Shedding Light on Tragic Darkness
For decades, victims of an epidemic caused by fibers often too small to be seen were equally invisible, cast adrift by former employers and unacknowledged by governments. Off-loading suffering and treatment costs onto the injured not only left corporate profits undented but also enabled political support for the asbestos sector to go unchallenged. As long as stakeholders could hide the human tragedies caused by their commercial operations, their desired status quo – one in which business could continue as usual – would be allowed to prevail.
However, a remarkable grassroots mobilization of asbestos victims and campaigners eventually turned the tide: one by one, governments across the world are coming to recognize the irreversible harm caused by asbestos, and courts in many jurisdictions have awarded substantial compensation for the negligent behaviour of asbestos-industry employers – with such settlements going back several decades in a handful of countries. Still more needs to be done, but in considering future action we must recognise that the progress that has been achieved so far has only come about following sustained battles fought on multiple fronts against powerful vested interests over many years.
Highlighting these struggles, in recent months, three major documentaries have been screened – in a serendipitous confluence of activity from three different regions (Latin America, Asia and Europe).
The first of the films to appear was a Brazilian production entitled “Não Respire – Contém Amianto” (“Do not Breathe – Contains Asbestos”).1 It was premiered at the 6th Ecofalante Environmental Film Festival in June 2017 in São Paulo, Brazil where it won the jury prize for best film.
Last month (October 2017), the film was shown in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis, with more screenings planned at upcoming film festivals. Given that this year has been pivotal in the Brazilian struggle to ban asbestos, the timing for the release of a documentary exposing the horrific impact of asbestos exposures on Brazilian citizens could not have been better!
In October (2017), a documentary entitled “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” won the Citizen’s Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan and the Mercenat Award at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea.2 This “heart-breaking epic chronicles the prolonged struggle of a dwindling group of dying former asbestos workers and others seeking justice and recognition from an indifferent Japanese government.” The film is 215 minutes long and took ten years of research, filming and post-production to bring to the screen.
On November 8, 2017, “Les Sentinelles: hommage aux victimes de l'amiante et des pesticides” [The Sentinels: tribute to the victims of asbestos and pesticides] premiered in Paris.3 The director of the documentary was Pierre Pézerat, the son of the famous scientist-activist-researcher Professor Henri Pézerat4 who for over 30 years fought to protect his fellow citizens and the environment from hazardous substances, including asbestos. Footage of Henri and fellow ban asbestos activists Annie Thebaud-Mony, Josette Roudaire and Jean-Marie Birbès reinforces the importance of sustained collaborations between experts and workers and highlighted the almost insurmountable challenges they faced and continue to face.
To successfully tackle a problem, one must first define and quantify the key elements to be addressed. “Visualization” of the formerly hidden asbestos epidemic was one of the earliest tasks for campaigners; ensuring that the faces of asbestos victims were seen and that the numbers of those affected were counted heightened asbestos awareness of decision makers as well as members of the public. These films, and others like them, will help ensure that the asbestos fallen and the lessons learned from their fight for justice will not be forgotten.
2 Sennan Asbestos Disaster. 2017.
3 Les Sentinelles.
The Global Asbestos Jigsaw
Reflecting this afternoon on the contents of news items uploaded to this website yesterday and today gave me pause to think. Taken as a whole, the asbestos developments in Europe, Asia, North America and Australasia which they detailed constitute a damning indictment of asbestos use, a shift in even the most hostile of political environments to a prohibition culture and a willingness not only to assign blame for failures to protect workers but also to order negligent political and commercial entities to compensate the injured and/or their surviving family members.
Although the six developments reported are but fragments of a global jigsaw puzzle seen together they reinforce the feelings of public revulsion at the ongoing damage caused by historic and continuing asbestos use. The October 27, 2017 verdict by the Tokyo High Court should put national governments on notice that they will be held to account for the damage done by their failures to act on the asbestos hazard. The Indian Parliament, the Colombian Congress and the People’s Consultative Assembly of Indonesia might do well to consider how they will afford to pay compensation to thousands of future victims whose lives will have been sacrificed for the profits of the asbestos industry.
In rhetoric used by asbestos profiteers the world over, industry stakeholders assert that as no cases of asbestos-related diseases have been diagnosed in their countries, there is no need to take action. Ignoring the fact that human biology is the same the world over, lobbyists for chrysotile (white) asbestos in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh rely on this propaganda to forestall ban asbestos legislation. The fact that amongst these news items are two which report cases of asbestos disease in these same countries is evidence of the disingenuousness of the industry’s argument.
Compared to the self-serving and unfounded claims of the International Chrysotile Association, the (Russian) Chrysotile Association and other interested parties, international agencies are in no doubt about the severity and reach of the deadly asbestos epidemic. In the paper: Barriers and Facilitators to the Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases—Stakeholders’ Perspectives, which is the subject of one of the November 5 news updates, the authors are categorical that banning asbestos not only saves lives but also saves money. This finding undermines the very last shred of defense for this industry of mass destruction.
You don’t have to be a Greek oracle or the seer of Omaha to predict what the future holds for the asbestos industry. As night follows day, national ban asbestos prohibitions will be enacted, corporate profits will collapse in asbestos-based industries and political influence will evaporate. The future is asbestos-free!
