Happy Canada Day?
Today (July 1), is Canada Day! It is celebrated with parades, barbecues and fireworks and is a national event much like July 4th is further south.
On Canada’s 147th birthday it is sad to report that it seems wisdom does not come with advancing years. Since June 14, 2014, the Globe and Mail has been featuring devastating articles about the human and environmental impact of the country’s nearly defunct but still deadly asbestos industry.1 Canadian Professor Stephan Bornstein is categorical about the future: “asbestos will continue to kill us for many decades.”2
On June 27, the latest article – Pipes with asbestos still used in new buildings – reported the use of contaminated building products in “new condominiums, hospitals and high-rises in Canada, despite widespread health concerns that have led many countries to ban its use.” According to Canadian trade data, $2.2-million worth of asbestos-containing pipes, tiles, sheets, panels and tubes were imported from 2010 to 2013. In the absence of a ban, this is, of course, legal, but is it wise, necessary or ethical?
If 55 countries with bans can function without asbestos, surely Canada can do so too? Canadian lungs are just as susceptible to the carcinogenic properties of asbestos as those of Italians, Germans and Koreans and yet as work continues to remove asbestos from some parts of the country’s infrastructure (like the buildings on capitol hill in Ottawa), the import and use of toxic products continue.
There are many reasons why Ottawa has not acted on this issue. For decades, federal and provincial governments worked hand in glove with the asbestos mining industry to progress the commercial agenda. Were Ministers now to mobilize behind a national prohibition, it would be a de facto admission that they had got it wrong.
How many more Canadians will have to die before the Ottawa government acknowledges its asbestos past and implements measures for an asbestos-free future? If and when it does so, it could indeed be a Happy Canada Day.
1 No Safe use: The Canadian asbestos epidemic that Ottawa is ignoring.
2 Bornstein S. Asbestos exposure: We’re just at the beginning of a health crisis. June 19, 2014.
Asbestos Crime and Punishment 2014
In the bad old days, there was little asbestos news to report. Knowing what we now know that’s not surprising. Asbestos stakeholders maintained an iron grip on the flow of information and spent huge sums on spin doctors and public relations consultants who ensured that damaging research or outspoken critics were marginalized.
While industry’s monopoly on national asbestos agendas has shattered in many developed economies, asbestos pushers maintain control of national agendas in producing and using countries. One only has to look at the situation in Russia, where the party line is that not one worker has died from exposure to asbestos, to understand the difficulties faced by ban asbestos campaigners.
Nevertheless, the campaign for asbestos justice has now reached a critical mass with support for asbestos bans from international agencies, regional authorities, national governments and independent scientists. Unfortunately, some governments are too lazy, too inept or too corrupt to take the actions needed to protect their citizens from the asbestos hazard. The situation in New Zealand is an illustration of this.1
Despite banning asbestos in 1999, the UK still has serious problems regarding toxic products incorporated within our infrastructure. The debate over the response to these challenges is high-profile and high level with active engagement by a wide range of civil society sectors including: asbestos victims, health and safety specialists, trade unionists and others working together to progress the ultimate goal of making the UK asbestos-free.
I was amazed to read reports yesterday of three legal victories this week for UK asbestos victims. Each of these verdicts is significant not only for the individuals who brought the actions but for other potential claimants. Judgments against Marks and Spencer,2 Cape Asbestos3 and Scottish defendants4 acknowledged the right of occupational and environmental asbestos victims to be compensated for their injuries.
Unfortunately, the defendants in these cases did not go down without a fight. It is appalling to think that a company like Marks & Spencer, which portrays itself as a family-friendly British institution, put mesothelioma sufferer Janice Allen through the stress of a court battle when she may have only months to live. I know I will think twice before going into M&S in future.
1 Kazan-Allen L. New Zealand’s Failing Asbestos Policy! February 22, 2011.
2 Conn D. Marks & Spencer asbestos case: 'I feel so angry and betrayed'. June 25, 2014.
3 Aherne D. Widow handed payout after Barking’s Cape Asbestos factory caused husband’s death. June 26, 2014.
4 Landmark Judgment In Asbestos Case ‘To Provide Vital Support To Families’. June 27, 2014.
Margaret Anne Gallagher & Others v S C Cheadle Hume.
New Zealand: Time to Ban Asbestos!
