Asbestos: New Year, Old Story
Over the weekend, several UK newspapers highlighted the results of a coroner’s inquest in Scunthorpe which found that retired schoolteacher Elizabeth Belt had died aged 68 in 2015 of an industrial disease.1
Primary school art teacher Elizabeth Belt.
For decades, Mrs. Belt had inhaled asbestos fibers in classrooms when she pinned up children’s artwork. In a statement given to her solicitors last year (2015), Mrs. Belt described “dusty” classroom conditions:
“There were large sections of boarding where the children's work was displayed and there would be a change of work every two to three weeks.” Recording his verdict, Coroner Paul Kelly told the Belt family: “I have no doubt that Mum contracted mesothelioma as a result of ingesting asbestos while working as a teacher at various schools in north Lincolnshire between 1968 and 1995.” The insurers for North Lincolnshire Council have settled the family’s claim for an undisclosed sum.
One hundred and seventeen years before Mrs. Belt’s death, a British Factory Inspector Lucy Deane had advised the authorities about the “abundant evidence” of the asbestos hazard, writing: “The evil effects of asbestos dust have also attracted my attention, a microscopic examination of this mineral dust which was made by H.M. Medical Inspector clearly revealed the sharp, glass-like, jagged nature of the particles, and where they are allowed to rise and they remain suspended in the air of a room, in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected.”2 The fact that Miss Deane issued this warning in 1898, a full seventy years before Mrs. Belt began her teaching career, and that officials, politicians and employers failed to take heed constitute a betrayal of trust and a failure of governance by all those tasked with safeguarding British citizens. Shame on them!
Lucy Dean Streatfeild 1865-1950.
1 Weaver M. Teacher died from cancer after asbestos exposure. January 23, 2016.
‘Our sadness outweighs our anger’ – family reveals heartache after death of teacher mum Elizabeth Belt. January 22, 2016
Landin C. Teacher Died of Asbestos Poisoning. January 23, 2016.
2 Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for 1898: Part II.
Conservative Spivs, Parliamentary Betrayal
This week the Conservatives have given a late, but no doubt much appreciated, Christmas present to their friends in the insurance industry. As a consequence of the Tories’ munificence, insurers will be around £8 million pounds better off this year, with more windfalls to come.
This “nice little earner,” as spiv Arthur Daley would have termed it, comes about as a result of an announcement made regarding the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme Levy 2015/16 (see: Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme Levy 2015/16:Written statement - HCWS460) on January 12, 2016 by Justin Tomlinson, Minister for Disabled People.
Tomlinson has carried forward a £7.8m surplus from an insurance levy collected in 2014/15 “to fund a scheme of last resort for sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma who have been unable to trace their employer or their employer’s insurer.” Even though insurers agree that a levy set at 3% of the premiums of Employers’ Liability policies is affordable, the government will summarily decrease this figure thereby demonstrating, yet again, where its priorities lie.
Asbestos victims and trade unions think the levy should be maintained at the agreed 3% with surplus funds used for the benefit of UK asbestos victims. This is the opinion of The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK which said in its January 13th press release that:
“The levy on insurers announced yesterday represents about 1.7% of the premiums they raise from Employers’ Liability insurance policies they sell, down from the 2.2% they paid last year. If the levy had been set at the 3% figure promised by the Government in 2014 all applicants could have been paid compensation in full from the start of the scheme. There would also be enough money left over to compensate victims of other asbestos diseases unable to trace a former employer or their insurer.
It is time the Government stopped prioritising the financial interests of insurers over justice for asbestos victims. They should set a levy at the rate the insurers have already said they can afford, compensate fully those applicants who only received 80% compensation and make arrangements to compensate all asbestos victims whose lives have been ruined by their employer’s negligence and Government failure to ban asbestos until decades after the dangers were known.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady agrees: “The government,” she said, “should maintain the levy at last year’s level and use any surplus to extend the compensation scheme to all victims of asbestos or for research into treatment.”1
Throughout the glory days of the British asbestos industry, the government created the conditions in which sales of asbestos-containing products could flourish. Its collusion with asbestos profiteers lead to hazardous exposures which killed hundreds of thousands of citizens. That this golden opportunity to use insurers’ money to ease some of the asbestos suffering was so quickly dismissed shows that the Conservatives remain the “nasty party.”
1 Press Release TUC. Government must maintain mesothelioma levy. January 12, 2016.
Asbestos: 2016 Reboot
As life began to return to normal after the holidays, it came as something of a shock to observe developments which reinforced the continued need for perspective, vigilance and pre-emptive action.