Asbestos Disconnect: Russia vs. Australia
On October 20, 2017, two articles1 were published which clearly demonstrated irreconcilable views on the nature of asbestos, a word so toxic in many countries that it has been eliminated from the names of corporations and trade associations (e.g. Canadas Asbestos Institute was rechristened the Chrysotile Institute), and has brought derision to eponymous communities debate is ongoing regarding a change of name for the mining town called Asbestos in the Canadian Province of Quebec.2
The first article was in Russian and detailed attempts to preach asbestos industry gospel to students at Kazan Construction College, Tatarstan on October 12, 2017. The headline of the article gave an indication of its pro-industry slant: Architectural students from Kazan rediscover chrysotile. It is worth noting that the title of the lecture given by Vladimir Petrovich Uglev of the Chrysotile Association was Chrysotile-cement materials and their applications. The word asbestos did not appear in the title of the lecture nor does it appear in the name of the national trade association the Chrysotile Association3 representing asbestos stakeholders. Clearly, although the profits from asbestos sales are not too toxic for the associations members to covet, the use of the word asbestos is too repellent for general discourse.
During his presentation, Uglev displayed a range of sample products, the qualities of which no doubt he extolled. He also attempted to bolster the audiences interest by informing them of a competition with cash prizes for designs using chrysotile products for childrens play spaces or urban/garden/park environments. Online resources were available to assist designers with the calculations for their projects.
It is unlikely that the industry propaganda peddled by Uglev will be accepted at face value by the students from Kazan Construction College. This summer, the President of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital, confronted an asbestos industry official about the poisonous nature of chrysotile.4 Clearly, information about the deadly effects of chrysotile is available in Tatarstan; given the almost 90 million Russians who use the internet and the online availability of information from international agencies and other independent sources on asbestos, the disinformation conveyed by Uglev will most likely receive the contempt it deserves.5
The second article published on October 20th originated in Australia, a country experiencing its worst epidemic of occupational mortality, the cause of which is asbestos. Although asbestos use was banned in 2003, the presence of millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products throughout the national infrastructure, the environmental devastation caused by asbestos mining in New South Wales and Western Australia and the uncontrolled and widespread exposures experienced by workers, their families and members of the public has made the subject of asbestos a hot-button issue with local, regional and national asbestos awareness initiatives supported by asbestos victims groups, trade unions, independent agencies, government bodies, medical researchers and others. The subject of the article entitled: Betty - the ADRI House brings asbestos awareness, is one such initiative. Betty is a purpose built mobile model house designed to demonstrate where asbestos-containing products might be found in a typical pre-1987 Australian house. Betty and her minders have travelled extensively throughout New South Wales and further afield to educate residents, home renovators and others about the potentially fatal consequences of asbestos exposures. Quoted in this article are warnings by Asbestos Awareness ambassador and well-known actor John Jarratt:
Most Australians believe that asbestos-related diseases are a thing of the past but theyre very wrong. Each week 13 Australians die of asbestos-related diseases. Today we know better and we do know the risks so if youre a homeowner, renovator, tradie or property manager, please take the warnings seriously.
The disconnect between the Russian and Australian articles could not be greater with the former urging increasing asbestos use and the later warning of deadly effects of toxic exposures. Asbestos propagandists know full well that Russians like people all over the world are dying from asbestos-related diseases. Despite their blanket assurances that chrysotile use is safe,6 new data shows that Russia is amongst the worst affected countries for asbestos-related mortality.7 Whatever the vested interests say, it is the ordinary people in both countries that are paying the price for the asbestos industrys profits.
1 Студенты-архитекторы из Казани заново открыли для себя хризотил [Architectural students from Kazan rediscover chrysotile]. October 20, 2017.
Betty - the ADRI House brings asbestos awareness. October 20, 2017.
2 Five years after asbestos mine closure, Quebec town seeks new identity. Aug 25, 2016.
3 According to the Chrysotile Association website, it works to: Promote the adoption and application of appropriate prevention and control measures, regulations, standards, work practices and techniques for the safe use of chrysotile [asbestos].
4 1 Минниханов — минтрансу: «Г..…е дороги делаете!» [Minnikhanov vs Ministry of Transport]. August 28, 2017.
5 Asbestos policies of major international agencies.
6 A publication issued by the International Chrysotile Association in Autumn 2017 asserted that:
The safe and controlled use of chrysotile is neither a myth nor a pipe dream. It is a well-known and well documented reality. The products marketed are without real health risks because the chrysotile fibre is encapsulated in a cement or resin matrix. Because it is encapsulated, the chrysotile fibre cant be airborne (non airportable) and therefore cant be breathed in (non-respirable).
ICA. ASBESTOS Amphiboles MUST BE BANNED, Chrysotile MUST BE CONTROLLED. Autumn 2017.
Halloween: Asbestos Ghouls and Chrysotile Devils 2017
October 31 is marked in the U.S. and some others countries as Halloween, an opportunity for children to wear fancy dress costumes depicting supernatural figures such as witches, devils, ghosts, vampires, monsters, and characters from popular culture – in my children’s day, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia costumes were very popular. Horror stories, hopefully age-appropriate, are a feature of the day.
From my vantage point, you don’t have to go far to find a horror story – one that details the activities of a coven of industry stakeholders responsible for a global epidemic of ill health and premature death. Supporters of the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) would certainly be amongst the ghouls so indicted. In the run-up to Halloween, the ICA has published a 30-page booklet aimed at forcing Canada to rescind its pledge to ban asbestos by 2018.1 Such strong-arm tactics will not succeed in swaying the government of Justin Trudeau2 but they have worked and continue to work in other countries where asbestos industry propaganda is distributed as fact.
