Thank you, Michael
Last night, scores of friends, colleagues, family members and well-wishers met to express their appreciation for the work of Michael Lees, the UK’s first and foremost asbestos in schools (AiS) campaigner, at a special event hosted by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in central London. Michael’s involvement with asbestos began when his schoolteacher wife Gina was diagnosed with the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma.
Following her death on September 7, 2000, Michael set off on a quest to understand how a teacher could die from an industrial disease. What he uncovered fueled his determination to rid our schools of a toxic substance that was endangering the lives of those who studied and worked in them.
On hand to take part in a celebration of Michael’s work as he began a long and well-deserved retirement were many who had been involved with the campaign. The informal proceedings began with a light buffet and glasses of wine; during this segment of the evening, people were able to catch up on the latest AiS developments and reflect on Michael’s AiS work and legacy.
Michael Lees (center) and some of his many well-wishers.
Sarah Lyons, from the NUT began the speeches by inviting people to say a few words about Michael and several speakers took the opportunity to do so. They included myself, Nick Green from the Hazards Campaign, Tony Whitston, former Chair of the Asbestos Victims’ Support Groups Forum, John McClean, Michael’s designated successor as head of the AiS Group, Christine Blower, the NUT’s General Secretary, Mike Green, Chair of the Asbestos in Schools steering group at the Department for Education, JUAC’s Julie Winn and others.
There was unanimity about Michael’s: effectiveness at uncovering the truth about the asbestos scandal in UK schools, unreserved commitment to the cause, unfailing politeness and ability to develop consensus across the political spectrum. Michael’s attention to detail had, several speakers remarked, put him on a par with leading scientists, many of whom he had successfully challenged at public meetings and in private discussions.
Civil servant Mike Green said that in the future his benchmark for decisions regarding asbestos in schools would be “What would Michael Lees do?”
Michael Lees and Christine Blower.
Christine Blower recalled the time many years ago, before Michael was on the scene, when she had routinely been exposed to asbestos whilst working as a school teacher, while Tony Whitston spoke of Michael’s “masterclasses” on the issue. Michael’s grassroots awards – including the “Alan Award” from the Hazards Campaign – and the MBE he received in 2014 were also mentioned. Comments about the conciseness of his writing led to an outburst of laughter as brevity was, many of his friends admitted, never one of Michael’s strengths.
From left: Paula Walker, Michael Lees, Joanne Gordon, Tony Whitston.
Gifts presented to him last night in appreciation of his AiS work included a cartoon of a knight in shining armor slaying the asbestos dragon, gift vouchers for a DIY store (for many of Michael’s retirement projects), some celebratory bottles and a plate which was the first Michael Lees JUAC award.
Commenting on last night’s activities, Jayne Lawson, whose schoolteacher husband Derek died from mesothelioma in 2009, said:
“When Derek died it was important for the family to establish why he had contracted this disease. We had no specialist knowledge and were dealing with an enormous tragedy that left us all struggling. Michael was there to help not only with the technical details but also the emotional support that came from someone who knew only too well what we were facing. At any hour and on any topic, he was there for us. I know we were just one family out of many that he helped and speaking on behalf of us all, I’d like to thank him for what he has done and wish him the very best for a happy future with his beautiful grandchildren and his many projects.”
August 2015: A Week of Global Asbestos Progress
From Canada to New Zealand by way of Cambodia, the last few days have seen a seismic shift in the global asbestos landscape. Canada, until very recently, was one of the world’s foremost producers of chrysotile asbestos; neither the federal nor provincial governments were inclined to take any action that would incur the wrath of powerful asbestos vested interests. For the most part, political parties had side-stepped the asbestos hot potato. In the run-up to federal elections on October 19, 2015, civil society groups and labor federations have acted to reverse this deplorable situation.
On August 19, 2015 Ban Asbestos Canada, a network of asbestos victims, relatives, campaigners, trade unionists and experts, launched an online petition addressed to all the federal political parties calling on them to support a unilateral asbestos ban and implement a coordinated strategy to support the injured and decontaminate the environment.1 It is well past time that voters demand their elected representatives to put on the record their plans for engaging with the country’s asbestos legacy.