An article in the January 5th, 2016 issue of The Independent newspaper entitled “How the world's biggest asbestos factory tried to stop campaigners exposing the killer dust's dangers”1 provided the opportunity for a new spin on an old story: the use of dirty tricks to discredit the work of ban asbestos campaigners. The “secret documents” referred to by the journalist have long been known to UK activists as was the surveillance ordered by Turner & Newall (T&N) – the UK’s biggest asbestos conglomerate – of “subversive” elements who dared to challenge the industry orthodoxy that asbestos was an essential natural resource. One of those the industry sought to undermine, unsuccessfully I might add, was Mrs. Nancy Tait, the founder of the world’s first asbestos victims’ action group (see: In Memory of Nancy Tait).2
By a quirk of fate, January 5th was also the day that the Mesothelioma Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons.3 The Hansard report noted that MP Mike Kane, the bill’s sponsor, called for the introduction of statutory funding for a disease that is predicted to kill 60,000 Britons in the next 30 years “unless new treatments are found.” The current “unreliable” funding for mesothelioma research “jeopardises ongoing research, which impacts not only on the British research industry, but on mesothelioma mortality in the UK. That is why statutory funding must be secured for the research,” Kane said. The purpose of this bill is the imposition of a levy on the insurance industry to provide a steady stream of “financial assistance for research into mesothelioma.” The bill was introduced to Parliament under the Ten Minute Rule; it was a Private Member’s Bill. Its second reading is scheduled for January 29, 2016.4
These developments – the airing of the asbestos industry’s dirty laundry and the desperate need for potential life-saving research – have a cause and effect relationship. Had T&N not been so successful at controlling the national asbestos agenda, fewer people would be dying from mesothelioma. As the new year begins we must rededicate ourselves to the fight for asbestos justice for all those whose lives have been damaged in pursuit of asbestos profits.
1 Kirby D. How the world's biggest asbestos factory tried to stop campaigners exposing the killer dust's dangers. January 6, 2016.
2 In 1996, Nancy’s services to the country were officially recognized when she received an MBE.
3 Hansard. Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2) Debate. January 5, 2016.
Text of Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2). January 5, 2016.
4 Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2015-16.
Star Wars 0 Asbestos 1
In the week the latest Star Wars extravaganza premiered in Europe, it was a very different sort of film which grabbed my attention. The 11- minute video clip which I viewed yesterday – Time Bomb: A rare cancer shatters a worker's life – has stayed with me all day long.1 Upended by America’s “third wave” of asbestos disease,2 the investigative feature which accompanied it, reinforced the emotional impact of a story simply told.
The subject of this intelligent reportage by the Center for Public Integrity was the effects of asbestos exposure on a typical American family. When husband and father Kris Penny was told he had the fatal asbestos cancer, mesothelioma he was just thirty-nine years old. During scenes shot in the hospital, Kris, his wife, father and six-year old daughter are shown grappling with the news.
His wife’s remark that: “people get up, and they go to work, and they come home, and they have dinner. And they do all these things, and our life is just not like that” resonated with me as I am sure it did with other viewers. No one expects or deserves to be handed a death sentence for going to work!
The physical transition of Kris from a handsome and cheeky-looking young man into a skeletal figure over a 6-month period is hard to watch, no less endure. The response of those accused of causing his illness was equally hard to stomach. AT &T, the company which engaged the contractors who employed Kris to install fiber-optic cables, disowned any obligation to him:
“We hire sophisticated contractors that are experienced in dealing with asbestos, and we require them to comply with [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations.”
AT & T also said that Penny “knew and understood the risks and hazards of asbestos and voluntarily exposed himself to these risks” and that his “injuries, if any, were caused by his own negligent conduct, or by the negligent conduct of others.” Needless to say, his lawyer didn’t agree; nor do we.
As we look forward to the upcoming holidays, spare a thought for the Perry family and others like them in countries all over the world whose only mistake was to trust their employers and their governments to protect them from this deadly killer. On behalf of all of those affected, we reaffirm our commitment to an asbestos-free world and justice for all asbestos victims.
1 Time Bomb: A rare cancer shatters a worker's life.
2 Upended by America’s “third wave” of asbestos disease. December 17, 2015.
Censorship of Italy’s Asbestos Dialogue
In recent days, articles have appeared in the Italian media which detail how Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny continues to exert his financial and legal muscle to protect his public image from accusations relating to his former asbestos businesses.1 Journalists writing for La Repubblica, La Stampa and others have reported the pressure brought to bear on authors and publishers to withdraw a book which Schmidheiny’s lawyers say present him as “a ruthless industrialist who values his own profit higher than the security and life of his employees.”
The text at the center of this controversy was an English translation of an Italian book called: Dossier Eternit: Il grande processo [Dossier Eternit: The Big Trial] by Rosalba Altopiedi and Sara Panelli. Reading the correspondence between Schmidheiny’s lawyers and Amazon EU and the online media coverage, it seems that the objections were initially restricted to the English version of this text. It now seems that the contents of the original Italian language version were also contentious.
In a cease and desist letter dated March 10, 2015 sent by Adrian Bachman from the Swiss law firm of Bachmann Rechtaanwaite AG to Amazon EU, operators of the Amazon online bookstore, Schmidheiny’s lawyer wrote:
“Although the text has been published in December 2014 for the Italian edition and in January 2015 for the English edition, it does not reflect or even mention the verdict of the Italian Corte di Cassazione of November 19, 2014, in which Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny was released from all charges… The fact that Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny is untruthfully presented as a convicted criminal despite having been legally released from exactly these charges, is merely the most blatant of a whole series of personally infringements (sic) in this text.”2
After being contacted by Amazon EU, the Italian publishers were forced to withdraw the publication. Commenting on that decision, publisher Carla Nespolo told La Repubblica “we were not strong enough to take it on.”