Last week, news was circulated of an asbestos initiative targeting Russian students such as those at the Nizhny Novgorod State University of Civil Engineering who attended a lecture by Vladimir Galitsyn, director of the (Russian) Chrysotile Association, which extolled the unique properties of asbestos and encouraged the future use of asbestos-containing products. This is one of a series of lectures for students at secondary and higher educational institutions in Russia. There can be little doubt that the offer of cash prizes to the winners of a competition to encourage the use of chrysotile cement products provided an incentive for the students’ interest.
Asbestos stakeholders in Russia and elsewhere purport to represent the interests of people working in the asbestos industrial sector. As has happened in other countries, once the profits evaporate, the tens of thousands left behind with damaged lungs, shortened lives and polluted towns will be on their own. Asbestos comradeship has a limited lifespan; today’s highly vocal spokesmen of the ICA and Chrysotile Association have no interest in the broken lives and toxic landscapes left in the wake of their profit-driven activities.
1 ICA. ASBESTOS Amphiboles MUST BE BANNED, Chrysotile MUST BE CONTROLLED. Autumn 2017.
Asbestos: Redemption, Restitution and Remediation
Canada, a country admired worldwide for its tolerance, civil liberties and enviable living standards, has long had a blind spot: asbestos. Despite the many advantages Canadians enjoy and the country’s top tier ranking as an educational powerhouse,”1 when it came to a substance once known as “white gold” there was no arguing with the perceived wisdom – carefully crafted over decades by industry stakeholders – that the production and use of Canadian asbestos was not injurious to human health.
When inconvenient truths were published in Quebec regarding the high levels of environmentally-caused asbestos cancer in mining areas, the researchers were vilified. When asbestos victims attempted to hold a meeting to discuss the asbestos threat to public health in 2008, they were threatened.2 Years after the dawning of the 21st century, the national discourse on asbestos remained much as it had been for years with political, economic and public support for the industry undiminished.
In under a decade, an astonishing reversal has been achieved led by scientists and researchers in Quebec supported by international experts, campaigning bodies and asbestos victims.3 It seems that almost every day another article or study is published indicting the one-time “magic mineral” for having caused a national epidemic of occupational disease and for having created widespread contamination of the built environment.4 The contrast between the current willingness to quantify the damage caused by this industry of mass destruction with the former wall of silence could not be greater.
As Canada finalizes legislation needed to ban asbestos use and implements measures to protect workers and the public from hazardous exposures, Brazil remains adrift on a sea of indecision and uncertainty. According to a much-argued over Supreme Court decision in August 2017, state legislation banning asbestos is constitutional and the federal government’s policy allowing the commercial exploitation of asbestos is not. If the Canadian ban is surprising due to the country’s former love affair with asbestos it is not quite as remarkable as an expected ban in Brazil. Canada had long ago run out of asbestos and would have needed tens of millions of dollars to develop a new underground asbestos mine. Brazil, now the world’s third largest asbestos producer, is actively mining, selling, exporting and promoting chrysotile (white) asbestos. With Supreme Court verdicts expected shortly regarding the constitutionality of asbestos bans in the State of Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, it is likely that Brazil’s asbestos industry will be consigned to the history books before long. When this happens, epidemiologists, medical specialists, engineers and others will, as in Canada, find plenty of evidence of the harm which had been done by the country’s asbestos stakeholders. The only way ahead for Canada and Brazil is to prioritize the implementation of national bans, undertake phased remediation of contamination caused by decades of asbestos mining and use, provide assistance needed by those whose lives have been sacrificed to the greed of the asbestos industry and ensure that individuals, corporate entities and other vested interests which caused the epidemics of asbestos-related deaths now occurring are brought to justice. The struggle continues.
2 “Scientists cannot be silenced” The story behind how Canada finally banned asbestos. October 3, 2017.
3 Ruff K. How Canada Changed from Exporting Asbestos to Banning Asbestos: The Challenges That Had to Be Overcome. September 27, 2017.
4 Asbestos: doctors demand a tightening of exposure. September 25, 2017.
Workplace carcinogens lead to thousands of cancer cases in Ontario each year: study. October 3, 2017.
Asbestos Exit Strategies
Wherever asbestos has been used, political, social and commercial frameworks have been constructed to prioritise the interests of the asbestos industrial sector at the expense of workers, the public and the environment. Historically, the growth of support for national bans is accompanied by the erosion of these structures; what happened in Canada to asbestos associations and mining communities is now being replicated in Brazil and Russia.
For decades, Canada’s Chrysotile Institute (CI), formerly the Asbestos Institute, was the mouthpiece for the Canadian asbestos industry and a cheerleader for global asbestos interests.1 The institute’s operations, supported by cash injections from industry and both provincial and federal governments, shrunk as asbestos mines filed for bankruptcy.2 As public opinion turned against the asbestos industry, political support wavered and funding disappeared as a result of which the CI closed its doors in 2012.
Unlike Canada, Brazil still has – for the time being at least – a Chrysotile Institute: the Instituto Brasileiro de Crisotila (IBC). In the aftermath of decisions this summer by Brazil’s Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of state asbestos bans and the unconstitutionality of asbestos use, it looks like the IBC’s days are numbered. Adding insult to injury, a recent court decision annulled the National Agreement on the Controlled Use of Asbestos between the IBC and the National Commission of Asbestos Workers (Comissão Nacional dos Trabalhadores do Amianto/CNTA) and the National Confederation of [Asbestos] Industrial Workers (Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Indústria /CNTI), industry-funded groups purporting to represent asbestos workers. The recent court verdict ordered the IBC to desist from “financially supporting, directly or indirectly, any legal entity of a trade union nature representing workers…”3 Without such support, the demise of the CNTA and CNTI is almost certainly guaranteed.
