Laurie Kazan-Allen

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Laurie Kazan-Allen

October 9, 2020

Johnson & Johnson: Its Profits, Our Lives!

On the same day (October 5, 2020) that global campaigners urged British Parliamentarians to take action on the hazard posed by sales of toxic talc-based baby powder, the manufacturer – Johnson & Johnson (J&J) – announced it had settled 1000+ lawsuits from U.S. cancer sufferers for a sum in excess of $100 million.1 In a J&J statement, the company confirmed its capitulation but refused to admit liability for the harm its product had done.

This hypocritical double-speak is something campaigners have become familiar with as it has been used by the company to explain away the fact that although talc-based baby powder had been withdrawn from markets in the U.S. and Canada, it was still being sold elsewhere. In response to a petition signed by 200+ groups from 50 countries which called on J&J to end the global marketing of toxic baby powder, the company explained:

“The decision to discontinue talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the United States and Canada has nothing to do with the safety of the product. Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, asbestos free, and does not cause cancer. However, demand for talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in North America has been declining due in large part to changes in consumer habits and fuelled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising.”2

The company’s behaviour has been deplored at home and abroad not only by grassroots activists but also by politicians such as Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi who on October 5, 2020 wrote:

“We can no longer turn a blind eye to the patterns of manipulation and predatory marketing that have caused higher concentrations of hazardous materials to proliferate in communities of color. And we must hold companies like Johnson & Johnson to account for continuing to sell a product they already know to be poisonous both here in the United States and across the world.

That is why we are joining together today to urge Johnson & Johnson to go beyond its recent commitment to stop selling the product in the U.S. and Canada to aggressively work to remove any remaining inventory from U.S. shelves while also halting all sales of the product globally. We are demanding the company mount a global public-education campaign encouraging consumers to throw away their talc-based products. And we are urging Alex Gorsky and the members of Johnson & Johnson’s Board to sit down with current and future victims across the world.”3

The question of whether “busy UK families [would] be aware of the controversy over the continuing sale of J&J’s toxic talc-based baby powder or be in the position to make an informed choice” in buying asbestos-free products for their children was raised in a June 17, 2020 press release by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK. Condemning J&J’s double standards, the Forum called for government action; to date, none has been forthcoming.4

On October 5, 2020, John Flanagan, from the Merseyside Asbestos Victims Support Group, told a Zoom meeting of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group (APPG) how a summer shopping trip to multiple retail outlets in Liverpool revealed that the safe alternative J&J baby powder – which was cornstarch not talc-based – had been unavailable. A written submission to the APPG meeting from Janette Robinson Flint, Executive Director of Black Women for Wellness (BWW), described the widespread “concern” about the actions of Johnson & Johnson and the mistrust its behaviour had engendered. The international coalition led by BWW was, she wrote committed to three demands: “cease manufacture of the products, safe disposal of the product and stop targeting Black & Women of Color with aggressive marketing campaigns that increase our use of the toxic chemicals.” Ms. Flint urged Parliamentarians and “concerned citizens to hold this company to account in every country where the sale of this product continues to endanger human life.” We couldn’t agree more.

1 Johnson & Johnson to pay more than $100 million to settle over 1,000 talc lawsuits: Bloomberg. October 5, 2020.
https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-talc/johnson-johnson-to-pay-more-than-100-million-to-settle-over-1000-talc-lawsuits-bloomberg-idUKKBN26Q2H7

2 Email from Kathleen Widmer (J&J Company Group Chairman, North America and Latin America) to Janette Robinson Flint, Black Women for Wellness. July 10, 2020.
https://www.bwwla.org/v2019/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/JJ-non-response-to-Black-Women-for-Wellness-.pdf

3 Talcum Powder Sales Shouldn’t Come At The Cost Of Women’s Lives. October 5, 2020.
https://medium.com/@CongressmanRaja/talcum-powder-sales-shouldnt-come-at-the-cost-of-women-s-lives-7f3996526538

4 Asbestos Victims’ Support Groups Forum UK. Health Alert: Asbestos in Baby Power. June 17, 2020.
https://asbestosforum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Forum-Press-Release-June-2020.pdf

September 3, 2020

Déjà-Vu All Over Again!

One month after an explosion ripped through the Port area of Beirut, information is emerging of the environmental asbestos contamination let loose by the disaster. As in so many other natural and man-made disasters, this additional hazard for emergency workers and local people was as expected as it was unwelcomed. Wherever asbestos has been used, entire populations become hostages to fortune with inhalation of deadly fibers only one earthquake, tsunami or conflagration away.1

Oddly enough, the first mention I came across of the asbestos situation in Beirut was uploaded on August 5, a day after the event occurred, in a Russian language article. The author cited authoritative warnings – “Asbestos in damaged buildings poses a significant health risk” – about the post-disaster hazard posed by airborne asbestos in the aftermath of the explosions, speculating that amongst the 40,000 damaged or destroyed buildings were ones built in the 1950s and 1960s when asbestos use was commonplace.2