We cannot comment on the substance or content of either the original or English translation of this work as we have been unable to obtain copies. Having edited the first English language book about Italy’s Great Asbestos Trial3 and having followed developments closely from the lower court’s verdict up until the Court of Cassation judgment, we are, however, well aware of the national and international importance of the legal proceedings on behalf of Italy’s asbestos victims.4 For more than thirty years, ordinary people living in affected communities were engaged in a David and Goliath battle to ban asbestos use, obtain their rights and remediate their towns. Their actions succeeded in attracting the attention of the Turin public prosecutor who spent over a decade investigating their claims before initiating a lawsuit on their behalf. Every facet of this story deserves to be told.
1 Il magnate dell’amianto blocca su Amazon il libro sul processo Eternit [Asbestos tycoon blocks Amazon sales of book on Eternit legal case]. December 4, 2015.
Amianto, il patron dell'Eternit "censura" Amazon: "Non vendete quel libro, mi danneggia.” December 4, 2015.
Schmidheiny blocca la versione inglese del libro-dossier scritto dal magistrato del processo Eternit. December 4, 2015.
2 Letter by Adrian Bachman from Bachmann Rechtaanwaite AG to Amazon EU. March 10, 2015.
3 Allen D. Kazan-Allen L. Eternit and The Great Asbestos Trial. February 2012.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Postcript to the Great Asbestos Trial. Revised January 14, 2015.
National Asbestos Legacies: Who Cares?
There are a lot of reasons to envy people living in Australia. The country is vast, with loads of natural resources and spectacular landscapes. Australian food and wine are phenomenal while the weather is pretty decent too (English understatement). But while all these advantages are certainly capable of inducing Australia-envy on a damp, grey English day, the subject of this blog is none of the above.
What I am envious of is the forthright attitude and engagement of government departments, federal agencies and independent bodies with the challenge posed by the country’s asbestos problems.
On December 1, it is informative to look back at the huge media coverage, new resources and public outreach events that took place in November to mark Australia’s Asbestos Awareness month.1 On November 27, National Asbestos Awareness Day, two new modules to help homeowners identify asbestos-containing materials in and around their homes were uploaded to one of the country’s leading asbestos awareness websites. The video Asbestos in your Home and the online asbestos product database are potential life-savers. They are user-friendly, accessible and intended for ordinary people, with no specialist knowledge of the asbestos hazard.
These resources did not come out of thin air. They were the result of hard work by professional people commissioned to work on these projects. In Australia there are multiple bodies engaged in the campaign to raise asbestos awareness. They include the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease, the Asbestos Education Committee, the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, asbestos victims’ support groups and trade unions. Each of these stakeholders brings a unique expertise and voice to the asbestos debate.
In the UK, we have hard-working asbestos victims’ support groups and trade unions working on shoestring budgets to address the multiplicity of asbestos challenges faced in the country with the world’s incidence of asbestos mortality. Yesterday, news was released that one of the state dining rooms in Buckingham Palace was contaminated with asbestos. I am sure that no expense will be spared in safeguarding the royal family and their guests from toxic exposures; do the rest of us deserve any less?2
As UK efforts to prevent hazardous exposures stagnate, Australia has taken a leadership role in addressing the multi-faceted problems faced by individuals and society caused by asbestos use. Isn’t it time the UK did likewise?
1 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Awareness Down Under! November 12, 2015.
2 Buckingham Palace dining room closed over ceiling safety concerns. November 30, 2015.
The Global Asbestos War: Battles, Skirmishes and Propaganda
The same week as asbestos campaigners mounted a demonstration outside Italy’s Ministry of Labor (November 11, 2015) and held a general assembly in Casale Monferrato, the town at the epicentre of the country’s asbestos epidemic (November 13, 2015), an academic paper was published which underscored the effects that toxic exposures had had on the unsuspecting community of Casale Monferrato.1 Anyone who has ever had anything to do with the peer review publication process will tell you that there is no way that the publication date could have been timed so precisely that these events would have occurred almost simultaneously.
The fact that they did, and that they took place during lung cancer awareness month, serves to remind us all of the titanic battle which is being fought over asbestos on many fronts. Even as asbestos industry lobbyists hit back this week at plans by the Sri Lanka government to outlaw asbestos by 2018,2 medical and scientific health experts from around the world called on the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister to implement national prohibitions to end more than a century of asbestos production and consumption in the country which dominated the global asbestos narrative for most of the 20th century.3
Today (November 13, 2015), as news was circulating that asbestos debris had been discovered at migrant camps in Calais, it was announced that a $2+ million donation for mesothelioma research had been received by pioneering Australian scientists to facilitate work on immunotherapy protocols to shrink mesothelioma tumors. With two million tonnes of asbestos used every year, and evidence emerging that the long-predicted Asian epidemic of asbestos cancer was becoming manifest – “a relatively large number of mesotheliomas (n=48) were recently reported in a community in China [one of the world’s largest asbestos consumers] that produces chrysotile asbestos textiles” – medical breakthroughs for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are more needed than ever as is pressure by civil society stakeholders on governments, regional authorities, international agencies and commercial organizations. The struggle continues.
1 Stayner L. Para-occupational exposures to asbestos: lessons learned from Casale Monferrato, Italy. November 9, 2015.
2 Asbestos industry cries foul over 2018 ban. November 12, 2015.
3 Letter to Canadian Prime Minister. November 9, 2015.
Good Luck, Klaas!