It is not only former asbestos supporters, some of whom may face criminal or civil charges in the post-asbestos era, whose prospects are in ruins but also the future of mining communities with economies built on asbestos. Even as the Canadian towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos struggle to reinvent themselves with the help of government funding, the Russian monotown of Asbest (Russian: Асбе́ст) is looking to diversify its economy with the support of the authorities of the Sverdlovsk region.4 The outlook for the people of Minaçu, the city which is home to Brazil’s only operational asbestos mine, is bleak.
Commenting on Minaçu’s future, Brazil’s leading ban asbestos campaigner former Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi said:
“For years we had advised the workers, local politicians and residents in Minaçu of the need to promote economic alternatives for the region so as not to be totally dependent on asbestos, as the commercial exploitation of this mineral would end either because of the exhaustion of the mine or because of the prohibition of production. None of our arguments convinced them and they continued to rely on demagogic and populist policies. They remained deaf to our appeals; perhaps now they will hear the voice of reason.”
When Eternit pulls the plug on the mine, the city of Minaçu and the state of Goiás will be left with a deadly legacy: generations of asbestos-injured citizens, contaminated infrastructures and polluted landscapes. Will Eternit SA, the company which owns the mine, be there to support the dying, remediate the buildings and clean-up the environment? If experience teaches us anything, the answer to that question is no.
1 Kazan-Allen L. The Rise and Fall of the Chrysotile Institute. May 1, 2012.
3 A farsa do lobby do amianto: Sentença – Acordo nacional do uso seguro do amianto celebrado entre CNTA/CNTI e IBC é extinto [The asbestos lobby farce: Judgment – National agreement on the safe use of asbestos between CNTA/CNTI and IBC is void].
4 Куйвашев поручил властям Асбеста подготовить комплексную стратегию развития города [Kuyvashev instructed the Asbest authorities to prepare a comprehensive city development strategy]. August 9, 2017.
A Post-Asbestos World?
Significant events this Summer portend new beginnings for economies formerly reliant on deadly asbestos mining and processing. On July 12, the Government of Canada – the largest asbestos producer throughout most of the 20th century – lowered the acceptable level of occupational asbestos exposure to as close to zero as practicable as part of the federal government’s strategy to ban all asbestos and asbestos-containing products by 2018.1 In Brazil, currently the world’s 3rd largest supplier of asbestos fiber, long-awaited Supreme Court proceedings on the unconstitutionality of the federal policy allowing the commercial exploitation of asbestos were curtailed on August 10; the Court will reconvene on August 17 but as award-winning journalist Eliane Brum wrote in a recent commentary: “At this time, even the stones know that asbestos will end up being banned in Brazil.”2
Even in Russia, which currently supplies more than 50% of asbestos consumed around the world every year, there are glimmers of hope. On August 8, 2017 Evgeny Kuyvashev, the head of Russia’s Sverdlovsk region, visited the monotown of Asbest (Russian: Асбе́ст), a city built on the mining and processing of chrysotile (white) asbestos.3 At a meeting in the municipality, Kuyvashev pledged his support for the diversification of the local economy; during the first half of 2017, he said, 300 new jobs had been created outside of the asbestos industry. Eight hundred and fifty million roubles have been invested to help the city develop new industries and employment opportunities for local people.
The experience of another mining town, also called Asbestos, is of relevance to developments in Asbest.4 For generations, asbestos mining also provided the lifeblood of this Quebec town; in the aftermath of the announcement in December 2016 by the Canadian government of national asbestos prohibitions, this town is, like its Russian counterpart, facing the need to reinvent itself; financial resources from the Quebec and Ottawa governments have been promised to help it do so. Paraphrasing journalist Eliane Brum: “even the stones know that asbestos will end up being banned”; whether or not Russia chooses to act on this public health hazard, countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia are likely to phase out asbestos use. With key markets disappearing and consumer demand falling, this industry of mass destruction will, in the not too distant future, be consigned to the history books. Asbest, Russia and Asbestos, Canada need to embrace the future – one which has no place for the mining, processing, sale and use of asbestos – and develop healthy and sustainable economic alternatives for their citizens.
1 Federal government lowers limit of exposure to airborne chrysotile asbestos. July 17, 2017.
2 Brum E. El Supremo y la farsa del Amianto [The Supreme Court and the Asbestos Farce]. August 9, 2017.
3 Куйвашев поручил властям Асбеста подготовить комплексную стратегию развития города [Kuyvashev instructed the Asbest authorities to prepare a comprehensive city development strategy]. August 9, 2017.
4 Asbestos, Que., is a town left pondering its name in wake of planned ban. December 16, 2016.
Brazil: The Final Countdown?
On August 10, 2017 Brazil’s Supreme Court will consider long-pending litigation regarding the illegality of the asbestos trade throughout Brazil – the world’s third largest asbestos producer. At stake are the validity of asbestos bans in the states of São Paulo, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Sul and Rio de Janeiro as well as the unconstitutionality of the federal government’s policy which allows the commercial exploitation of a carcinogenic substance shunned by almost 90% of countries.