In the absence of any immediate mobilization by the central government or the Beirut municipality to address the devastation caused by the blast, non-government organizations (NGOs) and international agencies3 stepped into the breach with local people volunteering their labor. New waste dumps were hastily designated and debris, including asbestos-containing products as well as other contaminated waste, were collected and placed haphazardly in sites, many of which were in residential areas. The volunteers had no equipment or heavy duty vehicles to transport the debris any distance and did what they could to clean-up affected neighborhoods. In any case, even if suitable transport had been available, there was no licensed landfill in Lebanon capable of receiving toxic waste. It goes without saying that the volunteers had neither protective clothing nor equipment such as specialist respirators. Despite urgent calls for a “clear management plan for debris removal, including asbestos,” no coordinated government action has been reported.4

1 Kazan-Allen, L. The Post-Disaster Asbestos Hazard: 1995-2020. January 21, 2020.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-the-post-disaster-asbestos-hazard-1995-2020.php

2 Названо самое опасное вещество, оказавшееся в воздухе после взрыва в Бейруте [The most dangerous substance in the air after the explosion in Beirut is named]. https://360tv.ru/news/mir/nazvano-samoe-opasnoe-veschestvo-okazavsheesja-v-vozduhe-posle-vzryva-v-bejrute/

3 Three-page leaflets in Arabic (أسبستوس - المخاطر والممارسات الآمنة للتنظيف بعد انفجار بيروت) and English (ASBESTOS – hazards and safe practices for cleanup after Beirut blast) prepared by the World Health Organization, the Environmental Health Group, the American University of Beirut and the Nature Conservation Center were widely distributed amongst volunteer workers and Beirut residents.

4 Cancer risk on the rise after Beirut blast, warn experts. August 27, 2020.
https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/cancer-risk-on-the-rise-after-beirut-blast-warn-experts-1.1068627
Porter, L. After the blast: how Beirut’s clean-up operation is exposing Lebanon’s wider state dysfunction. August 19, 2020.
https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/after-the-blast-how-beiruts-clean-up-operation-is-exposing-lebanons-wider-state-dysfunction

August 13, 2020

Quebec’s Asbestos Legacy: A New Reality

The adverse consequences of more than one hundred years of asbestos mining in Quebec were initially ignored, more latterly denied and only recently acknowledged. According to Dr. Jim Brophy, former Director of Sarnia’s Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Windsor, last week’s publication of the findings of Quebec’s Independent Office of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE) regarding the Province’s asbestos legacy – including the risks posed by environmental contamination and asbestos within Quebec’s infrastructure1 – represented “an important, historic victory for all of those that have fought for so long and so hard to prevent asbestos-related disease here (Canada) and abroad.”2 Concurring with Dr. Brophy’s assessment, Canadian ban asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff called the publication “a landmark.” 3

The 343-page report, available only in French, was produced by the three-member Commission tasked by Quebec’s Minister of the Environment in November 2019 to consider how best to deal with the 800+ million tons of asbestos waste created by mining operations in the Province and to investigate the advisability of commercial proposals to process asbestos tailings to extract magnesium and other metals. The Commission’s deliberations were thorough and transparent and included consultations with key stakeholders in and out of government as well as technical experts from Canada and abroad. Having acknowledged that all types of asbestos were carcinogenic and that there was no safe level of exposure, the Commission made highly significant recommendations for protecting both workers and members of the public from toxic exposures including:

  • tightening Quebec’s occupational exposure standard to 0.1f/cc for all types of asbestos, including chrysotile;4
  • establishing an agency to oversee the management and safe elimination of asbestos and scrutinize plans to commercially exploit asbestos waste;
  • mandating rigorous safeguards to prevent the liberation of asbestos fibers from all projects reclaiming metals from asbestos mining waste;
  • a call for the Ministry of the Environment to mandate criteria for ambient maximum levels of airborne asbestos; failing that, measures should be put in place to prevent asbestos fiber liberation from the processing of asbestos waste;
  • amending Quebec’s regulations to include asbestos fibers less than 5 micrometers in length;
  • creating registries of at-risk workers and buildings containing asbestos;
  • setting up training protocols and a certification scheme to raise the level of awareness amongst those likely to be exposed to asbestos at work;
  • streamlining the workers’ compensation scheme to speed-up and simplify the process of making a claim for an asbestos-related disease;5
  • including sites with asbestos-contaminated soil in land registry records.

In its response to the BAPE report, the Association of Asbestos Victims of Quebec (AVAQ) welcomed the criteria set for recovery projects at the asbestos dumps: work at the sites must not pose any additional risk to workers or members of the public and the extraction process must destroy asbestos fibers without impacting on the air quality. “We understand,” said AVAQ’s Scientific Advisor Norman King “that before any project development to upgrade the dumps, it will take a rigorous risk analysis to demonstrate that there is no additional risk at the health and environmental level… This is not a categorical no, but it is not an unconditional yes. We're comfortable with that.”6 Having indicated the report’s shortcomings, AVAQ was, on balance, positive about the recommendations made but pointed out that the Quebec Government was under no obligation to implement them.

To date, neither the Quebec nor Canadian Government have responded to the report. On August 12, Alliance Magnesium, the leading reclamation company involved in this project, issued reassurances that the company would “continue to respect all the [safety] standards in place" and not compromise on matters of health, safety and the environment.7 Given the $145 million investment already made in the project by the Canadian and Quebec governments, the investment banking Montreal-based Alternative Capital Group, the Quebec pension fund: Fondaction, Alliance Magnesium and the Marubeni Corporation of Japan it is likely there will be some accommodation with the BAPE recommendations; how much, remains to be seen.8

1 L’état des lieux et la gestion de l’amiante et des résidus miniers amianté [The inventory and management of asbestos and asbestos mine tailings]. August 7, 2020.
https://www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/fr/dossiers/etat-des-lieux-et-gestion-de-l-amiante-et-residus-miniers-amiantes/

2 Email received from Dr Brophy. August 8, 2020.

3 Ruff, K. Quebec Commission of Inquiry releases landmark report on asbestos. August 8, 2020.
https://rightoncanada.ca/?p=4449

4 Quebec’s current standard for workplace exposure to asbestos is 10 times higher than that in the rest of Canada, meaning Quebec workers have a much higher risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases.