This week, Klaas Jasperse’s lawsuit against the Government of the Netherlands progressed to the next level when an appeal was launched at The Hague on Monday, November 2, 2015.1 As a result of the bankruptcy of Mr. Jasperse’s former employer – the owners of the Pechiney aluminium factory in Vlissingen – a claim is being pursued against the Dutch Government which had, it is alleged, failed to protect citizens from the occupational asbestos hazard. As a result of its negligence, Mr. Jasperse contracted the fatal asbestos cancer mesothelioma.2
This is the first attempt to hold the Dutch state liable for an occupational asbestos-related disease. In the last twenty-five years, hundreds of asbestos lawsuits have been mounted against Dutch employers and asbestos manufacturers but due to the financial insolvency of the company, this was not possible in this instance.
Proceedings in the lower court began in November 2013 in Mr. Jasperse’s case, four years after he had been diagnosed. If this action succeeds, it could pave the way for others in the Netherlands and abroad. The ruling of the court is expected on January 12, 2016. Until then, messages of solidarity are being conveyed to Mr. Jasperse, his family, friends and legal team – let justice be done!
2 Ruers, B. First Asbestos Claim Brought Against the Dutch State. February 24, 2014.
Remembering Dr. Irving J. Selikoff
A symposium is being held in New York City on October 16, 2015 to mark the centenary of the birth of Irving J. Selikoff (January 15, 1915 – May 20, 1992).1 The work of Dr. Selikoff, who established beyond doubt the link between asbestos exposure and cancer, was crucial in gaining recognition of the occupational asbestos hazard. An activist as well as an astute medical researcher, Dr. Selikoff remains an inspiration for those who seek to improve public health and obtain compensation for people injured by exposure to industrial toxins.
Dr. Irving J. Selikoff (Photo courtesy of Bill Ravanesi).
Because of discrimination policies by U.S. medical schools, Selikoff began his medical studies in Melbourne, Australia. He was awarded a degree in medicine in 1941 after further studies in Glasgow, Scotland. His first employment in the United States was the same year when he joined the staff at the Mount Sinai Hospital. Friends, colleagues and admirers will remember him during the event sponsored by Mount Sinai’s Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health.
1 October 16 Symposium Commemorating 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Dr. Irving Selikoff.
Standing Up for Asbestos Victims!
In a rare but timely intervention, the Collegium Ramazzini, an internationally revered scientific society, today reacted to threats posed to innocent men and women by asbestos lobbyists and those employed by them to minimize the financial repercussions of deadly workplace exposures.
In the press release and commentaries on the pathological diagnosis of diseases caused by asbestos and the causation of malignant mesotheliomas by occupational asbestos exposures, issued today (October 14, 2015), the Collegium made its position crystal clear when it, once again, denounced the “public health hazards of asbestos exposure.”
Its critique of the 2014 Helsinki Consensus Report on Asbestos expressed concerns about guidelines which could:
“lead to missed diagnoses of cases of disease caused by asbestos, failure of workers’ compensation system to properly compensate workers who have been exposed to asbestos, and lost opportunities for public health authorities to recognize asbestos hazards and to prevent asbestos-related disease.”
The Collegium’s commentary on The Causation of Malignant Mesothelioma: Rebutting the False Concept that Recent Exposures to Asbestos do not Contribute to Causation of Mesothelioma was scathing in its damnation of the “false, mendacious, and scientifically unfounded … claim put forth by the Italian asbestos industry and its expert witnesses that in cases of prolonged exposures to asbestos only the earliest periods of exposure contribute to mesothelioma induction, while all subsequent exposures have no causal role.”
Asbestos defendants the world over utilize every trick in the book to refute, delay and curtail their asbestos liabilities. As the legal, administrative and legislative fight for justice grinds on, victims die from asbestos diseases, leaving families bereft and communities devastated. The Collegium Ramazzini has today made it clear that honest scientists will not stand by while experts-for-hire collaborate with voracious executives and corrupt government officials to deny asbestos victims their human and legal rights.
Brazil’s Asbestos Heart of Darkness
Brazil is a country divided over asbestos. Currently, it is the world’s third most prolific producer of raw asbestos fiber and the fourth biggest consumer.1 While federal politicians promote the asbestos industry, seven state governments – Mato Grosso, Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Amazonas – and many municipalities have taken unilateral action to prohibit the use, manufacture, transport and sale of asbestos-containing products.
Since 2012, Brazil’s Supreme Court has been stalling its decisions regarding contentious lawsuits brought by those supporting asbestos use and those condemning it. In the political vacuum which persists, the fact that Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment issued a decree last week (September 30, 2015/ Decree no. 1287) aiming to prolong the continued use of asbestos has been deemed to be a “political and bureaucratic aberration.” Amongst the national institutions and associations which have gone on record to deplore this retrograde action are the:
Civil society campaigners from across the political spectrum are pledging to fight the prioritization of commercial interests over the lives of Brazilian citizens calling for immediate action to ban all asbestos production and use throughout the country.2 Watch this space!3
1 2014 Global Asbestos Trade Data.