Five years ago, asbestos hearings by the Supreme Court provided the opportunity for the submission of evidence from independent asbestos experts as well as industry spokespersons regarding the occupational and public health hazard posed by asbestos.1 Unfortunately, despite the excellence of the scientific and medical testimonies supporting an end to the economic injustices and environmental racism caused by asbestos, no verdict was forthcoming.
The buzz picked up from on-the-ground experts, media platforms and the blogosphere indicate that substantial progress has been made in mobilizing support for an end to asbestos use in Brazil during the intervening years.2 In fact, as of now there are few companies that would be affected if a ban was to be implemented as almost all former asbestos consuming companies have transitioned or pledged to transition to safer technologies. All, that is, except for Eternit, the owner of the Cana Brava asbestos mine in Minaçu. In the face of desertions by former allies and decreasing consumer demand for toxic products, Eternit continues to exert pressure on powerful politicians and government decision makers to maintain a status quo which permits asbestos use to continue.
That Eternit is fighting a losing battle can be seen from the website of the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute (Instituto de Crisotila do Brasil), a national asbestos trade association supported by Eternit. In 2014, this body – attempting to dissociate itself from the toxic connotations of chrysotile asbestos – rebranded itself as the IBC, a neutral acronym with no negative connotations. Nowadays, the IBC website is a mere shadow of its former self with the latest press release and feature being more than five months old.
Eternit has lost the battle and it only remains for the Brazilian Supreme Court to nail the lid onto the coffin of the country’s asbestos industry. The Brazilian constitution guarantees citizens the right to life and the dignity of labor, unachievable goals as long as asbestos use continues. After decades of asbestos mining, processing, manufacturing, exporting and use, let’s hope that August 10 will be the beginning of a new era for Brazil. The struggle continues!
2 Só duas fábricas ainda mantêm o amianto no Brasil. July 30, 2017.
Also see: A OMS alerta: amianto causa câncer. July 27, 2017.
The Global Coalition for Asbestos Justice
For decades, powerful and wealthy asbestos vested interests abused workers, betrayed consumers, lied to governments, suppressed evidence and attacked critics. Even now, individuals representing the asbestos lobby are attempting to derail plans by Ukraine’s Ministry of Health to ban asbestos in order to protect the public from deadly asbestos exposures.1 The industry is fighting a hopeless battle; everyone knows there is no place for asbestos in the 21st century. Even Canada, formerly the world’s largest asbestos supplier, has announced it will ban its use by the end of next year!
Last month (June 2017), the World Health Organization released Asbestos Fact Sheet 4 at the 6th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The four-page text was categorical in its rejection of asbestos industry propaganda and made a cogent case for banning all forms of asbestos not only to save life but also to save money! “There are,” the fact sheet concluded “substantial and increasing costs associated with the continuing production and use of asbestos. The long-term negative effects far outweigh any short-term economic benefits. Substantial health costs, long-term remediation and additional litigation costs (see Fig. 2) further reinforce banning all uses and the production of asbestos as early as possible in favour of sustainable and healthy economic development.”2
The increasing cross-border collaboration of campaigners for global asbestos justice has exposed the amoral as well as illegal machinations of those willing to endanger human life in order to protect asbestos profits. In March 2017, asbestos victims’ representatives from France, Spain, Italy, and the UK journeyed to Belgium to support the family of mesothelioma victim Francoise Jonckheere as they awaited the court verdict in the first asbestos case in Belgium!3 A few weeks later, Indonesian and Indian asbestosis victims told a United Nations meeting in Geneva about the deadly impact of asbestos diseases4 and one month later (on June 23, 2017), a United Nations rapporteur received evidence documenting the asbestos industry’s abuse of human rights from legendary ban asbestos campaigner Brazilian engineer Fernanda Giannasi.5
From July 5 to July 7, a 20-strong delegation of asbestos victims, family members and campaigners took part in activities in UK cities decimated by asbestos-related diseases as part of Action Mesothelioma Day. Their participation was warmly received and their solidarity with UK victims was made manifest by banners they displayed, their interactions with grassroots activists and speeches they made.
Asbestos Seminar, Manchester. July 5, 2017
Action Mesothelioma Day July 7, 2017. Derby.
Action Mesothelioma Day July 7, 2017. Birmingham.
Action Mesothelioma Day July 7, 2017. Sheffield.
Action Mesothelioma Day July 7, 2017. Liverpool.
The international ban asbestos coalition is stronger than ever with joint initiatives being progressed on a wide range of subjects including the identification of asbestos victims, the remediation of contaminated buildings, such as schools, and the decontamination of toxic landfill and dump sites. Through our grassroots network, queries about asbestos contamination of the built environment in Greece and Morocco are being answered by EU experts while the mobilization of support for asbestos bans in Southeast Asia is being reinforced by regional specialists able to provide strategic advice and practical guidance.
It is well known that people working for the asbestos industry are avid readers of this website. So, here is a message from us to them: it is time to accept that you have lost the asbestos war. A negotiated end to the havoc you have wreaked on innocent men, women and children is the only way forward. Shut-down the asbestos mines and let us work together to maximize support for the injured, achieve decontamination of our countries and make restitution for the damage you have done.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Ukraine Bans Asbestos! July 8, 2017.
2 Asbestos policies of Major International Agencies. Updated June 22, 2017.
3 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Victory in Belgium! March 30, 2017.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Showdown in Geneva. May 10, 2017.
5 Asbestos and Human Rights. June 19, 2017
Banning Asbestos: Saves Money and Lives!