5 Occupational claims for pleural mesothelioma should be recognized automatically due to the acknowledged relationship between exposure to asbestos and the causation of this cancer.

6 L’AVAQ confortable avec les conditions du BAPE sur l’amiante [AVAQ comfortable with the with BAPE report on asbestos]. August 11, 2020
https://www.lanouvelle.net/2020/08/11/lavaq-confortable-avec-les-conditions-du-bape-sur-lamiante/

7 Aucun compromis sur la santé pour Alliance Magnésium [“No compromise” on health for Alliance Magnesium]. August 12, 2020.
https://www.latribune.ca/actualites/estrie-et-regions/aucun-compromis-sur-la-sante-pour-alliance-magnesium-f49167b858113be769a4445db6cdc5be

8 Alliance Magnesium Begins Construction of Its Magnesium Ingot Plant. June 29, 2020.
http://alliancemagnesium.com/news/

July 9, 2020

Action Mesothelioma Day 2020

For over 15 years “Action Mesothelioma Day” (AMD), has been a UK calendar event traditionally observed on the first Friday in July. AMD is a focal point for the activities of UK asbestos victims’ support groups and mesothelioma charities, an occasion for socializing and fellowship, an opportunity for raising research funds and a time for reaffirming one’s membership of a community of like-minded individuals.1 Over the years, AMD has taken place on blisteringly sunny days and under stormy skies with summertime showers, on occasion, preventing butterfly and dove releases. While every event had its own personality, many included musical interludes, floral tributes and post-AMD teas with homemade cakes. My take-away from the events I attended over the years was always one of amazement at the generosity of spirit and strength of character on show by people who had every right to feel aggrieved at the turn their lives had taken. The sustained effort of the volunteers and staff who organized these events was invisible but apparent nevertheless in the smoothness with which the activities were rolled out, the significant input of asbestos victims and the reassuring presence of medical personnel, should a participant be taken ill.

With all this in mind, the prospect of a socially distanced AMD filled me with consternation. Of course, no one would expect people with asbestos-related diseases to take part in a public event with the coronavirus pandemic rampant in the UK. That being so, how could AMD 2020 be marked in a way which would both uphold its objectives and respect the needs of the mesothelioma community.

Of course, there was no need to worry. Asbestos victims’ support groups and mesothelioma charities more than rose to the challenge with a multitude of virtual AMD events rolled out on July 3, 2020 to keep the conversation going and to maintain a high profile for efforts to address the UK’s deadly asbestos legacy not least of which is the ongoing death toll of 5,000+ per year.2 Online information sessions, virtual get-togethers and interviews were accessible on various platforms including facebook and youtube3 throughout the day.4 The announcement of new initiatives – such as the HASAG counselling service5 – and new resources – including a Mesothelioma Charter and an AMD briefing6 – were both timely and welcome.

Feedback from AMD suggests that while face-to-face events remain the preferred option, there was a good response to the virtual and online events with one veteran AMD organizer pointing out that it was the first time she had been able to “attend” events organized by other groups. Commenting on AMD 2020, Joanne Gordon, Chair of Asbestos Victims Support Groups UK Forum said:

“In recent months, there has been a big effort by victims’ groups to create new content and resources informed by the views of our members which prioritized the input of those suffering from asbestos-related diseases for AMD 2020. The videos produced and material created are a great resource which will be much used in the future. Discussions with Forum members continue about the impact of this unusual, and hopefully only, COVID-19 AMD.”7

1 Kazan-Allen, L. Action Mesothelioma Day 2019. July 15, 2019.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-action-mesothelioma-day-2019.php
Kazan-Allen, L. Action Mesothelioma Day 2018 – Photos. July 18, 2018.
http://ibasecretariat.org/action-mesothelioma-day-2018-photos.php

2 HSE releases annual workplace fatality figures for 2019/20. July 1, 2020.
https://press.hse.gov.uk/2020/07/01/hse-releases-annual-workplace-fatality-figures-for-2019-20/

3 Youtube Premieres: Virtual Action Mesothelioma Day 2020. July 3, 2020.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TySK6VW6Qkw&feature=youtu.be
Virtual Action Mesothelioma Day 2020.
https://www.facebook.com/ukmesoalliance/videos/867319007125192/

4 June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund. Join us for Action Mesothelioma Day 2020.
http://www.junehancockfund.org/2020/news/join-us-for-action-mesothelioma-day-2020/

5 HASAG Counselling Service.
https://hasag.co.uk/support/counselling-service/

6 UK Mesothelioma Alliance. Mesothelioma Patient Charter.
https://www.ukmesoalliance.org/projects/mesothelioma-patient-charter/
Thompsons Solicitors. Action Mesothelioma Day 2020 – Your Asbestos Questions Answered.
https://www.thompsons.law/news/commentary/asbestos-diseases/action-mesothelioma-day-2020-your-asbestos-questions-answered

7 Email from Joanne Gordon received July 4, 2020.

June 18, 2020

Outrage over Toxic Corporate Strategy!