Last week, Cambodia’s Minister of Labor told delegates at an asbestos seminar in Phnom Penh that officials were “conducting a study [on asbestos], after which we will ask the government to stop the import and use of asbestos in order to ensure health security in the workplace.” The fact that imports of asbestos-containing products rose from $1.3 million in 2009 to $4 million in 2013 is a matter of concern to trade unionists such as Sok Kin, President of The Building and Wood Worker Trade Union Federation of Cambodia; in an interview, Mr Kin estimated that up to 80% of construction workers could be at high risk of occupational asbestos exposures. Calling for a government action on asbestos, he said that there was a widespread lack of knowledge about the workplace asbestos hazard.2
Today (August 26, 2015), New Zealand’s Minister of Environment Dr. Nick Smith issued a press release which announced that the Government is:
“… proposing to extend the ban on asbestos. Asbestos is a recognised carcinogen, poses risks of respiratory disease and is a leading cause of work-related disease and mortality. The importation of raw asbestos is completely banned already in New Zealand but there is currently no ban on products that contain asbestos, which would bring New Zealand’s regulations into line with that of many other countries.”3
As has been seen on previous occasions, the knowledge of New Zealand’s Environment Ministers about the asbestos hazard is far from perfect;4 research is being undertaken in New Zealand to confirm suspicions that no legislative ban on imports of raw asbestos actually exists. Nevertheless, the Minister’s statement does acknowledge, finally, the “known risks to both the environment and human health” of exposure to asbestos and the need for decisive action on asbestos by the Government. That is progress!
1 Kazan-Allen L. Ban Asbestos Mobilization in Canada. August 22, 2015.
2 Sokhorng C. Construction sector unaware of asbestos risks. August 26, 2015.
Vida T. Gov’t eyes ban on asbestos. August 20, 2015.
3 Press Release. Consultation on steps to ozone recovery and asbestos ban. August 26, 2015.
4 Minister Amy Adams. Letter to Deidre VanGerven. February 14, 2013.
The Mystery of the Silent Spin Doctor
One might have thought that a prime attribute of a public relations specialist would be his willingness to engage with the media. And yet John Aylen, author of the controversial report “Lessons from the Quebec Asbestos Industry: Can there be meaningful dialogue and consensus when facts come up against feelings?” has failed to respond to questions asked in July and August 2015 by French”1 and English”2 language journalists. Emails we sent to him on August 12, 2015 also remain unanswered.
At issue is Aylen’s failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest stemming from his work for and relationship with asbestos vested interests, including the controversial figure of Baljit Chadha, the entrepreneur whose plan to refloat Quebec’s last operational asbestos mine floundered when Quebec’s Liberal Party was thrown out of office in 2012.
Aylen’s contentious study, uploaded last month (July 2015) to the website of Concordia University where he is a full-time lecturer in “marketing communications,” was the subject of a six-page July 24, 2015 letter of complaint from Canadian medical and scientific experts to the President of Concordia University Dr. Alan Shepard:
“Mr. Aylen was hired by Baljit Chadha and an asbestos consortium to help obtain a loan from the Quebec government in order to open the Jeffrey underground asbestos mine. Mr. Aylen teaches Business Communications and Integrated Marketing Communications at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business and runs a public relations and corporate communications firm. In his report, Mr. Aylen acknowledges the ‘gracious and generous contributions’ of Baljit Chadha (to whom Aylen gives the name Mr Barry Smith) and expresses gratitude for ‘the dedicated assistance of Mr. Guy Versailles’. Versailles owns a public relations company that was also hired by Mr. Chadha to help secure the government loan for the asbestos consortium.”3
Bowing to the high-profile criticism this publication attracted,”4 Concordia, one of Canada’s largest universities, removed it from its website”5 and began an investigation into the accusations. One wonders if Aylen, a “marketing communications professional with more than 30 years experience in planning and implementing communications programs” will be communicative.