Today, June 13, 2017, the World Health Organization released the English version of its Asbestos Fact Sheet 4 at the 6th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health (E&H) in Ostrava, Czech Republic; a Russian version is due out shortly with other translations to follow. The choice of venue to launch this new resource was appropriate as the focus of the three-day E&H event is to “to take action to address the 1.4 million annual deaths from polluted environments” in Europe.1 While the 28 member countries of the European Union have banned asbestos, others like Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Belarus have not. In fact, asbestos production in Russia and Kazakhstan accounts for 60+% of annual global output.
To maximize the impact of the new fact sheet, a side event entitled: Advancing the elimination of asbestos-related diseases is being held tomorrow (June 14) within the framework of the E&H conference to compare and contrast national strategies for eliminating asbestos-related diseases, reducing environmental and occupational asbestos exposures, assessing the costs and benefits of the continued use of asbestos and learning about up-to-date technologies for the disposal of toxic waste and the remediation of contaminated buildings and land.2 As the languages of this event are English and Russian it is not too much of a stretch to suppose that the delegates will include asbestos industry apologists from Eastern Europe who continue to toe the industry line that asbestos can be used safely under controlled conditions. Amongst the findings in the new WHO text which they will find the most objectionable are the following:
The four-page fact sheet makes the long-term costs to society of asbestos consumption crystal clear. The only ones who profit from the use of asbestos are the mine owners and asbestos entrepreneurs. Their profits are obtained at a horrific cost to workers and citizens who pay the bill for the ill health, premature deaths and remediation of structural and environmental contamination as explained in the final recommendation:
“There are substantial and increasing costs associated with the continuing production and use of asbestos. The long-term negative effects far outweigh any short-term economic benefits. Substantial health costs, long-term remediation and additional litigation costs (see Fig. 2) further reinforce banning all uses and the production of asbestos as early as possible in favour of sustainable and healthy economic development.”3
Amen to that!
1 Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health.
2 Advancing the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.
3 World Health Organization: Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases, June 13, 2017.
The Asbestos End Game
For over a hundred years the mining and use of asbestos was a profitable and powerful industry. Throughout most of that time, there were critics who pointed out the deadly price paid by human beings and the environment for asbestos dividends. With dwindling markets, stricter regulations and adverse developments on almost a daily basis, it is clear that this industry has now entered the end game, the outcome of which is inevitable: a shutdown of production, consumption and sale of the only type of asbestos still being used: chrysotile (white) asbestos.
Opposing the International Chrysotile Association and other asbestos lobbying groups from stakeholder countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, India etc. is a virtual, grassroots ban asbestos campaign that knows no borders or paymasters. Developments which took place last week in Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe have been achieved as a result of decades of grassroots mobilization, consensus building and international collaborations by asbestos victims’ groups, trade unions, labor federations, campaigning bodies, non-governmental organizations and other partners.
On Tuesday, February 21, 2017 it was reported that the government of South Korea was tightening asbestos regulations to limit toxic exposures in schools. Two days later, a report was issued by the UK revealing that schools attended by one million children were not “fully compliant” with mandatory asbestos management procedures. The outcry by parents, trade unions and the media regarding the occurrence of asbestos exposures was understandable with headlines such as: Asbestos in schools is a ‘serious’ problem, Government report finds; and Teachers at risk of asbestos exposure in one in five schools.1
The industrial and municipal legacy of asbestos continues to create a daily hazard wherever asbestos has been used. On February 22, a Parliamentary Committee of Andalusia, Spain announced plans for an audit of pipework used to deliver regional water supplies with a view to eliminating the asbestos hazard from the network. On February 23, a National Asbestos Profile working group was launched in Phnom Penh by officials from Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training to devise a strategy for protecting public and occupational health from the asbestos hazard. The same day a press release was issued by a politician in Ontario, Canada announcing the second reading in Ontario’s Legislative Assembly of the Asbestos Use Prohibition Act, the latest signpost on Canada’s road to transitioning from an asbestos producing to an asbestos ban country.
Under the “polluter pays” principle those who create toxic conditions and fail to prevent hazardous exposures should be held accountable for their crimes. On February 24, news was received from Spain of a landmark victory for the family of a worker who died from mesothelioma having been negligently exposed to asbestos by the municipality he worked for. The same day, we heard that the Public Ministry of Labor in Paraná, Brazil had filed a multimillion reals public civil action against Brazil’s Eternit asbestos company for occupational asbestos exposures at the company’s factory in the city of Colombo.
What is crystal clear from the events described above is that the lies told by advocates of asbestos use have been exposed not only in the public arena but also in courts and legislative assemblies and that those who profit from the trade in this class 1 carcinogen are being held accountable. It is well past the time that the asbestos industry woke up to reality – there is no place in the 21st century for this industry.
1 Turner C. Asbestos in schools is a ‘serious’ problem, Government report finds. February 24, 2017.
Owen T. Teachers at risk of asbestos exposure in one in five schools. February 23, 2017.
Update: Ban Asbestos Campaign 2017
Today (February 9, 2017), the funeral was held of fifty-five year old Ffloyd Laurie, whose death from mesothelioma last month has sent shock waves throughout the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW).1 Mr. Laurie had no occupational contact with asbestos, exposure to which can cause mesothelioma; however, as a child he grew up in the town where Australia’s “Killer Company” James Hardie operated the Baryulgil asbestos mine. It was there that he, just like scores of his school friends, inhaled deadly fibers from asbestos tailings spread around the town and from airborne dust generated by mining operations. The death of Mr. Laurie is the first confirmed environmental fatality from the mine and the fear is widespread amongst local people as well as experts that his death could be the first of many from environmental exposure.