An online petition launched this month (June 2014) by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is demanding the Government “do the right thing and act immediately and ban the importation of asbestos and develop a comprehensive plan for the removal of all existing asbestos.”
The call comes hot on the heels of the publication of a discussion paper by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment which highlighted the inadequacies of proposed health and safety regulations. Chapter 4 of this document entitled “Regulating Work Involving Asbestos” raised many technical issues and unfavourably compared New Zealand’s asbestos health and safety regime with that of Australia. Regarding the issue of an asbestos ban it said:
“It is also not within the scope of these regulations to ban the import, export or manufacture of asbestos or asbestos-containing products or materials. Although some controls are in place in other regulatory regimes, further work is needed to align New Zealand with trading partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
New Zealand asbestos victims have had a long-standing engagement with Ministers and politicians over the government's reckless disregard of the asbestos hazard.1 Asbestos widow Deidre van Gerven has been battling for an acknowledgement of the country’s asbestos crisis since she lost her husband to asbestos cancer in 1997. Her quest became even more determined following the massive 2011 earthquake which turned Christchurch into a city-sized asbestos dump site.
Advice distributed last month (May 2014) by the Ministry of Health (MoH) was clearly designed to damp down public concern over the asbestos hazard in Christchurch. 2 The MoH information was both incorrect and outdated. It failed to mention the full range of diseases caused by asbestos and gave false reassurances about the threat to children saying: “There is no conclusive evidence that children are at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than adults.” Yes, there is. The UK’s Committee of Carcinogenicity recently examined evidence on this issue and concluded that:
“it is well recognised by this committee that, due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, there is an increased lifetime risk of mesothelioma as a result of the long latency period of the disease. Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”3
The MoH advice sought to dismiss the dangers posed by environmental exposure saying:
“The risk from exposure to asbestos in the non-occupational setting is generally considered to be low because the concentrations of airborne asbestos fibres are low and people are not exposed very often…”
Considering the scale of the Christchurch earthquake, the widespread and long-term use of asbestos-containing materials in New Zealand, the lack of asbestos audits, the government’s failure to monitor imports of asbestos-containing products and low levels of public and occupational awareness of the asbestos hazard, it is more likely than not that the health of people in Christchurch, workers and residents alike, were endangered by the inhalation of elevated levels of asbestos.
Asbestos victims, trade unions and civil society campaigners have repeatedly called on the New Zealand government to ban the import and use of asbestos-containing products and implement measures to prevent hazardous exposures. Do the members of Prime Minister John Key’s government need to wait for the next earthquake to finally “do the right thing?”
1 Kazan-Allen L. New Zealand's Failing Asbestos Policy! February 22, 2011.
2 Asbestos advice for householders: Ministry of Health responses to questions about asbestos in Christchurch. May 2014.
3 Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. Statement on the Relative Vulnerability of Children to Asbestos compared to Adults.
The Asbestos Lie
The shock waves from the May 22, 2014 European elections continue to reverberate. For someone who sees much of the world’s news through an asbestos filter, the success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is very worrying. In 2013, a UKIP Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Richard Helmer denounced plans to safeguard EU citizens from the asbestos hazard stating that there is “zero risk from white asbestos.” He accused “ambulance-chasing lawyers” of underwriting the attempt by politicians, trade unions and asbestos victims’ groups to implement measures to protect public and occupational health. Unsurprisingly, he cited a paper by scientists working for asbestos defendants to substantiate his claims. There is no shadow of a doubt that with 24 UK MEPs, 31% of the total UK allocation, more attempts will be made to roll back EU asbestos directives.
It was some comfort that at the same time as the developments discussed above were unfolding, news was received that a seminal work about Europe’s asbestos catastrophe had finally been published in English. The original German version of the book – Die Asbestluge [The Asbestos Lie] – by Swiss journalist Maria Roselli had appeared in 2007; it was followed the next year by the French version: Amiante & Eternit: Fortunes et Forfaitures [Asbestos & Eternit: Fortunes & Forfeits]. The Asbestos Lie was published in hard copy and also uploaded to the web by the European Trade Union Institute this month (May 2014).1 While a leading academic has agreed to produce a detailed review of this translation for the IBAS website, it is nevertheless appropriate at this time to point out that one of the asbestos lies highlighted in this book is the attempt by industry stakeholders to “whitewash” chrysotile asbestos. Ms. Rosselli writes:
“The asbestos lobby is still using its old tricks in developing and emerging countries that they used here thirty or forty years ago to interfere in the political process to thwart a solution: there are still the in-house or subsidised studies from ‘scientific’ institutes close to the industry purporting to substantiate the harmlessness of chrysotile. At scientific symposia organised and controlled by asbestos companies pseudo-experts play down the dangers of white asbestos… In this way it’s possible for national governments to still swallow the lie of ‘controlled use’ – risk-free use of asbestos.”