2 ¡NO PASARÁN! PORTARIA DO EX-MINISTRO DO TRABALHO E EMPREGO É REPUDIADA POR ENTIDADES NACIONAIS [Ordinance of Former Labor Minister Repudiated by National Bodies.] October 6, 2015.
3 Manifestação de apoio da SBPT à nota de repúdio contra a Portaria no.1287, de 30/9/2015, do Ministro do Trabalho e Emprego [Support manifestation of the Brazilian Society of Pulmonology and Phthisiology (SBPT), a note of outrage against Decree no.1287 of 09.30.2015 by the Minister of Labour and Employment]. October 1, 2015.
Thank you, Michael
Last night, scores of friends, colleagues, family members and well-wishers met to express their appreciation for the work of Michael Lees, the UK’s first and foremost asbestos in schools (AiS) campaigner, at a special event hosted by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in central London. Michael’s involvement with asbestos began when his schoolteacher wife Gina was diagnosed with the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma.
Following her death on September 7, 2000, Michael set off on a quest to understand how a teacher could die from an industrial disease. What he uncovered fueled his determination to rid our schools of a toxic substance that was endangering the lives of those who studied and worked in them.
On hand to take part in a celebration of Michael’s work as he began a long and well-deserved retirement were many who had been involved with the campaign. The informal proceedings began with a light buffet and glasses of wine; during this segment of the evening, people were able to catch up on the latest AiS developments and reflect on Michael’s AiS work and legacy.
Michael Lees (center) and some of his many well-wishers.
Sarah Lyons, from the NUT began the speeches by inviting people to say a few words about Michael and several speakers took the opportunity to do so. They included myself, Nick Green from the Hazards Campaign, Tony Whitston, former Chair of the Asbestos Victims’ Support Groups Forum, John McClean, Michael’s designated successor as head of the AiS Group, Christine Blower, the NUT’s General Secretary, Mike Green, Chair of the Asbestos in Schools steering group at the Department for Education, JUAC’s Julie Winn and others.
There was unanimity about Michael’s: effectiveness at uncovering the truth about the asbestos scandal in UK schools, unreserved commitment to the cause, unfailing politeness and ability to develop consensus across the political spectrum. Michael’s attention to detail had, several speakers remarked, put him on a par with leading scientists, many of whom he had successfully challenged at public meetings and in private discussions.
Civil servant Mike Green said that in the future his benchmark for decisions regarding asbestos in schools would be “What would Michael Lees do?”
Michael Lees and Christine Blower.
Christine Blower recalled the time many years ago, before Michael was on the scene, when she had routinely been exposed to asbestos whilst working as a school teacher, while Tony Whitston spoke of Michael’s “masterclasses” on the issue. Michael’s grassroots awards – including the “Alan Award” from the Hazards Campaign – and the MBE he received in 2014 were also mentioned. Comments about the conciseness of his writing led to an outburst of laughter as brevity was, many of his friends admitted, never one of Michael’s strengths.
From left: Paula Walker, Michael Lees, Joanne Gordon, Tony Whitston.
Gifts presented to him last night in appreciation of his AiS work included a cartoon of a knight in shining armor slaying the asbestos dragon, gift vouchers for a DIY store (for many of Michael’s retirement projects), some celebratory bottles and a plate which was the first Michael Lees JUAC award.
Commenting on last night’s activities, Jayne Lawson, whose schoolteacher husband Derek died from mesothelioma in 2009, said:
“When Derek died it was important for the family to establish why he had contracted this disease. We had no specialist knowledge and were dealing with an enormous tragedy that left us all struggling. Michael was there to help not only with the technical details but also the emotional support that came from someone who knew only too well what we were facing. At any hour and on any topic, he was there for us. I know we were just one family out of many that he helped and speaking on behalf of us all, I’d like to thank him for what he has done and wish him the very best for a happy future with his beautiful grandchildren and his many projects.”
August 2015: A Week of Global Asbestos Progress
From Canada to New Zealand by way of Cambodia, the last few days have seen a seismic shift in the global asbestos landscape. Canada, until very recently, was one of the world’s foremost producers of chrysotile asbestos; neither the federal nor provincial governments were inclined to take any action that would incur the wrath of powerful asbestos vested interests. For the most part, political parties had side-stepped the asbestos hot potato. In the run-up to federal elections on October 19, 2015, civil society groups and labor federations have acted to reverse this deplorable situation.
On August 19, 2015 Ban Asbestos Canada, a network of asbestos victims, relatives, campaigners, trade unionists and experts, launched an online petition addressed to all the federal political parties calling on them to support a unilateral asbestos ban and implement a coordinated strategy to support the injured and decontaminate the environment.1 It is well past time that voters demand their elected representatives to put on the record their plans for engaging with the country’s asbestos legacy.