In 2017, there will be hundreds of thousands more asbestos deaths. Local authorities, national governments, regional bodies and international agencies remain blinkered in their response to a global public health emergency. In the UK, the clarion call of teachers, unions and campaigning groups for the government to address the widespread contamination of the educational infrastructure goes unanswered. In Spain, the Supreme Court this week ruled that a technicality had invalidated compensation awards paid out to injured workers and in Italy funds earmarked for asbestos remediation work in Sicily have now been reallocated due to the failure by municipalities to conduct mandatory asbestos audits. Inadequate and dismal responses to the asbestos hazard by those tasked with protecting public and occupational health ensure that deadly exposures will continue.
Knowing that the official opposition to asbestos is, in many places, so feeble is a strong incentive for industry lobbyists from Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere to ratchet up asbestos marketing efforts to industrializing countries. What they have not reckoned on, however, is the outpouring of support for and the strength of the grassroots campaign to ban asbestos. Every victim, every relative and every community member who has witnessed the effects of asbestos on the human body is a member of this virtual global movement. From the Australian town of Baryulgil, to the contaminated Getafe neighbourhood of Madrid and the toxic Italian hills of Sicily, the world is calling out for an asbestos-free future!
1 Farrow-Smith E, Marciniak C. Mourners farewell mesothelioma victim Ffloyd Laurie who played in asbestos-ridden schoolyard. February 9, 2017.
New Year Reflections 2017
The global campaign for asbestos justice made significant progress in 2016. The fact that Canada, formerly the world’s largest supplier of chrysotile asbestos, turned its back on asbestos continues to reverberate worldwide and will do so for years to come. In a press release issued on December 15, global ban asbestos campaigners called this development “historic,” with Brazilian activist Fernanda Giannasi saying: “If Canada can ban asbestos, so can we!”
My personal highlights of the year included events both big and small, all of which raised asbestos awareness, provided support for the injured and progressed initiatives to achieve justice for the victims. They included:
The challenges facing us in 2017 should not be underestimated. The asbestos lobby remains determined to squash civil society activists, delude national governments and suppress international agencies’ efforts to shut down this industry of mass destruction.
Their resolve can be ascertained by the million dollar operation mounted to infiltrate our network.7 They will not succeed in silencing us – we are many in number and we are strong in our commitment to end the asbestos slaughter. The future is asbestos-free!
1 Kotoloane P. Schools Asbestos Awareness Workshop. June 2016.
2 Kazan-Allen L. Action Mesothelioma Day 2016. July 6, 2016.
3 Ram Charitra Sah. Implementing Nepal’s Asbestos Ban. May 25, 2016.
4 Kazan-Allen L. EterNOT not Eternit! September 19, 2016.
5 Kazan-Allen L. Brazilians United in Ban Asbestos Struggle. October 2016.
6 Kriz J. Asbestos — not here, not anywhere. November 18, 2016.
7 Corbain I. Corporate spy infiltrated anti-asbestos campaign, court told. December 8, 2016.
Asbestos Victims in the Ascendance
As thousands of French citizens took to the streets in Paris to highlight the country’s ongoing asbestos scandal on October 7, 2016,1 6,000 miles away Brazilian citizens participated in a series of seminal meetings between October 5-8, 2016 to progress the national campaign for an asbestos ban and justice for the injured. The European protest highlighted the French Government’s failure to issue criminal sanctions against those guilty of operating and promoting an industry responsible for at least 50,000 deaths with future mortality estimated at 100,000 by 2050.
Although France banned asbestos in 1999, no one has been held to account for the damage which has been done to workers or members of the public. Brazilian efforts to ban asbestos have been bogged down in the Supreme Court where legal actions against the constitutionality of an asbestos policy based on industry’s “controlled use” propaganda remain unresolved. Even as victims remain hopeful that the highest court in the land will uphold their rights to a life free of asbestos, labor prosecutors are pursuing a variety of routes to reduce asbestos usage including formal agreements with companies to transition to asbestos-free technologies and lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers flouting health and safety laws.
Personal injury lawyers have mounted civil lawsuits for claimants suffering from asbestos-related conditions including pleural plaques against negligent employers with a landmark victory only recently being achieved in the case of Yura Zoudine, a former Eternit engineer who died of mesothelioma on December 8, 2005. This was the first individual claim in Brazil to be resolved with substantial damages being paid to the widow and family. Speaking on October 8, 2016 to a gathering of asbestos victims – members of Brazil’s association of the asbestos-exposed (ABREA) – Yura’s widow Renata said the legal battle had been a fight for justice. Describing the deplorable treatment Yura had received from the company as well as its doctors, she paid tribute to ABREA members and organizers who had helped the family throughout the protracted proceedings in the lower, appellate and supreme, upper and superior labour courts.
ABREA Leaders October 8, 2016 Campinas, Brazil.
In France, Brazil and around the world, the voices of asbestos victims are now being heard at the highest levels. The silent asbestos epidemic is silent no more. As Brazilian ban asbestos activists say: “A luta continue!” [The struggle continues!]
