seminar attracted participants who included European Union (EU) civil servants, trade unionists and representatives of asbestos victim support groups. Amongst the panel of speakers were asbestos experts such as Stephen Hughes, Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Dr. Jukka Takala Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Danish trade unionist Lars Vedsmand, Bernd Eisenbach and Rolf Gehring from the “Europe 2023 – Asbestos Free”2 campaign and Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS). Interpretation into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Flemish facilitated the wide ranging discussion stimulated by the presentations.


Photo by courtesy of Michael Contes.

Co-chair Stephen Hughes kicked off the session with a brief discussion of the process required to achieve an asbestos ban in the EU; negotiations to prohibit the marketing and use of all types of asbestos in Member States took, he said, 15 years. Nevertheless, recent work to install Wi-Fi connections in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg revealed that the building was still riddled with asbestos. Hughes called for a mandatory public register of the location of asbestos in all buildings. The ongoing threat from asbestos hidden within national infrastructures was the subject of comments by the first speaker Lars Vedsmand who highlighted the vulnerability of Danish construction workers to hazardous exposures even though the use of asbestos had been unilaterally banned 25 years earlier. Precautionary measures adopted by Scandinavian trade unions include asbestos inventories of workplaces and rigorous training schemes with certification protocols for educating workers about the asbestos hazard.3 A 13-page paper by Rolf Gehring made available at the seminar entitled: Proposals on Registration, Better Working Conditions, Training of Workers, the Recognition of Asbestos Related Disease and its Compensation detailed proposals to address some of the challenges pinpointed by Mr. Vedsmand.

The second speaker, Dr. Jukka Takala, has had years of experience in tackling European asbestos issues not only in his current role at the Bilbao European Agency but also in his previous position as Director of the International Labor Organization's International Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork). Having presented data which placed the asbestos epidemic into a global context, Takala estimated there are 112,000 work-related deaths from asbestos every year; “asbestos is,” he said “the world's biggest occupational killer.” In light of the lack of data regarding the asbestos death toll in many countries, the speaker cited academic estimates of annual national and regional incidences of mesothelioma as follows: Russia 4,000, Established Market Economies 24,000, 27 EU Member States 12,000. Substantial asbestos consumption in developing countries is of serious concern as “asbestos cannot be used safely.” Graphs showing the link between national asbestos consumption in industrialized countries in the 1960s with asbestos mortality forty years later indicates that future asbestos epidemics will occur in countries which continue to use asbestos.4

The presentation entitled Asbestos – An International Perspective, by IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen, focused on recent developments at the Rotterdam Convention, specifically the refusal by the Canadian delegation to include chrysotile asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent list. Canadian Government documents distributed at the seminar supported comments by the speaker that Ottawa wilfully disregarded recommendations from its own advisors to list chrysotile under the Rotterdam Convention despite knowing the consequences for vulnerable populations in countries which import Canadian asbestos. Having detailed the machinations of global asbestos stakeholders at the Rotterdam Convention meeting, the speaker told delegates:

“I have been studying the global asbestos industry for over 20 years. In that time, I have witnessed political dishonesty, industrial thuggery, corporate malfeasance, judicial manipulation, the misuse of science, the abuse of the legal process, physical and professional intimidation. What transpired last week in Geneva, transcended this – it was pure evil.”5

Responding to this presentation, Co-Chair Stephen Hughes said:

“I first became involved in the European campaign to ban asbestos 20 years ago. It is unfathomable to me that Canada, a democratic developed country, continues its support for this deadly industry. MEPs attending today's seminar are scandalized to hear the extent to which Canada is implicated in dumping asbestos on vulnerable populations. We will do our utmost to bring this outrageous behavior to wider notice and to translate our anger into action. ”

Co-Chair Alejandro Cercas MEP seconded Hughes call for joint action against the pro-asbestos policy of the Canadian government.

Useful resources and ongoing asbestos projects were the focus of comments by Bernd Eisenbach, an asbestos expert from Germany. The on-line “Asbestos House,” developed by the Swiss Safety and Health at Work Insurance and Prevention Body (SUVA) is an innovative and well-presented schematic which not only indicates where asbestos-containing products are likely to be found in domestic properties but reveals what these products look like.6 Information on this site is of particular relevance to workers involved in the redevelopment, refurbishing, reconstruction and maintenance sectors as well as owners, inhabitants and managers of these types of properties. “The Training Modules for Asbestos Workers and Safe Working Conditions Project,” developed by the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC) and the EFBWW is of particular relevance in light of cut-backs on training for workers and worksite inspections. Economic pressure on governments and commercial organizations mean potentially life-saving training on occupational issues such as the asbestos hazard is no longer regarded as essential; the knock-on effect of this is that “today they (workers) mostly cannot expect to be warned and prepared by the enterprise… Therefore they need a deep understanding where possibly asbestos can be found and how to identify it.” In light of the trans-European migration of workers, action on a European level is essential; the scheme being proposed envisages the requirement for all at-risk workers to obtain a “minimum level of qualification” regarding asbestos risks.7

