Buy Asbestos, “Save the Planet!”
I have seen an advertisement by a Zimbabwe company – Turnall – that manufactures asbestos-cement building products. The ad is bold, brazen and confident. Its headline promotes the sale of its products with the tag line: “It pays in the end to buy asbestos fascia board.” The text highlights the durability, affordability, reliability and elegance of asbestos board and tells customers to “Use Turnall faschia boards to save trees.”
I was most surprised to see that Turnall was claiming to have certification from the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) but enquiries revelaed that the SABS marks are, in fact, legitimate. They include:
SABS ISO 9001 Quality Management: “The manufacture and supply of construction material excluding clauses: 7.3 Design and development 7.5.2 Validation of processes for production and service provision.” (Date 2002)
SABS ISO 14001 Environmental Management: “All activities, products, facilities and services that the organization controls or influences, that have or can have a significant impact on the environment, related to: Manufacturer and supply of fiber cement products….” (Date 2002)
SABS OHSAS 18001 Occupational Health And Safety Management: “All activities, products, facilities and services that the organization controls or influences, that have or can result in a health and/or safety risk, related to: Manufacturer and supply of fiber cement products (sheets, boards and piping) including Galvanised Iron roofing sheets. (Date 2003)1
Enquiries made to SABS about the seeming contradiction of an asbestos company with marks for excellence in managing quality, environmental and health and safety issues were met with reponses which pointed out that the SABS marks related to ssystem and not product certification.
I cannot imagine that anyone seeing that advertisement would appreciate the difference. In fact, I feel sure, they would feel like I did that the SABS marks are an assurance of a healthy and sustainable material. They would be wrong.
Past Profit – Present Danger
In the 1940s, citizens of the small Quebec town of East Broughton were employed at the local chrysotile mine by the Quebec Asbestos Corporation. During the next decade the Eastern Township Asbestos Company took over this site. When mining ceased in 1958, the tunnels, buildings and toxic debris were left behind.1 The contamination remained even as the profits disappeared.
In 2010, a mudslide sent asbestos-containing sludge into the town causing major damage.2 The town’s residents patiently waited for action by the provincial authorities. Three governments have come and gone and still the toxic situation remains. The current owners of the land on which the mine is situated have said they are unable to pay for the clean-up.
A logical person might ask why those who profited from the mine were allowed to leave their mess behind and why the names of the corporate polluters do not appear in either the media coverage or petition submitted by the town to the Quebec National Assembly. Has everyone forgotten that once-upon-a-time this site was a commercially-run operation?
Nothing has changed in the decades since this mine was shut down. Asbestos profits still flow into the coffers of organizations with no corporate or civic responsibility. What will happen to the cities in China when the asbestos mines shut down? Who will remove the asbestos-cement waste dumped by manufacturers in India when their production is no longer profitable?
Time and again we have seen the same scenario – East Broughton is the latest calamity in the sordid history of this toxic killer. Contamination in former asbestos towns remains long after the cash flow has gone elsewhere. The only way to protect individuals and the environment from asbestos tragedies is to ban the production, use and sale of all types of asbestos.
On December 31, 2014, our new year’s resolution for 2015 remains – shut down the asbestos industry, end the slaughter.
1Petition submitted by the Town of East Broughton to the Quebec National Assembly. November 7, 2014.
2Que. government refuses to pay $2.7M clean-up costs. December 30, 2014.
In the Eye of the Asbestos Storm
Forty years ago this week, Cyclone Tracy decimated the tropical Australian town of Darwin. From December 24 to 25, 1974, gale force winds wiped out more than 70% of Darwin’s houses and killed sixty-six of its inhabitants. In the words of one survivor Dr. Greg Deleuil, overnight Darwin became a “city-sized asbestos-contaminated demolition site.” The fact that most of the buildings in Darwin had been constructed of asbestos-containing products meant that there were high levels of airborne asbestos in the aftermath of the cyclone. As the clean-up began, workers wearing leather gloves, floppy hats and work boots shovelled up the debris or used heavy machinery to remove wreckage. The responders – personnel from the armed forces, day laborers and volunteers – had no breathing equipment or protective clothing. There were no health and safety regulations in place to minimize occupational exposures. It is no surprise to learn that cases of asbestosis and asbestos cancer have been diagnosed amongst members of the Darwin clean-up crews. No one knows the impact asbestos has had on Darwin’s civilians – how many of them have died from asbestos-related cancers of the chest, lung, larynx or ovary?