1 ANDEVA Press Release. National Demonstration of Asbestos Victims. October 7, 2016
British Parliament “Riddled” with Asbestos
A report released on Thursday September 8, 2016 by The Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster documented the dilapidated and dangerous state of the Houses of Parliament and highlighted the imminent hazard posed by “asbestos… present throughout” the Parliamentary Estate.1 According to the report:
“One of the biggest problems affecting the repair and maintenance of the Palace is the existence of asbestos throughout the building… [asbestos] was used extensively in the Palace, particularly during the post-war rebuilding period. It is now found in many areas, such as lagging and gaskets of pipework and ductwork, within insulation boards and fire linings, even within some paint. Where asbestos cannot be practically removed it is securely encased and regularly tested and inspected.”2
Specific statements in the report provide serious grounds for concern regarding the ubiquity and condition of asbestos-containing materials present:
To be honest, it would have been surprising if asbestos-containing products had not found their way into Parliament. During the 20th century, over 7 million tonnes of asbestos had been imported. As asbestos was generally used in conjunction with other substances – such as cement to make asbestos-cement building materials – this means that tens of millions of tonnes of toxic products were incorporated into the national infrastructure at a time when the properties of the “magic mineral” were highly prized.
There are, of course, multiple systemic and structural problems with this iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site, some parts of which are more than a thousand years old. The preferred option of The Joint Committee which, it seems, has the support of the Prime Minister is a £4bn restoration plan that would require the relocation of MPs and Peers for six years in order for work to be carried out. Failure to act in a timely manner could, the Committee warned, lead to a “crisis” or “catastrophic event” at the Palace of Westminster.
Accepting that the health of Parliamentarians, support staff, workers and members of the public must be protected from dangerous exposures at Westminster, it is worth pointing out, especially at this time of year when children are returning to schools, that more than 75% of Britain’s state schools are contaminated with asbestos.4 Successive governments have refused to engage with this fact, leaving children and schoolteachers at imminent risk of deadly exposures. If, as one newspaper headline screamed, “Asbestos in Parliament ‘could poison MPs’,” the question must be asked: how safe are our children? No doubt $4bn will be found to fix the Palace of Westminster but what about the financial resources needed to decontaminate tens of thousands of toxic schools? As the new PM considers the options for Parliament, perhaps she might give some thought to a new infrastructure tax to pay for the refurbishment and remediation of schools and public buildings. She did, after all, promise to make Britain “a country that works for everyone.” Why not, start here?
1 MPs to move out of 'asbestos-riddled' Parliament in £4bn restoration plan. September 8, 2016.
2 Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster. Condition of the Palace of Westminster. September 8, 2016.
3 Extract from above report.
4 All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Health and Safety. Asbestos in Schools – The Need for Action. 2012.
Canada’s Asbestos Free Future?
To mark Labour Day 2016 (September 1), the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) issued a statement in which it called for a comprehensive and immediate federal ban on asbestos:
“From construction materials to brake pads, asbestos-laden materials are still in daily use. Imports of asbestos into Canada are also on the rise. Buildings – hospitals, warehouses, rinks, community centres – contaminated with asbestos remain unregistered, keeping the people who use them and work in them at risk. Today, more than 2,000 Canadians die every year from asbestos-related disease. It is the leading cause of workplace-related death and it costs our health care system $1.7 billion a year.
Winning a comprehensive ban will save lives and prevent the pain, suffering and heartache endured by too many today. Canada’s unions have been working with employers and governments for 40 years to protect people from this killer. We’re working with the new federal government to get the job done.”1
The figures speak for themselves. This summer the first analysis of the impact of Canadian asbestos-related diseases revealed that the financial costs associated with 427 cases of mesothelioma – the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure – and 1,904 cases of lung cancers diagnosed in 2011 were a staggering $1.9bn.2
For decades, federal, provincial and municipal governments had a firm policy of “don’t look, don’t see.” When Quebec epidemiologists dared to publish statistics revealing high incidences of asbestos cancer in mining regions,3 they were denounced by representatives of the then powerful asbestos industry. Even now residents of Asbestos, Quebec, home of the defunct Jeffrey chrysotile asbestos mine, are in denial about the hazards posed by asbestos mining. While retired geologist Francesco Spertini, who worked at the mine for 32 years, agreed that all mining operations can be dangerous, he told a journalist last month that:
“All mining activity creates dust, which, once you inhale it, causes emphysema at a minimum …. If you don't saw into it, if you take the necessary precautions to control the dust, you can control the risks.”4
Plans to diversify the economy of Quebec’s former asbestos mining communities are being fuelled by federal funding. While the creation of new jobs by companies lured into the area by fiscal incentives5 is most certainly to be welcomed, the wisdom of developing the former site of the “King Mine” at Thetford Mines, Quebec into a new tourist attraction is questionable in the absence of massive efforts to decontaminate the environmental contamination caused by decades of asbestos mining.6 In the absence of data documenting that the air in Thetford Mines and Asbestos and other former asbestos mining towns is safe to breath, plans to “offer visitors the opportunity to discover the region's rich mining heritage” at a new history centre in Thetford Mines that includes “a major one-of-a-kind tourist facility: an animated mine park housing several pavilions and interpretation stations as well as a public market” are, to say the least, ill-advised.
1 Labour Day: A message from the Canadian Labour Congress. August 31, 2016.
2 Toronto Institute for Work & Health. New cases of mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer in one year cost $1.9B. Summer, 2016.
3 Breaking Canada's Asbestos Addiction. April 20, 2008.
4 Lowrie M. Five years after mine closure, Asbestos, Que., seeking new identity. August 25, 2016.
5 Canadian Initiative for the Economic Diversification of Communities Reliant on Chrysotile.
6 Government of Canada hails inauguration of Centre historique de la mine King (KB3). August 17, 2016.