Last week, Cambodia’s Minister of Labor told delegates at an asbestos seminar in Phnom Penh that officials were “conducting a study [on asbestos], after which we will ask the government to stop the import and use of asbestos in order to ensure health security in the workplace.” The fact that imports of asbestos-containing products rose from $1.3 million in 2009 to $4 million in 2013 is a matter of concern to trade unionists such as Sok Kin, President of The Building and Wood Worker Trade Union Federation of Cambodia; in an interview, Mr Kin estimated that up to 80% of construction workers could be at high risk of occupational asbestos exposures. Calling for a government action on asbestos, he said that there was a widespread lack of knowledge about the workplace asbestos hazard.2
Today (August 26, 2015), New Zealand’s Minister of Environment Dr. Nick Smith issued a press release which announced that the Government is:
“… proposing to extend the ban on asbestos. Asbestos is a recognised carcinogen, poses risks of respiratory disease and is a leading cause of work-related disease and mortality. The importation of raw asbestos is completely banned already in New Zealand but there is currently no ban on products that contain asbestos, which would bring New Zealand’s regulations into line with that of many other countries.”3
As has been seen on previous occasions, the knowledge of New Zealand’s Environment Ministers about the asbestos hazard is far from perfect;4 research is being undertaken in New Zealand to confirm suspicions that no legislative ban on imports of raw asbestos actually exists. Nevertheless, the Minister’s statement does acknowledge, finally, the “known risks to both the environment and human health” of exposure to asbestos and the need for decisive action on asbestos by the Government. That is progress!
1 Kazan-Allen L. Ban Asbestos Mobilization in Canada. August 22, 2015.
2 Sokhorng C. Construction sector unaware of asbestos risks. August 26, 2015.
Vida T. Gov’t eyes ban on asbestos. August 20, 2015.
3 Press Release. Consultation on steps to ozone recovery and asbestos ban. August 26, 2015.
4 Minister Amy Adams. Letter to Deidre VanGerven. February 14, 2013.
The Mystery of the Silent Spin Doctor
One might have thought that a prime attribute of a public relations specialist would be his willingness to engage with the media. And yet John Aylen, author of the controversial report “Lessons from the Quebec Asbestos Industry: Can there be meaningful dialogue and consensus when facts come up against feelings?” has failed to respond to questions asked in July and August 2015 by French”1 and English”2 language journalists. Emails we sent to him on August 12, 2015 also remain unanswered.
At issue is Aylen’s failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest stemming from his work for and relationship with asbestos vested interests, including the controversial figure of Baljit Chadha, the entrepreneur whose plan to refloat Quebec’s last operational asbestos mine floundered when Quebec’s Liberal Party was thrown out of office in 2012.
Aylen’s contentious study, uploaded last month (July 2015) to the website of Concordia University where he is a full-time lecturer in “marketing communications,” was the subject of a six-page July 24, 2015 letter of complaint from Canadian medical and scientific experts to the President of Concordia University Dr. Alan Shepard:
“Mr. Aylen was hired by Baljit Chadha and an asbestos consortium to help obtain a loan from the Quebec government in order to open the Jeffrey underground asbestos mine. Mr. Aylen teaches Business Communications and Integrated Marketing Communications at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business and runs a public relations and corporate communications firm. In his report, Mr. Aylen acknowledges the ‘gracious and generous contributions’ of Baljit Chadha (to whom Aylen gives the name Mr Barry Smith) and expresses gratitude for ‘the dedicated assistance of Mr. Guy Versailles’. Versailles owns a public relations company that was also hired by Mr. Chadha to help secure the government loan for the asbestos consortium.”3
Bowing to the high-profile criticism this publication attracted,”4 Concordia, one of Canada’s largest universities, removed it from its website”5 and began an investigation into the accusations. One wonders if Aylen, a “marketing communications professional with more than 30 years experience in planning and implementing communications programs” will be communicative.
1 Nadeau J. L’Université Concordia dans l’embarras. August 11, 2015.
2 Feith J. Concordia to review asbestos report. July 25, 2015.
3 Ruff K. et al. Letter to President A. Shepard. July 24, 2015.
4 Ruff K. Concordia University withdraws asbestos report while it carries out investigation. August 10, 2015.
Ruff K. Concordia University asked to withdraw inaccurate, biased report supporting Quebec asbestos trade. July 25, 2015.
5 Error message where report used to be. August 13, 2015.
The Illegal Asbestos Trade
Despite the known threat posed by the asbestos hazard, contaminated products continue to subvert national and regional asbestos bans. Last week, it was announced that Turin public prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello was investigating the discovery that more than 8,600 cars purchased in Italy from China’s Great Wall Motors were contaminated with asbestos-containing components; indictments are expected shortly against two Italian businessmen.1 In February this year (2015), the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service admitted it was unable to guarantee that imported Chinese goods were asbestos-free.2 Asbestos-contaminated imports from China have included plasterboard — a disaster for plasterers — gaskets, trains, mining equipment and vehicles.
This month (July 2015), there has been a furore about the discovery that crayons containing asbestos made in China were being sold in the US. Media coverage of this story has been huge and led to investigations in Australia and the UK over possible importation of these products. UK asbestos victims groups, trade unions and campaigning bodies issued a media release on this subject on July 27, 2015 which demanded that the government take action to secure our borders and protect citizens from toxic imports.3
There is no mystery about these illegal imports. Two million tonnes of asbestos are being used every year. While the bulk of the consumed fiber remains in countries where asbestos is legal, some is incorporated into products that are sold internationally. As there is no global asbestos ban, the reality is that specific products from asbestos-using countries should be placed on an embargo list. From the details above and from other recent incidents, that list should include: building products, trains, vehicles, mining equipment, gaskets, crayons, and flasks. The alternative is for every country wishing to sell their goods abroad to unilaterally ban asbestos. It would not only make economic sense but would also be the right thing to do to protect human life.