At about the same time as Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin, people in the small Italian town of Casale Monferrato were progressing their campaign to protect workers from the hazards of asbestos exposures at the town’s asbestos-cement factory. Over the decades, their struggle expanded in size, scope and objectives until criminal proceedings were launched by prosecutors against former company directors in 2009. It is now more than a month since the Italian Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) overturned guilty verdicts, previously upheld in the Turin Appeal Court (see: 2013 Appeal Verdict in the Great Asbestos Trial), in a case brought over the asbestos deaths of thousands of Italian citizens. (See also: Eternit and The Great Asbestos Trial.)
The expectations of asbestos victims in Italy and abroad were cruelly dashed by legal technicalities which were widely perceived as both unjust and unfair. Going by the British benchmark question of “would it appear fair to the man on the Clapham omnibus?” this ruling was a catastrophe for the reputation of the Italian judicial process. It seems that the Italian Government agreed; within weeks of the Court’s verdict, funding of €75m had been allocated to rehabilitate contaminated areas and provide support for asbestos victims.
People present in Rome to witness the judicial betrayal of November 19, 2014 recounted the shock and grief experienced on that day; they also reported the incredible spirit of the campaigners and their resolve to do whatever was needed to right the wrongs that had been done to so many innocent people. Families who had been waiting decades for an official vindication of their pain were left empty-handed as the Supreme Court invoked a ten year statute of limitations to dismiss the charges against asbestos billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny.
As the town of Darwin has risen from the ashes of Cyclone Tracy, so too the Italians at the center of this asbestos storm will rebound. Even now, litigation is proceeding in another asbestos case against Mr. Schmidhieny. This time the charge is the wilful murder of 250+ people; there is no statute of limitations on that.
Lessons to be Learned: The Fight for Asbestos Justice in Italy
People whose lives have been scarred by exposure to asbestos have a right to see their abusers punished. Unfortunately, in the UK the great asbestos barons escaped with their pensions intact and their liberty unaffected. Where our judicial system has failed, the Italian one has succeeded. The 2012 jail sentences handed down by a Turin Court to former asbestos businessmen Stephan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were landmarks in the global fight for asbestos justice.
Last week (September 25 and 27, 2014), the Italian press reported the latest prosecution for asbestos crimes. Public prosecutors Lorenzo Boscaglio and Gabriella Viglione have indicted thirty-nine defendants, all of whom were former owners or Chief Executive Officers of the Olivetti company; many of these individuals were well-known Italian businessmen. According to the press reports, asbestos contamination was rife at the Olivetti plant in Ivrea, thirty-five kilometres from Turin. A particularly worrying source of exposure was the talc used in the manufacturing process; it was contaminated with tremolite asbestos.
Sixty-eight year old Olivetti office worker Bruna Luigia Perellohas has mesothelioma. She never worked with asbestos but believes her exposure took place when she visited the shop-floor. Since she was diagnosed in 2011, she has had two surgical interventions. She is determined to see the people who caused her terminal illness in court. Commenting on the case, her husband Orfeo Maozin, who worked in Olivetti’s IT department, said: “We thought Olivetti was a safe place, we never thought it would end like this.”
Fundamental facts which will be examined by the prosecutors during the trial include the following:
Mrs. Perellohas has a right to her day in court so too do asbestos victims in Britain and elsewhere. It remains a grave injustice that outside of Italy, few judicial systems have the ability or desire to stand up for the injured. As the case against the Olivetti executives progresses, we await the time when British asbestos executives, directors and owners find themselves facing criminal charges for the harm they have done.
Asbestos: Shared Legacy, Divided Response
One thing is certain – where asbestos is used, a trail of avoidable death follows. In developed countries, the dire consequences of hazardous human exposures are recognized. As a result, the future use of asbestos has been banned or seriously restricted.
This week the Governments of Israel and France announced million dollar budgets to remove asbestos from national infrastructures, with France’s Housing Minister Sylvia Pinel declaring war on asbestos in public housing. Her actions are both warranted and proportionate; last month, (France’s) High Council of Public Health predicted that between 2009 and 2050, up to 100,000 French citizens could die from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma and cancer of the lungs, larynx, and ovary. That equates to the elimination of the population of a city the size of Nancy, Montreuil, Nanterre or Avignon.