1 Nadeau J. L’Université Concordia dans l’embarras. August 11, 2015.
2 Feith J. Concordia to review asbestos report. July 25, 2015.
3 Ruff K. et al. Letter to President A. Shepard. July 24, 2015.
4 Ruff K. Concordia University withdraws asbestos report while it carries out investigation. August 10, 2015.
Ruff K. Concordia University asked to withdraw inaccurate, biased report supporting Quebec asbestos trade. July 25, 2015.
5 Error message where report used to be. August 13, 2015.
The Illegal Asbestos Trade
Despite the known threat posed by the asbestos hazard, contaminated products continue to subvert national and regional asbestos bans. Last week, it was announced that Turin public prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello was investigating the discovery that more than 8,600 cars purchased in Italy from China’s Great Wall Motors were contaminated with asbestos-containing components; indictments are expected shortly against two Italian businessmen.1 In February this year (2015), the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service admitted it was unable to guarantee that imported Chinese goods were asbestos-free.2 Asbestos-contaminated imports from China have included plasterboard — a disaster for plasterers — gaskets, trains, mining equipment and vehicles.
This month (July 2015), there has been a furore about the discovery that crayons containing asbestos made in China were being sold in the US. Media coverage of this story has been huge and led to investigations in Australia and the UK over possible importation of these products. UK asbestos victims groups, trade unions and campaigning bodies issued a media release on this subject on July 27, 2015 which demanded that the government take action to secure our borders and protect citizens from toxic imports.3
There is no mystery about these illegal imports. Two million tonnes of asbestos are being used every year. While the bulk of the consumed fiber remains in countries where asbestos is legal, some is incorporated into products that are sold internationally. As there is no global asbestos ban, the reality is that specific products from asbestos-using countries should be placed on an embargo list. From the details above and from other recent incidents, that list should include: building products, trains, vehicles, mining equipment, gaskets, crayons, and flasks. The alternative is for every country wishing to sell their goods abroad to unilaterally ban asbestos. It would not only make economic sense but would also be the right thing to do to protect human life.
1 Amianto, 8600 auto dalla Cina con componenti in Amianto [8,600 cars with asbestos components imported from China]. July 22, 2015.
2 Ferguson J. Made in China (with asbestos). February 23, 2015.
3 STOP Playing with Cancer! July 27, 2015.
Cancer Crayons, Asbestos Crimes 2015
On July 15, 2015, an Italian court sentenced eleven former managers of the Pirelli company to jail for their parts in the asbestos-related deaths of twenty former workers who were negligently exposed to asbestos at two of the company’s factories in Milan in the 1970s and 1980s.1
This verdict came as news continues to circulate of the discovery that crayons and fingerprinting kits sold in the US were contaminated with tremolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile and actinolite asbestos. Concern about the Chinese-produced toxic consumer goods has spread from North America to Europe and Australia as knowledge about the situation grows. This discovery was not made by a government agency or a consumer group – it was revealed by a body campaigning for the United States to ban asbestos.
In Australia, the National Toxics Network has issued a formal complaint to the Competition and Consumer Commission about the online sale in Australia of Mickey Mouse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle crayons and “CSI” science kits. This is not the first time that the Australian asbestos ban has been flouted by the import of tainted goods from China. And yet, according to trade unionist Michael Borowick “only two prosecutions for a breach of the ban have taken place in the past 11 years.”2
If the image of American or Australian children drawing with “cancer crayons,” is disturbing so too is the idea of British apprentices drilling into asbestos-cement construction materials and Indian workers tearing asbestos insulation from ships in beach scrapyards.
And yet, unlike in Italy, it seems no one will go to jail for the damage done by these exposures. In the UK, former directors of asbestos companies received honors from the Queen for their services to the country as well as big fat pensions even as the death toll from the operations of their deadly factories continued to mount.
It seems that we all have a lot to learn from Italian jurisprudence when it comes to dealing with corporate criminals.
1 Amianto a Milano, "fu omicidio colposo": condanne fino a 7 anni per 11 ex manager Pirelli. July 15, 2015.
1 Colman E. ACTU calls for inquiry into asbestos import. July 16, 2015.
What if You Won the Lottery?