Some months before she died, UK mesothelioma sufferer Debbie Brewer reached out to Richard Helmer to tell him about her deadly battle with asbestos cancer. In his dismissive response, the MEP informed Ms. Brewer that: “the fact that you suffer from this disease is not evidence that it was caused by white asbestos. There is clear government research showing that white asbestos (as distinct from blue/brown asbestos) poses no measurable health risk.” Helmer is categorical that his priority is:
“the huge and unnecessary costs that would be inflicted on the British economy generally (and in particular on farmers, who often have large corrugated asbestos cement buildings) if they were required to replace this material. I am particularly incensed that this whole attempt to vilify white asbestos is driven by commercial interests seeking to profit from the wholly unnecessary and egregious economic damage they propose to inflict on thousands of businesses, and the economy generally.”2
It seems that in the world according to UKIP, the thousands of lives sacrificed to asbestos count for nothing just so long as UK plc can off-load its liabilities and increase its profits.
1 Rosselli M. [Translated by Milbouer P.] The Asbestos Lie. European Trade Union Institute, 2014.
2 Helmer R. March 2013 Update.
Yalegate, No Happy Ending – Yet!
I had expected better of Yale University. With hundreds of years of tradition and a library that contains fifteen million volumes (yes, 15,000,000!), I would have hoped that either wisdom or common sense would have prevailed by now. It seems not.
Last year, a group of Italian asbestos victims wrote to Yale asking the college to reassess an honorary award given to Swiss billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny in light of a criminal conviction by an Italian court which sentenced him to 18 years in prison.1 Dan Berman explained the situation as follows:
“As a Yale graduate I was shocked to find out in 2000 that asbestos-cement billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny – owner of the Eternit Corporation – had been awarded a ‘Doctorate of Humane Letters’ by Yale University in 1996. In its message accompanying the award, Yale praised Mr. Schmidheiny for ‘making company decisions based on the health of the planet’ and for doing business in ‘environmentally friendly’ ways, without ever mentioning the fact that part of his vast fortune came from Eternit’s deadly asbestos operations.”
Commenting on Schmidheiny’s supposed philanthropy, Berman said that having divested himself of most of his asbestos investments, Schmidheiny “created a large foundation as well as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. In essence he tried to morph himself into a green business philanthropist by green-washing himself in the eyes of the world.”
Yale has remained steadfast in its position despite communications from asbestos victims, trade unionists and experts in the U.S. and abroad. In an April 14th letter to Terry Lynch of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulation and Allied Workers, Yale’s Vice President and Secretary Kimberly M. Goff-Crews reaffirmed that “in regard to Mr. Schmidheiney’s degree … the University’s position has not changed.” The fact that this document contained just over one hundred words seems to reflect the lack of importance with which the university regards this matter.
While the college authorities might be dismissive of this issue, Yale alumni are not. Last Tuesday (May 13, 2014), a letter was sent to Yale’s President and Vice President/Secretary which accompanied an “Alumni Petition to the Yale Corporation to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny's Doctorate of Humane Letters.” Criticizing Yale’s refusal to revoke the honor on the grounds that “there is no record of Yale ever having revoked an honorary degree,” the petition concluded as follows: “we believe that revoking that high honor will reinforce Yale’s commitment to its motto Lux et Veritas while the whole world is watching.” For those readers who are, like myself, not native Latin “speakers,” Yale’s motto means “light and truth.”
Until the University admits its mistake and takes appropriate action, it would seem that Yale has not only betrayed its heritage but compromised its reputation. If Yale wishes to honor its traditional values, it should consult some of those 15,000,000 books in its library; subjects of interest might be human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability and corporate murder.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Awards to Schmidheiny and Candidacy of Paolo Boffetta Attacked by Victims' Groups. January 20, 2014.
Newsham J. A Toxic Legacy. September 8, 2013.