The bald-faced hypocrisy of the American multinational Johnson & Johnson in withdrawing its iconic talc-based baby powder from sale in North America whilst continuing to market it abroad has led to global condemnation.1 Asbestos victims’ groups, consumer associations, trade unions and civil society campaigners from Asia, Latin America and Europe have demanded explanations about the company’s actions and denounced the implicit double standards which prioritized the lives of Americans at the expense of other nationalities.2

Responses signed by J&J personnel or public relation spin doctors to officials representing Medicina Democratica Movimento di Lotta per la Salute [Democratic Medicine Fight for Health Movement] (Italy), Associazione Italiana Esposti Amianto [the Italian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed], Associazione Familiari Vittime Amianto [Italy’s Asbestos Victims’ Family Association], the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA), the Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia), the Ban Asbestos Network of Japan (BANJAN), Arugaan (Philippines), the EcoWaste Coalition (Philippines) and the Associated Labour Unions – Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, repeated ad nauseum the company line:

  • “Johnson & Johnson decided to stop marketing Johnson's talc-based Baby Powder in the United States and Canada as part of a wider evaluation of the product portfolio…”
  • “This decision was made after considering several factors – including changing consumer habits, misinformation about product safety and a wave of misleading advertising about related lawsuits – which ultimately decreased demand.”
  • “Johnson & Johnson remains firmly convinced of the safety of Johnson's talc-based Baby Powder. Decades of scientific studies conducted by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product.”3

A June 4 press release by the French Association for the Defense of Asbestos Victims (Andeva) denounced the infamy of J&J’s marketing strategy which valued the lives of North Americans more highly than those of non-Americans and called on the French Government to ban the import of Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder on the grounds of public health.4 In a June 17 press release, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK was scathing in its condemnation of J&J’s “deplorable” behaviour stating: “Human life is sacrosanct. If the company is unable or unwilling to protect the health of all its customers, then government action is called for.”5

Mobilization by the groups cited above and many others has raised the media profile of J&J’s outrageous behaviour and increased pressure on national governments, regional intergovernmental organizations and international agencies to take unilateral action.6 It goes without saying that heightened awareness of J&J’s duplicity will almost certainly result in more lawsuits being brought by non-Americans over toxic exposures to J&J baby powder. With the multinational’s decision-making accomplished at its New Jersey headquarters, it is time for foreign plaintiffs to use the U.S. legal system to seek redress for their injuries. It is almost impossible to imagine a NJ jury excusing Johnson & Johnson’s actions especially when a non-lethal version of its baby powder has been available for decades.

1 Kazan-Allen, L. Double Standards: Toxic Talc Banned at Home, On Sale Abroad. May 28, 2020.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-double-standards-toxic-talc-banned-at-home-on-sale-abroad.php

2 Press Release: Death, Duplicity and Double Standards. May 25, 2020.
http://ibasecretariat.org/press_rel_may_25_2020.pdf

3 Letter from Johnson & Johnson S.p.A. (Italy) to Medicina Democratica Movimento di Lotta per la Salute (Democratic Medicine Fight for Health Movement). June 3, 2020.

4 AMIANTE DANS LE TALC: L’Andeva alerte le ministre de la Santé [ASBESTOS IN TALC: Andeva Alerts the Minister of Health]. June 4, 2020.
http://ibasecretariat.org/andeva-press-release-june-4-2020.pdf

5 Press Release by the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK. Health Alert: Asbestos in Baby Powder. June 17, 2020.
http://ibasecretariat.org/forum-press-rel-health-alert-asbestos-in-baby-powder-jun-17-2020.pdf

6 Talc à l'amiante: J&J cesse la commercialisation nord-américaine [Asbestos talc: J&J stops North American marketing]. June 8, 2020.
http://www.journaldelenvironnement.net/article/talc-a-l-amiante-dangereux-pour-les-americains-bon-pour-les-francais,106629
L'Abeva alerte la ministre de la Santé quant à la présence d'amiante dans le talc [Abeva alerts the Minister of Health to the presence of asbestos in talc]. June 10, 2020.
https://www.rtl.be/info/monde/international/l-abeva-alerte-la-ministre-de-la-sante-quant-a-la-presence-d-amiante-dans-le-talc-1224114.aspx

May 19, 2020

China’s Rejection of Asbestos: Official

A paper published this month (May 2020) signalled that another major step had been taken by the authorities in China – a leading consumer and producer of chrysotile (white) asbestos1 – in acknowledging the deadly consequences of the commercial exploitation of asbestos. As the text entitled: Distribution of Asbestos Enterprises and Asbestosis Cases – China, 1997-20192 was published in the current issue of China CDC Weekly, an online platform for the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention – “a governmental and national-level technical organization” – and funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Academy of Engineering, it is probable that the authors’ findings will have been discussed at and endorsed by the highest levels of government.

In the first section of the paper, the co-authors set out the pariah status of asbestos:

“Asbestos is classified as a Class I Carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) because exposure causes mesothelioma and lung cancer in addition to asbestosis and plaques. So far, asbestos has been banned in 67 countries, but chrysotile, a commonly encountered form of asbestos, is still widely used in China and most developing countries. Most asbestos-caused cancers are not reported, recorded, and compensated in many countries … Enterprises should be encouraged to use safer substitutes and gradually ban asbestos materials in China.”