1 Amianto, 8600 auto dalla Cina con componenti in Amianto [8,600 cars with asbestos components imported from China]. July 22, 2015.
2 Ferguson J. Made in China (with asbestos). February 23, 2015.
3 STOP Playing with Cancer! July 27, 2015.
Cancer Crayons, Asbestos Crimes 2015
On July 15, 2015, an Italian court sentenced eleven former managers of the Pirelli company to jail for their parts in the asbestos-related deaths of twenty former workers who were negligently exposed to asbestos at two of the company’s factories in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s.1
This verdict came as news continues to circulate of the discovery that crayons and fingerprinting kits sold in the US were contaminated with tremolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile and actinolite asbestos. Concern about the Chinese-produced toxic consumer goods has spread from North America to Europe and Australia as knowledge about the situation grows. This discovery was not made by a government agency or a consumer group – it was revealed by a body campaigning for the United States to ban asbestos.
In Australia, the National Toxics Network has issued a formal complaint to the Competition and Consumer Commission about the online sale in Australia of Mickey Mouse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crayons and “CSI” science kits. This is not the first time that the Australian asbestos ban has been flouted by the import of tainted goods from China. And yet, according to trade unionist Michael Borowick “only two prosecutions for a breach of the ban have taken place in the past 11 years.”2
If the image of American or Australian children drawing with “cancer crayons,” is disturbing so too is the idea of British apprentices drilling into asbestos-cement construction materials and Indian workers tearing asbestos insulation from ships in beach scrapyards.
And yet, unlike in Italy, it seems no one will go to jail for the damage done by these exposures. In the UK, former directors of asbestos companies received honors from the Queen for their services to the country as well as big fat pensions even as the death toll from the operations of their deadly factories continued to mount.
It seems that we all have a lot to learn from Italian jurisprudence when it comes to dealing with corporate criminals.
1 Amianto a Milano, "fu omicidio colposo": condanne fino a 7 anni per 11 ex manager Pirelli. July 15, 2015.
1 Colman E. ACTU calls for inquiry into asbestos import. July 16, 2015.
What if You Won the Lottery?
There can be very few people who have not daydreamed about what they would do if they won the lottery. Houses for all family members? Round-the-world first class plane tickets? Donations to favorite charities? I have certainly had this discussion with my husband and needless to say we don’t agree on how “our winnings” would be disbursed. However, that is not a serious problem as the chances of our winning are abysmally small – we have only ever bought five lottery tickets!
This is not the case for Gina Rinehart who by the happenstance of her birth has become the wealthiest person in Australia and the sixth richest woman in the world. Her vast fortune was founded on her father’s mining interests, the first of which was a blue asbestos mine in Western Australia. Gina lived in the mining region near Wittenoom when she was young and like other children she inhaled deadly asbestos dust day in, day out. Asbestos fibers were in the air, in the soil and on the children’s clothes. The sandboxes were full of asbestos-contaminated mine tailings; the children breathed in the carcinogenic fibers as they made their sandcastles and played with their toys in their backyards.
Gina, like the rest of her Wittenoom contemporaries, is at high risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. Indeed, many of the former Wittenoom children have already died from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma.
In Australia, Gina Rinehart is rarely out of the newspapers despite her aversion to the media. She is proud of her father and jealous of his legacy despite the role in played in Australia’s asbestos tragedy. Lang Hancock was and remains a controversial character not least because of his denial that exposure to asbestos causes cancer.1
Ms. Rinehart is a West Australian born and bred and she could do something really wonderful by donating $100 million to two West Australian institutions which work to support the asbestos-injured and find new treatments and cures for the diseases asbestos can cause. These donations to the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia and the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases would be a fitting memorial to Lang Hancock and his daughter. They might also be in Ms. Rinehart’s self-interest – as a Wittenoom child there is a chance that she, like so many others, may one day contract mesothelioma. Should the worst happen, it would be good to know that the cure that saves her life was funded by Hancock Prospecting.
1 Barrett J. The family legacy Gina Rinehart would like to forget. July 7, 2015
Finnegan W. The Miner’s Daughter. March 25, 2013.
King Cameron’s Runnymede Hypocrisy
The Prime Minister joined other British dignitaries today at Runnymede to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.
One wonders if he did so with his fingers crossed behind his back for even as he highlighted the relevance of the “Great Charter” to 21st century life, he remained stalwart in his determination to take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights and scrap the Human Rights Act.
There are so many examples of how the Tory Government is working to undercut our basic rights that it is difficult to choose just one but I will do so nevertheless.
In March 2015, a new schedule of court fees was introduced by the Ministry of Justice which increased by more than 650% the cost of bringing an average asbestos injury claim. The excuse given for this draconian measure was the need in these straitened times to recoup the cost of running the Court system. The result of these increases was predictable – the marginalization and discouragement of claimants seeking to obtain justice for the damage done to them by their exposures to asbestos.