Asbestos Truth or Consequences
This morning I read a new academic paper – Asbestos in Belgium: an underestimated health risk. The evolution of mesothelioma mortality rates (1969–2009).1 While I was relieved to see epidemiological data confirming what Belgian asbestos campaigners have been saying for years, it seems hard to believe that it has taken so long for the scientists to conclude that:
The key to Belgium’s hidden mesothelioma epidemic is contained within the text of the last bullet point. Eternit S.A., a global conglomerate that bestrode the asbestos industrial sector for generations, was a Belgian-owned company. For decades, Eternit executives, spin-doctors and lawyers used every available method to create a climate in which the use of asbestos flourished. Even when asbestos was finally banned in Belgium, they exerted the corporate, political and social capital at their disposal to prevent victims from claiming compensation or speaking out about their personal tragedies.2 The public awareness and recognition given to asbestos victims in many neighboring countries have long been denied to Belgians.
By happenstance, the same issue of the journal which contained the paper cited above, featured an article which shed light on industry’s tactics to deny the asbestos hazard and defend companies from asbestos liabilities:
“Asbestos product companies [like Eternit!] would like the public to believe that there was a legitimate debate surrounding the dangers of asbestos during the twentieth century, particularly regarding the link to cancer, which delayed adequate regulations. The asbestos–cancer link was not a legitimate contestation of science; rather the companies directly manipulated the scientific literature. There is evidence that industry manipulation of scientific literature remains a continuing problem today, resulting in inadequate regulation and compensation and perpetuating otherwise preventable worker and consumer injuries and deaths.”3
Throughout the industrializing world, two million tonnes of asbestos is used every year. The Belgian scientists conclude their paper with a call for international prohibitions (“a global ban is imperative to prevent further occupational and environmental exposure worldwide”); the American authors conclude theirs with a call for total transparency about the corporate machinations regarding the asbestos hazard. Both steps are needed, now more than ever!
1 Van den Borre L, Deboosere P. Asbestos in Belgium: an underestimated health risk. The evolution of mesothelioma mortality rates (1969–2009).
2 Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. IBAS 2012.
3 Egilman D, Bird T, Lee C. Dust diseases and the legacy of corporate manipulation of science and law.
Two articles I read today caused me to reflect on the toxic legacy in asbestos-producing and consuming countries. As Canada, for decades the world’s most prolific asbestos producer, and Belgium, the home country of Eternit, one of the biggest industrial asbestos groups, were mentioned in these texts let us focus our attention on them.
From 1880 until 2011, Canada produced a whopping 63+ million tonnes of asbestos; for decades, the export of what was affectionately referred to as “white gold” brought in billions of dollars of export earnings. Canadian vested interests – including commercial as well as political, academic and other stakeholders – played a pivotal role in creating a climate in which global sales of asbestos could flourish. Following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco lobbyists, asbestos spin doctors adopted strategies to intimidate opponents, co-opt decision makers, neutralize scientific criticism and influence journalists, trade unionists and civil servants.
The Canadian asbestos lobby was as active at home as it was abroad and the low level of public awareness of the asbestos hazard in mining regions is a direct result of the industry’s propaganda campaigns. Two years after asbestos production ended in Quebec, demands are being made for a more open and transparent approach to asbestos contamination of the built environment.1 Toxicologist Daniel Green has called on the housing authorities in Gatineau, the fourth biggest city in Quebec, to advise tenants about the presence of asbestos in their properties; up to 40% of the municipal housing stock is believed to contain asbestos. “An informed population is,” Dr. Green says “a population better able to protect themselves.”
Thousands of miles from Quebec, Belgian authorities were also involved in a crisis last week when asbestos-containing roofing was discovered at the European Parliament.2 Even as the authorities were attempting to play down the risk to building users, it was announced that immediate action would be taken to contain the hazard and remediate the building.
If asbestos is too hazardous for Quebec tenants and European Union politicians, how can it be safe for Indian factory workers, Chinese miners or Indonesian car mechanics? Are Canadian and Belgian lives more valuable? If we accept that all human beings have an equal right to life, then the use of asbestos anywhere in the world is immoral, inexcusable and unacceptable.
1 Une population avertie est apte à se protéger. [An informed population is able to protect themselves].
2 De l’amiante sur le toit du parlement! [Asbestos on the roof of the parliament!]
International Workers’ Memorial Day 2014
Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day, an occasion observed in countries around the world. The rallying cry used by trade unions to raise awareness of the price paid by workers is “Remember the dead – Fight for the living.” Considering the death toll caused by workplace exposures to asbestos, it is unsurprising that calls for an asbestos ban figure prominently in many activities on April 28. That these calls are still needed in 2014 is testament to the aggressive and corrosive methods of the asbestos lobby.