There can be very few people who have not daydreamed about what they would do if they won the lottery. Houses for all family members? Round-the-world first class plane tickets? Donations to favorite charities? I have certainly had this discussion with my husband and needless to say we don’t agree on how “our winnings” would be disbursed. However, that is not a serious problem as the chances of our winning are abysmally small – we have only ever bought five lottery tickets!
This is not the case for Gina Rinehart who by the happenstance of her birth has become the wealthiest person in Australia and the sixth richest woman in the world. Her vast fortune was founded on her father’s mining interests, the first of which was a blue asbestos mine in Western Australia. Gina lived in the mining region near Wittenoom when she was young and like other children she inhaled deadly asbestos dust day in, day out. Asbestos fibers were in the air, in the soil and on the children’s clothes. The sandboxes were full of asbestos-contaminated mine tailings; the children breathed in the carcinogenic fibers as they made their sandcastles and played with their toys in their backyards.
Gina, like the rest of her Wittenoom contemporaries, is at high risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. Indeed, many of the former Wittenoom children have already died from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma.
In Australia, Gina Rinehart is rarely out of the newspapers despite her aversion to the media. She is proud of her father and jealous of his legacy despite the role in played in Australia’s asbestos tragedy. Lang Hancock was and remains a controversial character not least because of his denial that exposure to asbestos causes cancer.1
Ms. Rinehart is a West Australian born and bred and she could do something really wonderful by donating $100 million to two West Australian institutions which work to support the asbestos-injured and find new treatments and cures for the diseases asbestos can cause. These donations to the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia and the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases would be a fitting memorial to Lang Hancock and his daughter. They might also be in Ms. Rinehart’s self-interest – as a Wittenoom child there is a chance that she, like so many others, may one day contract mesothelioma. Should the worst happen, it would be good to know that the cure that saves her life was funded by Hancock Prospecting.
1 Barrett J. The family legacy Gina Rinehart would like to forget. July 7, 2015
Finnegan W. The Miner’s Daughter. March 25, 2013.
King Cameron’s Runnymede Hypocrisy
The Prime Minister joined other British dignitaries today at Runnymede to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.
One wonders if he did so with his fingers crossed behind his back for even as he highlighted the relevance of the “Great Charter” to 21st century life, he remained stalwart in his determination to take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights and scrap the Human Rights Act.
There are so many examples of how the Tory Government is working to undercut our basic rights that it is difficult to choose just one but I will do so nevertheless.
In March 2015, a new schedule of court fees was introduced by the Ministry of Justice which increased by more than 650% the cost of bringing an average asbestos injury claim. The excuse given for this draconian measure was the need in these straitened times to recoup the cost of running the Court system. The result of these increases was predictable – the marginalization and discouragement of claimants seeking to obtain justice for the damage done to them by their exposures to asbestos.
Protesting about the new charges, the Law Society said that the government’s action “would be tantamount to ‘selling justice’ contrary to the principles of Magna Carta.” Justice will, of course, still be available but only to those who can afford it. It seems that in the afterglow of his election victory, King Cameron is prepared to reconfirm the dominance of the few at the expense of the many.
There is another anniversary this week – on Thursday June 18, it will be two hundred years since Wellington’s armies defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon had thought himself invincible but we all know how that ended. Think on Cameron, think on.
Alcoa and Asbestos: A Dangerous Mix!
Today, I read news of yet another asbestos incident at an Alcoa plant in Western Australia.1 The details of the latest exposure were as familiar as the position taken by the company that “the risk of any health impact to the contractors working on the job was considered extremely low due to the non-friable condition of the material, the limited amount of the material, the type of asbestos contained in the material and the short duration of the task.”
Easy for them to say when it was not their lungs which had inhaled the deadly fibers and not their families who were exposed to the contamination taken home on the work clothes of the seven maintenance workers who noticed a “white powdery substance” when they were removing roof sheets at a refinery last month (May 2015). Fortunately, they called their unions which tested the “white powdery substance” and found it to be asbestos.
