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.
Asbestos Safety: Can you Trust the Tories?
This week prosecutors in Milan asked a court to hand down a six year-jail sentence on an executive who had, in the 1970s, failed to implement measures to protect factory workers from hazardous asbestos exposures (see: Prosecutors want 6 yrs in asbestos deaths). It is alleged that as a result of the negligence of Giampiero Pesenti, thirty former employees of the Italcementi Group died from asbestos-related diseases.
No doubt, the defense in this case will argue plausible deniability saying that the asbestos hazard was unknown at that time. But what about now? Can anyone truly believe that the dangers posed by asbestos-containing products within the built environment can be safely ignored. And yet, this is exactly what the Tory Party was hoping to do according to an interview given on March 14, 2015 by MP David Laws, a Liberal Democrat MP and the Minister of State for Schools (see: Exclusive: Michael Gove still driving education policy despite being out of the job, says Lib Dem).
According to Laws, Number 10’s reluctance “to act on the problem of asbestos in school buildings before the May election,” was responsible for the failure to publish a Department of Education report on the management of asbestos in schools. It took a concerted effort by asbestos in schools campaigners, trade unionists, politicians and the media to force the government’s hand last week. On March 12, more than eight months after publication was due, the 31-page report was issued – despite David Cameron’s efforts, it would appear.
Playing politics with a situation as serious as our children’s health is immoral, unacceptable and almost certainly illegal. In the run-up to the general election, voters might do well to consider the Tory Party’s failure to act on this issue. Are your children safe at school?
In Appreciation of Romana Blasotti Pavesi
Last week it was announced that after twenty-two years at the helm of the Associazione famigliari e vittime amianto di Casale Monferrato (AfeVA The Asbestos Victims’ Association of Casale Monferrato), the esteemed and revered AfeVA President, Romana Blasotti Pavesi, had resigned her position!1
For decades, Romana had been at the heart of the grassroots struggle for justice for those whose lives had been decimated by the greed and negligence of asbestos multinationals. She had a gravitas and empathy informed by personal loss; her beloved husband Mario, her daughter Rosa, her sister, cousin and nephew died from asbestos cancer. Mario worked at the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato but the others were victims of environmental exposures to Eternit asbestos.
Romana was at the forefront of the campaign for asbestos justice, remediation and research; she was the voice of those silenced by the deadly dust and the face of a movement supported by citizens, unions, agencies, medical professionals, religious leaders and politicians.
Her blue eyes registered approval on February 13, 2012 when Stephan Schmidheiny was found guilty of the deaths of thousands of Italians. Yet on November 19, 2014, the Supreme Court vacated this decision on the grounds that the charges of causing permanent environmental disaster were time-barred. In an interview with an Italian journalist, Romana confided that: “I believed in justice, but I still have not really understood what happened.”
As the news of Romana’s resignation reverberated around the world, many of her friends and colleagues expressed their admiration for and friendship with this quietly-spoken and petite octogenarian. The struggle is not over and the movement that Romana inspired has recommitted itself to the vast challenges now being faced. Grazie Romana per tutto! [Thank you Romana for everything!]
1Amianto, lascia la presidente delle vittime di Casale Monferrato [The President of the Association of Asbestos Victims of Casale Monferrato Retires].
Good News for UK Mesothelioma Sufferers
Today (February 10, 2015), Minister Mark Harper told Parliament (see: Hansard – Written Statements.) that the Department for Work and Pensions would increase compensation awards made under the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme from 80% to 100% of average civil claims for people diagnosed from today. The regulations will be enacted next month at which time the upgraded tariff scheme would become operational.
The Minister explained that the increase was due to a lower level of claims than had been anticipated. Commenting on today’s news, Adrian Partner, a Partner at Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, said:
“The increase in payments should of course be welcomed but it is disappointing that it isn’t retrospective. It is also disappointing that mesothelioma sufferers diagnosed before 25 July 2012, who would otherwise have been eligible for a payment, were excluded from the outset. The scheme has a number of inadequacies but, for those people who have received payments to date, it has afforded them some financial security.”
Ever since the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme had been announced, the Forum of Asbestos Victims’ Support Groups had been campaigning for full compensation for all those affected by asbestos-related diseases. The Labor Party had been engaged in discussions with stakeholders about this issue. Is it cynical to see the Government’s actions as a pre-election ploy? Whatever the reason, it is certainly good news for those who will benefit from the change.
More Truth – and Light
This week an article in The Guardian reported that the British Medical Journal has “announced it would no longer publish any editorials or clinical education articles from experts with financial ties to industry.”1 I think that most people would be amazed that it has taken until 2015 for this step to be taken, nevertheless this is a positive development.
For a hundred years, the asbestos industry has hired “experts” to do its bidding. Examples of corporate manipulation of data, discourse and debate are easy to find in the tawdry and long history of this deadly industry. In a presentation made in Denmark in December 12, 2014 at a Copenhagen Asbestos Symposium, Kathleen Ruff, of RightonCanada, addressed the topic of How the asbestos industry used McGill University scientists to promote its interests.
Ms. Ruff cited internal documents from the Asbestos Textile Institute which revealed the strategy of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association to form an “alliance with some university such as McGill for example, so that authoritative background for publicity can be had.” The work of McGill’s Dr. Corbett McDonald helped “save the asbestos industry,” which sited his research to promote the myth that chrysotile asbestos could be “safely used.”
The success of the asbestos industry in forestalling the imposition of national prohibitions, the introduction of regional restrictions and international action on this human health hazard has allowed the manufacture, sale and trade of a class 1 carcinogen to continue. The latest available data show that two million tonnes of asbestos are used every year.
The International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) therefore welcomes the announcement by the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and its Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York that they plan to make available materials revealed during U.S. toxic tort litigation that have been “locked away” in filing cabinets and on hard drives. “In coming months, we’ll be posting hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery material from lawsuits involving lead, asbestos, silica, hexavalent chromium and PCBs, among other dangerous substances.”
This initiative will not only benefit workers and members of the public in the U.S. but will be a boon to campaigners in countries where industry propaganda continues to dominate national asbestos agendas. IBAS is eager to work with these U.S. institutions to reveal the scale, extent and details of the corporate asbestos scandal. Watch this space!
1Malotra A. Is the failure of health regulation damaging our well-being. Feb. 1, 2015
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.