Asked about China’s current policy on the asbestos hazard, a long-time proponent of asbestos-free technology based in Beijing agreed that the production and publication of this paper was indicative of increasing government acknowledgment of the hazard posed by asbestos production and use. In an email exchange last week, he reported that the amount of pro-asbestos propaganda disseminated by the industry had been greatly reduced and that asbestos-containing products were “not promoted by anyone in the market in China.” The asbestos industry and its business was, he said, in decline in China.

The expert’s views are backed up by data showing that between 2012 and 2016, asbestos consumption in China decreased by 33% from 431,000 tonnes to 288,000t.3 Reviewing a chronological timeline delineating national asbestos restrictions,4 a pattern emerges showing increasing curtailment of asbestos use in China:

  1. China bans asbestos use in friction materials in the automotive industry.
  2. China’s Ministry of Health mandates new restrictions and guidelines in: Criterion for the Control and Prevention of Occupational Hazards in Asbestos Processing.
  3. China prohibits the use of asbestos in the building of infrastructure for the Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Asian Games.
  4. China bans the use of all types of asbestos, including chrysotile, as of June 1 in siding and wall construction materials under national standard GB50574-2010. Industry experts predict that the new code for the use of wall materials in buildings would decrease demand for asbestos-cement flat sheet products.
  5. China’s new “List of recommended substitutes for toxic and hazardous raw materials” is officially published on December 27 by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Asbestos is included in category 3, the most advanced class for which substitutes have been developed and are being used. In the document, asbestos is categorized as a toxic and hazardous substance which could be replaced by safer alternatives.

The global asbestos lobby – led in recent years by asbestos stakeholders in Russia and Kazakhstan – will be well aware of the significance of China’s shift in official policy. When China – a country which has the world’s second largest reserves of chrysotile asbestos – finally prioritizes public and occupational health over financial gain by outlawing the remaining uses of asbestos, other countries in the region will certainly follow suit. The future is asbestos free.

1 Currently, China not only has the second largest asbestos reserves but also is the third largest producer and consumer of asbestos products in the world.
https://pubs.usgs.gov/periodicals/mcs2020/mcs2020-asbestos.pdf

2 Chen M, Wang H, et al. Distribution of Asbestos Enterprises and Asbestosis Cases – China, 1997-2019. May 1, 2020.
http://weekly.chinacdc.cn/fileCCDCW/journal/article/ccdcw/2020/18/PDF/200023.pdf

3 United States Geological Survey. Asbestos Statistics and Information.
https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nmic/asbestos-statistics-and-information

4 International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. Chronology of Asbestos Bans and Restrictions.
http://ibasecretariat.org/chron_ban_list.php

April 27, 2020

International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) 2019 vs 2020

As I anticipate IWMD 2020 in state-sanctioned isolation, I think back to last year’s IWMD; the contrast could not be starker. From a day of fellowship in Osasco, Brazil with the Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA) to one under lockdown in the UK, so much has changed that one has to strongly question whether the memory of the 2019 event had been enhanced retrospectively by the solitude which was to follow. And yet, I believe, that my recollection is accurate: from the calls of the watermelon hawker, to the beams of dappled sunlight filtered through the trees surrounding the Plaza Aquilino Alves dos Santos, to the camaraderie of the ABREA community, IWMD 2019 was a perfect manifestation of the day observed around the world to remember those injured or killed at work. Surrounded by pictures of loved ones whose lives had been sacrificed by the asbestos industry, ABREA supporters and colleagues from Europe and Asia recommitted themselves to the fight for asbestos justice in the presence of spiritual leaders, political figures, family members and friends. The small square was so crowded that one participant quipped: “Next year, we need a bigger square.”

 


April 28, 2019. International Workers Memorial Day Commemoration Service, Osasco, Brazil

Those gathered together in Osasco in 2019 were commemorating lives lost to diseases caused by exposure to asbestos, a mineral composed of deadly fibers invisible to the naked eye. In 2020, another microscopic killer is stalking our workplaces, institutions, streets and homes: COVID-19 has transformed our lives and stolen tens of thousands of people from their families and communities. Many of those lost were infected working on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic; like the asbestos victims, they too were betrayed by employers who ill-prepared them for the dangers they were to face. This year, there will be no large rallies and few union gatherings to mark IWMD due to public health restrictions. Adapting to the ongoing global crisis, IWMD activities are going online with resources and events being accessed via facebook, twitter and ZOOM.1 In recognition of the vulnerability of frontline workers, the International Trade Union Confederation – representing 200 million workers in 163 countries – has changed the theme for IWMD 2020 to “Stop the Pandemic in the Workplace.” One can only hope that their efforts will further reinforce demands by the public for adequate protective equipment, universal testing of essential workers and appropriate financial compensation for their service.

Applauding the innovations being pioneered under these difficult circumstances, I will hold close my memories of IWMD 2019: nothing can surpass the experience of standing within a circle of individuals sharing a common ethos and history. I am confident that the solidarity experienced last year will survive this pandemic and that we will call on each of our governments to honor our debt to those whose avoidable deaths were caused by exposures to asbestos, COVID-19 or other deadly agents. On April 28, we will, whether alone or in company: “Remember the Dead, and Fight for the Living.” Be safe!