This is not the first breach of Australian asbestos regulations by Alcoa. Five years ago, the company had been in the news over its purchase of 1,100+ asbestos-containing gaskets. The company was “very confident that the risk presented by these valves is extremely small.” Its workers were not so confident and sought advice from the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia regarding the implications of their workplace exposures.
Alcoa is a multinational conglomerate which aspires to “work safely, promote wellness, and protect the environment.” Yet, when it comes to asbestos, the hazards of which have been known for many decades, neither the workers nor their families are protected from the company’s negligence.
It is not just a problem for Australia’s Alcoa employees. Brazilian workers have also experienced fatal asbestos exposures. Dante Untura Filho died from malignant mesothelioma in 2010, having inhaled asbestos whilst employed at the Alcoa plant in Poços de Caldas, Brazil (1970-1987). He brought a lawsuit in the United States against the company but died before the case was settled.2
It is fortunate that in Australia, the trade unions are on the ball and that union members have been informed about the hazards so that when they come across a potential source of exposure they take appropriate action. While these incidents should not happen, they do and it is well past time that Alcoa took steps to ensure that their workplaces were asbestos-free. But what about the conditions experienced by Alcoa workers in countries where asbestos remains legal? How many more cases like that of Dante Untura Filho will have to be brought, before the company takes comprehensive and unilateral action on asbestos?
1 Workers exposed to asbestos at Alcoa's Kwinana refinery, says CFMEU. June 4, 2015.
2 Death of Brazilian Asbestos Victim. February 12, 2010.
Australia’s Asbestos Reality
Yesterday was a British bank holiday and during the day I sat down to read a book. I did not put it down until I finished it some hours later. The odd thing was that the book was not by Dan Brown or John Grisham or another thriller writer. It was by an Australian called Barry Knowles who had left school at 14 and was a builder by trade and, by his own admission, not much of a writer.
I am afraid Mr. Knowles was wrong – he is one hell of a writer and the story he has to tell has much to recommend it. While the book “Reflections through Reality””1 is very much a personal narrative it plays out on a very broad landscape and has features you would find in a best-seller. Be in no doubt, there is a serial killer at large who has murdered so many people that the only real way to get to grips with the crime is victim by victim. Barry knows many of them – some he worked with when he was an apprentice and later a master builder in Western Australia, others he met after he had retired. All of them, including Barry, were injured by exposure to asbestos-containing building products which were used on a massive scale throughout Australia. In 2010 Barry, who had retired to Tasmania with his wife Renee, was told he had mesothelioma, a cancer which could end his life within nine months. Five years later, he is still alive.
Barry’s phenomenal memory enables him to describe the routine asbestos exposures he experienced during his apprenticeship in great detail:
“All of these buildings had asbestos products installed in them, such as fibro asbestos to line external walls; Tilux sheeting to kitchen and laundry dados, and to bathroom walls; asbestos gutters, downpipes, corrugated roof sheets (Super Six) and accessories.”
The book’s personal narrative covers the writer’s life from the time his family emigrated to Australia in 1952 when he was 7½ years old to the current day including the shock of his mesothelioma diagnosis, subsequent treatment and decision to forgo further chemotherapy and surgery. The physical and practical impacts of his disease on himself and his family are described in a matter-of-fact manner despite their distressing nature.
Interwoven with the day-to-day reality of life with mesothelioma are details of two other journeys: from Kalgoorlie to Perth (2012) and from Dunsborough to Perth (2013) organized by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) to raise asbestos awareness and funds for medical research. Barry expresses, on many occasions, his respect and gratitude for the work of the Society with specific mentions of ADSA President Robert Vojakovic, his walking partner during the 2012 walk, and ADSA Counsellor Rose Marie Vojakovic.”2
Contributions in the book from Barry’s wife and daughters provide valuable insight into how mesothelioma affects the whole family and his daughter Aimee’s realization that mesothelioma is not only a murderer but also a thief was particularly poignant. Writing about Barry, his wife of 47 years Renee said: “He is a man of great integrity and thought if he was given a job to do it should be done to the best of his ability.” In writing this book, Barry has done just that.
2 Kazan-Allen L. Western Australia’s Asbestos Legacy. May 10, 2015.