Protesting about the new charges, the Law Society said that the government’s action “would be tantamount to ‘selling justice’ contrary to the principles of Magna Carta.” Justice will, of course, still be available but only to those who can afford it. It seems that in the afterglow of his election victory, King Cameron is prepared to reconfirm the dominance of the few at the expense of the many.
There is another anniversary this week – on Thursday June 18, it will be two hundred years since Wellington’s armies defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had thought himself invincible but we all know how that ended. Think on Cameron, think on.
Alcoa and Asbestos: A Dangerous Mix!
Today, I read news of yet another asbestos incident at an Alcoa plant in Western Australia.1 The details of the latest exposure were as familiar as the position taken by the company that “the risk of any health impact to the contractors working on the job was considered extremely low due to the non-friable condition of the material, the limited amount of the material, the type of asbestos contained in the material and the short duration of the task.”
Easy for them to say when it was not their lungs which had inhaled the deadly fibers and not their families who were exposed to the contamination taken home on the work clothes of the seven maintenance workers who noticed a “white powdery substance” when they were removing roof sheets at a refinery last month (May 2015). Fortunately, they called their unions which tested the “white powdery substance” and found it to be asbestos.
This is not the first breach of Australian asbestos regulations by Alcoa. Five years ago, the company had been in the news over its purchase of 1,100+ asbestos-containing gaskets. The company was “very confident that the risk presented by these valves is extremely small.” Its workers were not so confident and sought advice from the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia regarding the implications of their workplace exposures.
Alcoa is a multinational conglomerate which aspires to “work safely, promote wellness, and protect the environment.” Yet, when it comes to asbestos, the hazards of which have been known for many decades, neither the workers nor their families are protected from the company’s negligence.
It is not just a problem for Australia’s Alcoa employees. Brazilian workers have also experienced fatal asbestos exposures. Dante Untura Filho died from malignant mesothelioma in 2010, having inhaled asbestos whilst employed at the Alcoa plant in Poços de Caldas, Brazil (1970-1987). He brought a lawsuit in the United States against the company but died before the case was settled.2
It is fortunate that in Australia, the trade unions are on the ball and that union members have been informed about the hazards so that when they come across a potential source of exposure they take appropriate action. While these incidents should not happen, they do and it is well past time that Alcoa took steps to ensure that their workplaces were asbestos-free. But what about the conditions experienced by Alcoa workers in countries where asbestos remains legal? How many more cases like that of Dante Untura Filho will have to be brought, before the company takes comprehensive and unilateral action on asbestos?
1 Workers exposed to asbestos at Alcoa's Kwinana refinery, says CFMEU. June 4, 2015.
2 Death of Brazilian Asbestos Victim. February 12, 2010.
Australia’s Asbestos Reality
Yesterday was a British bank holiday and during the day I sat down to read a book. I did not put it down until I finished it some hours later. The odd thing was that the book was not by Dan Brown or John Grisham or another thriller writer. It was by an Australian called Barry Knowles who had left school at 14 and was a builder by trade and, by his own admission, not much of a writer.
I am afraid Mr. Knowles was wrong – he is one hell of a writer and the story he has to tell has much to recommend it. While the book “Reflections through Reality””1 is very much a personal narrative it plays out on a very broad landscape and has features you would find in a best-seller. Be in no doubt, there is a serial killer at large who has murdered so many people that the only real way to get to grips with the crime is victim by victim. Barry knows many of them – some he worked with when he was an apprentice and later a master builder in Western Australia, others he met after he had retired. All of them, including Barry, were injured by exposure to asbestos-containing building products which were used on a massive scale throughout Australia. In 2010 Barry, who had retired to Tasmania with his wife Renee, was told he had mesothelioma, a cancer which could end his life within nine months. Five years later, he is still alive.
Barry’s phenomenal memory enables him to describe the routine asbestos exposures he experienced during his apprenticeship in great detail:
“All of these buildings had asbestos products installed in them, such as fibro asbestos to line external walls; Tilux sheeting to kitchen and laundry dados, and to bathroom walls; asbestos gutters, downpipes, corrugated roof sheets (Super Six) and accessories.”
The book’s personal narrative covers the writer’s life from the time his family emigrated to Australia in 1952 when he was 7½ years old to the current day including the shock of his mesothelioma diagnosis, subsequent treatment and decision to forgo further chemotherapy and surgery. The physical and practical impacts of his disease on himself and his family are described in a matter-of-fact manner despite their distressing nature.
Interwoven with the day-to-day reality of life with mesothelioma are details of two other journeys: from Kalgoorlie to Perth (2012) and from Dunsborough to Perth (2013) organized by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) to raise asbestos awareness and funds for medical research. Barry expresses, on many occasions, his respect and gratitude for the work of the Society with specific mentions of ADSA President Robert Vojakovic, his walking partner during the 2012 walk, and ADSA Counsellor Rose Marie Vojakovic.”2
Contributions in the book from Barry’s wife and daughters provide valuable insight into how mesothelioma affects the whole family and his daughter Aimee’s realization that mesothelioma is not only a murderer but also a thief was particularly poignant. Writing about Barry, his wife of 47 years Renee said: “He is a man of great integrity and thought if he was given a job to do it should be done to the best of his ability.” In writing this book, Barry has done just that.
2 Kazan-Allen L. Western Australia’s Asbestos Legacy. May 10, 2015.