1 Hazards Campaign Briefing and Call to Action Plan.
http://www.hazardscampaign.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Hazards-Campaign-Final-briefing-iwmd2020.pdf
Also see: Union Safety Website:
https://www.unionsafety.eu/
Also see: Lecco ricorda le vittime dell'amianto con messa e video in streaming [Lecco remembers asbestos victims with streaming and streaming videos]. April 23, 2020.
http://www.leccotoday.it/notizie/giornata-vittime-amianto-2020.html

March 17, 2020

Another Bitter Blow for Italy’s Asbestos Victims

A TV news item about the current reality of life under lockdown in Casale Monferrato, the Italian town at the epicentre of the country’s asbestos epidemic, featured interviews with Oncologist Daniela Degiovanni, palliative care specialist and director of a hospice which has cared for asbestos patients for more than a decade, and the current Mayor Federico Riboldi.1

The speakers explained how the decades-long struggle by the town against the deadly asbestos hazard had created a proclivity for this evolving 21st century danger to be taken seriously by local people. There was, said Dr. Degiovanni, a great deal of fear amongst the population, with both townsfolk and healthcare workers affected by the virus.

The broadcast included footage of closed shops in the city center, people wearing face masks and the iconic flag in the national colors calling for: Eternit Giustizia (Eternit Justice).2

 


There is no question that people already suffering from asbestos-related illnesses and respiratory conditions will be less able to throw off the effects of the coronavirus. It is also likely that the physicians treating them will be part or become part of medical teams caring for virus patients. In fact, on March 12, Dr. Federica Grosso, the head of the Mesothelioma Unit in Piedmont, Alessandria, ~30 kilometers from Casale Monferrato, uploaded a tweet noting the sad demise of her first mesothelioma patient due to the coronavirus. According to a report in La Stampa newspaper, former traffic policeman and mesothelioma patient Giorgio Rosso died on March 8 from Covid-19.3 Seventy-one year old Mr. Rossi had worked in Casale Monferrato from 1973 until 2005 and had been diagnosed with the signature asbestos cancer in 2018. During a short break from his mesothelioma treatment and after having had a high temperature for some while, he was taken to the emergency room at Casale Monferrato hospital where he was tested for the virus (March 5).

Unfortunately, that test proved positive and this much-beloved and popular man from Casale Monferrato died three days later. Writing about this trauma, journalist Silvana Mossano – whose husband Marco Giorcelli, editor of the Casale local newspaper Il Monferrato, died of mesothelioma aged 52 in 2012 – wrote movingly of Mr. Rosso’s death: “He did not imagine that it would have been a virus smaller than the already invisible asbestos fiber that would end his life.”

In the weeks and months to come, we fear that many more mesothelioma victims and others with asbestos-related diseases will die from Covid-19. Our thoughts are with our friends and colleagues whose compromised health systems make them vulnerable to this plague and with the medical professionals who will, once again, be on the frontline in the fight to save life from an invisible and deadly killer.

1 Casale Monferrato al Tg2: come la città martire dell'amianto affronta il coronavirus [Casale Monferrato at TG2: how the iconic asbestos city is facing up to the coronavirus]. March 11, 2020.
http://www.casalenews.it/attualita/casale-monferrato-al-tg2-come-la-citta-martire-dellamianto-affronta-il-coronavirus-39523.html

2 Eternit was the company responsible for thousands of asbestos deaths amongst workers, their relatives, consumers and members of the public throughout Italy.

3 Mossano, S. Casale Monferrato, lottava con un mesotelioma ma ha perso con il coronavirus: l’addio a Giorgio Rosso [Casale Monferrato, struggled with mesothelioma but lost with coronavirus: farewell to Giorgio Rosso]. March 8, 2020.
https://www.lastampa.it/alessandria/2020/03/08/news/dalla-lotta-al-mesotelioma-al-letale-coronavirus-chi-era-giorgio-rosso-morto-a-tortona-1.38566457

17 Marzo, 2020

Un altro duro colpo per le vittime dell’amianto in Italia

Di Laurie Kazan-Allen

Traduzione a cura di Raffaella Casati

In un recente servizio televisivo riguardante l’attuale situazione a Casale Monferrato, il comune italiano al centro della lotta contro l’amianto, sono stati intervistati Daniela Degiovanni, oncologa specializzata in cure palliative e da oltre dieci anni direttrice di una clinica per la cura delle vittime dell’amianto, e l’attuale sindaco Federico Riboldi.1

Entrambi hanno evidenziato come il pluridecennale coinvolgimento della città contro i pericoli mortali legati all’amianto abbia favorito una propensione da parte dei cittadini a prendere particolarmente sul serio la nuova minaccia del 21 secolo. La dott.ssa Degiovanni ha dichiarato che il livello di tensione è molto alto tra la popolazione, dato il numero di cittadini e personale medico affetti dal virus.