Despite incontrovertible evidence documenting the consequences of hazardous exposures and recommendations by international agencies, independent scientists and medical doctors for asbestos to be outlawed, two million tonnes are still being used every year. The results of human exposure are the same as they have always been: debilitating illness and death. A 2013 academic paper quantified the price paid for asbestos use as follows:
“The 128,015 and 13,885 persons who died of mesothelioma and asbestos [between 1994 and 2010 in 82 and 55 countries] potentially lost a total of 2.18 million and 180,000 years of life (PYLL), or, an annual average PYLL of 201,000 years and 17,000 years, respectively. The average PYLL per decedent were 17.0 and 13.0 years for mesothelioma and asbestosis, respectively.”1
It is not, however, only workers whose lives are being endangered. A paper just published by Italian researchers confirms the incidence of asbestos-related cancer amongst family members of asbestos workers.2 Additional data from Casale Monferrato, the Italian town at the center of the Eternit asbestos scandal, reveals the high level of asbestos mortality caused by environmental exposures.
Asbestos has caused a pandemic which crosses geographical boundaries, ethnicities, genders and class divisions. On April 28 we remember our dead. In their honor we reaffirm our commitment to end the asbestos massacre facilitated by ruthless businessmen, corrupt politicians, unethical scientists and impotent governments. The struggle continues!
1 Diandini R, Takahashi K, et al. Potential Years of Life Lost (PYLL) caused by Asbestos-Related Diseases in the World. American Journal of Industrial Meidcine. 2013.
The Red Road Flats – RIP
Having just returned to London, I was forced to do a date check to verify that it was not April’s Fool Day when I read a headline on today’s front page of The Guardian: Glasgow 2014 scraps live ‘celebration’ of flats demolition.
Apparently organizers of the upcoming Commonwealth Games thought that the demolition of notorious north Glasgow tower blocks at the start of eleven days of sporting competition would get the games off to a dramatic start. To ensure that it did, the detonation of 2,755 pounds of explosives before a worldwide audience of one billion people was planned to take place during the opening ceremony.
According to David Grevemberg of Glasgow 2014: "The decision to feature the live demolition of five Red Road blocks within the opening ceremony was planned both as commemoration of a part of Glasgow’s social history as well as a statement of the city’s regeneration.”
His sentiments were not shared by thousands of people who signed a petition categorizing the demolition as a crass and tasteless stunt (see: Stop plans to blow up tower blocks as part of Commonwealth Games opening ceremony).
As well as the reasons listed in the petition there is another: the asbestos legacy for which the Red Road flats became infamous. Construction workers employed during the 1960s on the building of the multi-story blocks have died from asbestos-related diseases as have tenants who lived in the 1,356 flats made of steel and asbestos. As with shipwrecks that have become memorials to those who have been lost, the destruction of the iconic housing estate should be a moment of reflection and not an entertainment: a time to think of the Scottish people whose lives had been sacrificed for the profits of the asbestos industry.
One hundred days before the Games are due to begin, it has been announced that this ludicrous idea has been dropped. Let us hope that the end of the Red Road flats, when it comes, will be conducted with care and solemnity and with some thought of those who were so badly served by Glasgow’s city planners and architects.
Asbestos and Shipyard Workers
As if more evidence were needed of the enduring hazard posed by asbestos, news has been circulating today (March 3, 2014) regarding the high price paid for hazardous occupational exposures by shipyard workers in Italy and the UK.
At a lung cancer conference in Italy this weekend, presentations highlighted the occupations and populations most at-risk of asbestos cancer. Unfortunately, one of the worst affected locations was Monfalcone, a shipbuilding town in Northern Italy where generations of workers were fatally exposed to asbestos.1 In this city of 28,000 people, a cohort of 2,700 people who worked with asbestos was monitored from 1979 to 2008. The data showed a 10-fold increased incidence of mesothelioma and a 4-fold and 8-fold increase in lung cancer for non-smokers and smokers respectively.
Workers from the Devonport Dockyards in Plymouth have been similarly affected. Information obtained via a Freedom of Information request revealed that between 2006 and 2013 the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which operated the dockyards, paid out nearly £20 million in compensation to 273 claimants with asbestos-related diseases.2 Between 2001 and 2006, the MoD had paid out £15.9m in asbestos compensation.