The failure of the EU to implement minimum provisions for the recognition and compensation of asbestos-related diseases was highlighted in the presentation Recognition and Compensation of Asbestos-Related Diseases, by IBAS Coordinator Kazan-Allen:

“Throughout EU Member States, there is a huge disconnect between what (asbestos) sufferers should receive as their due and what they in fact do receive. Each EU asbestos victim has an equal and inalienable human right to receive appropriate medical treatment, equitable compensation and practical support... While asbestos victims in some EU Member State receive government benefits, civil compensation, medical treatment and counseling, most sufferers do not.”

Recommendations made to rectify the inequalities which exist included:

  • Adapting EU legislation mandating equal rights for asbestos victims.
  • EU policymakers recognize the vital role of asbestos victims' support groups.
  • Establish a European Research Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases: ECARD.
  • Prioritize collaborative efforts with civil society organizations in Eastern Europe to raise awareness of the asbestos hazard.8

To commence the discussion section of the agenda, the EFBWW's Rolf Gehring indicated possible avenues for joint action.9 His action points have been incorporated into the list below along with suggestions made by other speakers and seminar participants:

At a Global Level

  • Civil society should cooperate with international agencies, regional bodies and national governments to achieve a worldwide asbestos ban; specific initiatives were indicated.
  • A challenge by the European Union should be made regarding the $58 million loan guarantee that the Quebec government is offering to the international consortium behind the new asbestos mine in Quebec as this financial support is an unfair trade subsidy under World Trade Organization rules.
  • A WHO Framework Convention on Asbestos Control should be implemented.

Within the EU

  • MEPs should consider sanctions and trade boycotts against Canada in protest at the deplorable behavior of the Canadian delegation at the Rotterdam Convention meeting. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU should be put on hold indefinitely.
  • Programs should be developed to comply with new EU regulations that mandate a minimum standard for occupational asbestos training.
  • A campaign to make all European schools asbestos-free within a specified time period should be instituted.
  • EU agencies should be instructed to quantify specific asbestos problems such as reporting on the progress made by Member States in transposing EU ban asbestos directives and determining the social and economic costs of asbestos-related disease in individual countries.10
  • Legislative requirements regarding workers protection should be tightened and mandatory asbestos audits of workplaces, public buildings and domestic properties should be introduced.
  • Calls should be made to investigate the manner by which two chemical companies were able to railroad EU plans to end the derogation allowing the use of asbestos-containing diaphragms; the EU should be lobbied to abolish this exemption.

In his final remarks to the seminar, Co-Chair Alejandro Cercas MEP underlined the need for the European Parliament to prioritize the asbestos issue and called for tightening up of EU asbestos legislation, increased occupational safeguards and measures to ensure that Member States recognize and compensate the injuries of asbestos victims. Cercas argued that specific targets on asbestos should be included in the upcoming European Community strategy on occupational safety and health. Immediately, after leaving the seminar, Co-Chair Stephen Hughes had a meeting scheduled with Laszlo Andor, European Commissioner of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.Having taken note of the issues raised during the seminar, Hughes discussed the recommendations made, including the calls for sanctions against Canada, with the Commissioner. As MEP Cercas said when he brought the session to a close: “Our goal must be to create a Europe based on human values and not just one based on money and commerce.”

July 6, 2011


1 This seminar was organized by the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament in collaboration with trade unions and non-governmental organizations. It took place on 30 June 2011 from 14.30 to 17.30, Room ASP A3G-2 European Parliament.

2 This campaign is an initiative of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW): website:

3 Lars Vedsmand's presentation:

4 Dr. Takala's presentation can be accessed at:

5 Laurie Kazan-Allen presentation's:

6 The Asbestos House is available in German, French and Italian, not in English.

7 Bernd Eisenbach's presentation:

8 Laurie Kazan-Allen's presentation:

9 Rolf Gehring's recommendations:

10 The need for more information was underlined by a document distributed at the meeting entitled: Observations on the interpellation of the European Parliament on Asbestos. From this document it was clear that questions asked to European Commissioners by MEPs have, on the whole, either gone unanswered or have been answered inadequately.



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