Sono state mandate in onda anche immagini del centro città, con negozi chiusi, persone che indossano maschere protettive e la bandiera tricolore che cita “Eternit: Giustizia”.2

 


Non c’è dubbio sul fatto che le persone che già soffrono di malattie legate all’amianto o di altre patologie respiratorie avranno maggiori difficoltà nel combattere gli effetti del coronavirus. è anche probabile che gli specialisti che si prendono cura di questi pazienti entreranno a far parte delle équipe mediche dedicate al trattamento dei malati che hanno contratto il virus. Il 12 marzo, la dott.ssa Federica Grosso, responsabile dell’Unità Mesotelioma di Alessandria, ha pubblicato un tweet cha annunciava il decesso dovuto al coronavirus di un suo paziente già affetto da mesotelioma. Secondo un articolo pubblicato su La Stampa, Giorgio Rosso, ex vigile urbano, è deceduto l’8 marzo a causa del Covid-19.3 L’uomo di 71 anni aveva lavorato a Casale Monferrato dal 1973 al 2005 e aveva contratto il “cancro da amianto” nel 2018. Nel corso di una breve pausa dal trattamento del mesotelioma, e dopo una persistente febbre alta, il 5 marzo si era recato al Pronto Soccorso dell’ospedale di Casale Monferrato, dove era stato sottoposto al tampone per il coronavirus.

Il test è risultato positivo, e l’uomo tanto noto e amato in paese è deceduto tre giorni dopo. La giornalista Silvana Mossano - il cui marito Marco Giorcelli, editore del quotidiano locale Il Monferrato, ha perso la battaglia contro il mesotelioma nel 2012 all’età di 52 anni - ha cos commentato la morte di Giorgio Rosso: “Non avrebbe mai immaginato di morire a causa di un virus ancora pi piccolo delle fibre di amianto”.

Il nostro timore è che nelle settimane e nei mesi a venire, altri pazienti malati di mesotelioma o affetti da patologie legate all’amianto possano essere vittime del Covid-19. Il nostro affetto e i nostri pensieri vanno agli amici e colleghi resi pi vulnerabili a questo virus, nonché al personale medico che si troverà ancora una volta in prima linea nella lotta contro un nemico invisibile e mortale.

1 Casale Monferrato al Tg2: come la città martire dell'amianto affronta il coronavirus. 11 Marzo 2020.
http://www.casalenews.it/attualita/casale-monferrato-al-tg2-come-la-citta-martire-dellamianto-affronta-il-coronavirus-39523.html

2 Eternit è l’azienda responsabile di migliaia di decessi dovuti all’amianto tra lavoratori, loro famigliari, consumatori e cittadini in tutta Italia.

3 Mossano, S. Casale Monferrato, lottava con un mesotelioma ma ha perso con il coronavirus: l’addio a Giorgio Rosso. 8 Marzo 2020.
https://www.lastampa.it/alessandria/2020/03/08/news/dalla-lotta-al-mesotelioma-al-letale-coronavirus-chi-era-giorgio-rosso-morto-a-tortona-1.38566457

February 11, 2020

Asbestos Bankruptcies: Winners and Losers

The news that the 2020 incarnation of Uralita – Spain’s former asbestos giant – had sought protection from its asbestos liabilities by seeking voluntary bankruptcy last month (January, 2020), led me to revisit exit strategies pursued by other asbestos conglomerates.1 In 1982, the U.S. Johns-Manville Corporation (JM) filed for voluntarily bankruptcy under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code to escape its asbestos liabilities. Nearly 20 years later, T&N Ltd. – the company which had dominated the UK asbestos industry for more than fifty years – sought protection from asbestos claims by filing for administration under the UK Insolvency Act of 1986. Around the same time, the Australian asbestos giant James Hardie Industries Limited relocated to the Netherlands and underwent a corporate reorganization, dumping its asbestos liabilities into an underfunded charitable trust called: The Medical Research and Compensation Foundation. In July, 2018, Eternit S.A. – formerly Brazil’s biggest asbestos conglomerate – filed a judicial recovery plan to stave off bankruptcy.

A discernible pattern is apparent from the actions of the asbestos Goliaths from North America, Europe, Australia and Latin America; when push came to shove, these companies which had been household names, blue chip stocks and dominant players in local and national economies prioritized – as always – corporate profits over workers’ rights. Countless Americans died from asbestos-related diseases as JM took its time rearranging its finances, only emerging from bankruptcy proceedings in 1988. After that, the submission of claims restarted but no lawsuits could be brought and payments made were a fraction of what they might have been. It is early days in the Uralita bankruptcy but it is likely asbestos claims will be frozen until the situation is resolved. Unfortunately, time is never on the side of someone with asbestos cancer and many of the injured will die in the meantime.

There are lessons to be learned from the developments cited above: asbestos companies can never be trusted. People working today for companies such as Hindustan Composites Limited and Shree Digvijay Cement Co. Ltd in India, Orenburg Minerals and Uralasbest in Russia, Kostanai Minerals in Kazakhstan, PT Trigraha and PT Jeil Farjar in Indonesia could pay with their lives – and those of their families – for their daily bread. There is no place in the 21st century for the asbestos industry. Trust it at your peril.