The consequences of inaction are known. The tragic situation of a Canadian Professor with the deadly asbestos cancer mesothelioma is featured in the current issue of the CAUT trade union bulletin.1 Sixty-two year old Patricia Martens is a distinguished research scientist in the University of Manitoba’s faculty of medicine. She believes that workplace exposure to asbestos caused her disease. She is not the first of her colleagues to be affected; anthropology Professors William Morgan and John Matthiasson died shortly after receiving mesothelioma diagnoses in 1994 and 2001 respectively.
And yet, it seems even in the face of the personal tragedies of these and other Canadians, lessons have not been learned. Today (September 24, 2014), it has been reported that refurbishment work at Nunavut Arctic College in the Northwest Territories has been carried out with a complete lack of protection for the workers as well as staff and students who continued using the premises during the deadly renovations.2 No risk assessment was carried out even though it was known by the authorities that the 1950s building was constructed with a range of asbestos-containing materials including drywall, ceiling tiles and vinyl flooring.
Who knows what the consequences for those exposed to asbestos during this incident will be. In a country where asbestos was once king, it seems that policy makers and government officials continue to turn a blind eye to the killer dust. It doesn’t need to stay this way. Canada, for so long a part of the problem, could become part of the solution. The first step is to outlaw the use of asbestos! The next is to work with federal, provincial and municipal stakeholders to develop an integrated and detailed program to address the country’s asbestos legacy. An asbestos-free future is possible – even in Canada!
1 Terminally ill professor pleads for asbestos ban. CAUT Bulletin. Vol 61, No. 7, September 2014.
2 Arctic College students concerned about asbestos in residence. September 24, 2014.
Betty Comes to Town!
Betty, Australia’s first mobile asbestos house, made a flying visit to central London yesterday. To be honest, it wasn’t Betty herself that addressed UK asbestos stakeholders at a roundtable on September 15 but her creators Claire and Alice Collins from Insight Communications, a Sydney-based organization that has been working to raise asbestos awareness in a country where more than one in three domestic properties contain asbestos (see: http://www.asbestosawareness.com.au/).
Although young in years, Betty has already developed a cult following through her many public appearances, Facebook page and media coverage. Betty is, as Claire Collins told delegates at yesterday’s meeting:
“a purpose built, mobile model home designed to demonstrate where asbestos might be found in and around any Australian home built or renovated before 1987. Her exterior resembles a typical fibro [asbestos-cement] home but when opened up, she has extensive audio and visual information including a bathroom, kitchen, living room, man shed/garage and a dog house.”1
Alice and Clare Collins.
This interactive resource is part of an integrated and evolving public relations campaign designed to create a conversation about asbestos through a forward-looking proactive strategy. Other modules which reinforce Betty’s message include the film Are you playing renovation roulette? and the hugely successful Blue Lamington Challenge (for non-Australians, a lamington is an iconic Australian dessert which consists of sponge cake coated in chocolate sauce and covered with desiccated coconut). For the Blue Lamington Challenge, bakers shared samples of their wares with friends, family or work colleagues to raise funds for asbestos research and support work.
The award-winning Australian campaign is an initiative of the Asbestos Education Committee in collaboration with The Asbestos Diseases Research Institute.2
The Insight Team were in London on their way to an award ceremony in Madrid; their UK visit provided the perfect opportunity for a meeting with representatives of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, the British Asbestos Newsletter, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum (UK), the Asbestos in Schools Campaign, Mesothelioma UK, the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, the Right to Know Asbestos in Schools Wales Campaign, the Unite union and legal experts.
Commenting about Betty and her friends Clare and Alice, Doug Jewell, from the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum (UK), said:
“It is no surprise that the detailed and coordinated work undertaken by the Insight Team produced a huge rise in asbestos awareness not only in New South Wales but throughout Australia. I will be sharing news of the campaign with Forum members at a meeting in Manchester on September 16. I have no doubt we will be following up on this initial contact with the Australian team. All those who had the opportunity to hear the presentation by Clare and Alice were energized by their enthusiasm and impressed by their knowledge.”
2 Press Release. Leading Australian NFP Specialist Agency Receives International Recognition At AMEC Global Communication Effectiveness Awards for Asbestos Awareness Campaign. June 13, 2014.