1 La CNMV suspende la cotización de la antigua Uralita al suspender pagos [The CNMV suspends the price of the former Uralita by suspending payments]. January 31, 2020.
https://www.levante-emv.com/economia/2020/01/31/cnmv-suspende-cotizacion-antigua-uralita/1972464.html

January 8, 2020

New Year, Old Lies

Reeling from a series of body blows in 2019, the asbestos lobby began 2020 with a feeble attempt to regain control of the asbestos narrative with a feature on a Russian website on January 5 which rehashed industry propaganda supporting the continued use of chrysotile (white) asbestos, asserting that despite being banned in 63 countries, asbestos could be safely used under controlled conditions. Asbestos was, the author claimed, Donald Trumps’s “favorite stone” and “the current US President… actively advocates for its defense.” Citing multiple examples of historical asbestos use, the author noted that “mass hysteria” in America over asbestos had been a gold mine for lawyers and asbestos removal firms even though “Russian scientists unanimously reiterate that, subject to safety measures, asbestos is an extremely useful mineral.”1

It is no wonder that the industry is desperate, having suffered a catalogue of defeats throughout 2019 with asbestos bans being achieved in Colombia and upheld in Brazil, government support for asbestos prohibitions being progressed in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and increasing awareness of the asbestos hazard in Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and even Russia – the world’s largest asbestos producer. The year’s final and most probably largest upset for asbestos vested interests was a pronounced shift in the asbestos policy of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), one of the most important financial donors in the Asia-Pacific region. In December, an ADB representative confirmed:

“The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has since 2009 explicitly prohibited ADB financing for the production of, trade in, or use of unbonded asbestos fibers. However, the purchase and use of bonded asbestos cement sheeting where asbestos content was less than 20% has been permitted. This was consistent with prevailing industry standards and safety guidance. Given increased concerns regarding the potential risks of these products, ADB is now taking steps to address this. From 2020, ADB will refrain from financing any new projects containing any presence of asbestos; this update will be reflected in the next review of ADB’s Safeguard Policy Statement.”2

As Asia is the largest market for asbestos and as the ADB is a major donor for infrastructure and other projects, this prohibition marks a seismic moment for the struggle to protect populations from the dangers of toxic exposures throughout the region. There is little doubt that where the ADB goes other financial institutions and regional authorities will follow. There is no place in the 21st century for asbestos – not in Asia, not anywhere!

1 ЛЮБИМЫЙ КАМЕНЬ ДОНАЛЬДА ТРАМПА [Donald Trump's favorite stone]. January 5, 2020.
https://forpost-sz.ru/a/2020-01-05/lyubimyj-kamen-donalda-trampa

2 Email received by Laurie Kazan-Allen. December 20, 2019.

October 11, 2019

Asbestos Hot Potato: The São Paulo

News circulating last month (September 2019) that the Brazilian aircraft carrier the São Paulo1 was to be auctioned set off alarm bells in France as well as in Brazil. Before its sale to the Brazilian Navy, the vessel had been part of the French fleet; originally commissioned as the Foch in 1963, she remained in service in France until 2000 when she was sold to Brazil’s Ministry of Defence.2

The Foch was the sister ship of the infamous aircraft carrier the Clemenceau which caused an international incident when it was sent to India for dismantling in 2006, due to the presence of around 760 tonnes of asbestos-containing material plus quantities of PCBs, lead and mercury.3 After protests by asbestos victims’ groups, Greenpeace and civil society campaigners and a Supreme Court ruling in India, the French Government reversed its position and brought the Clemenceau home. The demolition of the ship – which started in 2009 and was completed by the end of 2010 – was undertaken in Hartlepool, UK at the Graythorp Yard.

On October 1, 2019, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA) wrote to Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, asking for his assistance in ensuring that the São Paulo was appropriately disposed of and not sold off for scrap to a cash buyer planning to beach it at one of the many unregulated facilities in South Asia.4 The letter from ABREA pointed out:

“…according to the Basel Convention, the export of toxic waste is prohibited. The São Paulo aircraft carrier is therefore a toxic dump because it is full of asbestos and this fact violates strongly the Basel Convention to which Brazil is a signatory... according to paragraph 8.3 of the tender notice, the French government must authorize the sale of the São Paulo aircraft carrier.”

ABREA’s fears regarding the final destination of the São Paulo were substantiated by an article published on October 2 which said:

“The likely fate [of the São Paulo] is the same as its predecessor, the aircraft carrier Minas Gerais – formerly owned by the British and Australian Navies – which operated between 1960 and 2000 in Brazil until it was sold as scrap and wound up at the ‘ship graveyard’ in Alang, in India.”5

On October 4, 2019, ANDEVA – a French association of asbestos victims’ groups – also asked for the intervention of the French President requesting that Macron use his authority to block any attempt to export the ship to Asia where there is no capacity to undertake its dismantling safely as per international conventions and treaties.

1 Brazil's Aircraft Carrier To Be Auctioned Off After 30 Years Of Disappointment. September 26, 2019.
https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/30023/brazils-aircraft-carrier-so-paulo-to-be-auctioned-off-after-years-of-disappointment

2 Letter to Brazil’s Ministry of Defense. September 16, 2019.
http://ibasecretariat.org/letter-to-brazil-mod-re-disposal-aircraft-carrier-sao-paulo-sep-26-2019.pdf

3 Kazan-Allen, L. Osasco: Birthplace of the 21st Century Ban Asbestos Movement. April 2006.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka_osasco_birthpl_21_cent_ban_asb_mov_apr_06.pdf

4 Letter to Macron (Portuguese). October 1, 2019
http://ibasecretariat.org/letter-to-president-macron-re-auction-carrier-sao-paulo-oct-1-2019-por.pdf

5 Casco do porta-avies São Paulo será leiloado em dezembro [São Paulo aircraft carrier hull to be auctioned in December.] October 2, 2019.
https://extra.globo.com/noticias/rio/casco-do-porta-avioes-sao-paulo-sera-leiloado-em-dezembro-23989630.html

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