As of January 1, 2011 the new installation of asbestos-containing materials on ships was banned by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for the "safety and security of shipping and the prevention of maritime pollution by ships.” Unfortunately, shipyard workers and workers in the maritime sector remain at risk from asbestos within older ships. Recent discoveries of asbestos contamination in new locomotives exported from China to Australia and New Zealand are proof that the existence of asbestos bans is no protection against future exposures. If Chinese manufacturers are able to carelessly incorporate this illegal substance in railway vehicles, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that Chinese and other shipbuilding companies will do likewise in ships.
The only way to protect workers and the public from asbestos is for international agencies, regional authorities and national governments not only to agree to global measures to outlaw asbestos but also take effective action to enforce this ban.
1 Ziani G. Amianto-killer: i numeri sono da record [ Killer asbestos: record numbers.] March 1, 2014.
1 Greenwood A. Dockyard workers poisoned by asbestos paid £35m in compensation. March 3, 2014.
Britain’s Asbestos Waste Land
In times gone by, the asbestos cancer mesothelioma was termed a “rare” disease by UK authorities. That this is, unfortunately, no longer the case is substantiated by data released last week which shows that: “Mesothelioma is the 13th most common cause of cancer death among men in the UK (2011), accounting for 2% of all male deaths from cancer in the UK (2011).” Mesothelioma deaths in women account for 1% of all cancer deaths.1 Although the percentages seem small, when they are applied to the UK population of 63 million, they assume a much larger significance. Thousands of people continue to die even though the use of asbestos was prohibited 15 years ago.
As the situation in the UK makes clear, banning asbestos is not a final solution. It is a first step towards eradicating the catastrophe caused by the commercial exploitation of asbestos. Throughout the 20th century, 7 million tonnes of asbestos were imported to the UK. While some of it has been disposed of, there is no way to know how much of it remains hidden within the country’s infrastructure. Is it in your home, or daughter’s school or father’s workplace?
Legislation is in place which has made the identification of asbestos contamination a legal requirement and yet incidents occur on a daily basis which reveal systemic failings. Yesterday (February 27, 2014), it was reported that despite the fact that Barking and Dagenham Council knew about the presence of asbestos in a council house four years ago, this information had never been communicated to the tenant.2 Tanya McCracken from the Thames View Estate remains in a state of limbo regarding the potential hazard posed by the contamination of her home; considering the recent repairs she had carried out, there is every chance she and her three children breathed in asbestos fibers liberated by workmen.
Is it acceptable that such exposures are taking place in 2014? When Princess Margaret’s former residence at Kensington Palace was renovated prior to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge moving in, asbestos removal work was part of the refurbishment program. Do the royals deserve better treatment than the McCrackens? Does anyone deserve to die of asbestos-related disease? As has been shown by the statistics in the first paragraph of this blog, mesothelioma is no longer a rare disease in the UK. On Rare Diseases Day 2014, it is appropriate for us to reflect on the devastation asbestos has caused at home and the millions of tragedies that will occur in countries where asbestos use continues to flourish. It is well past time that effective action be taken in countries which have banned asbestos and that those which haven’t done so yet acknowledge the time bomb that awaits their citizens in years to come.
1 Mesothelioma mortality statistics. February 2014.
2 Rasiah J. ‘Council kept quiet about asbestos find for four years.’ February 27, 2014.
2014 – A Watershed Year in the Worldwide Campaign to Ban Asbestos?
The popular English expression “start as you mean to go on,” springs to mind when reviewing developments which have taken place this year in the global war against asbestos. In the first few weeks of the new year, no fewer than three international agencies have reiterated the need to ban the use of asbestos in order to safeguard human life.
At a London press conference on February 3, 2014, Dr. Bernard Stewart, co-editor of a major IARC cancer study, said “Asbestos is a discrete carcinogen; it is causing attributable, deadly and, in most cases, untreatable disease – so, yes, it should be banned.”
One week later, Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s Director of Public Health and Environment reaffirmed her agency’s position on asbestos: “The most efficient way to eliminate asbestos related diseases, the safest way, will be to stop the use of all forms of asbestos…” (see: All Asbestos Kills! which includes a video interview with Dr. Neira)
Echoing Dr. Neira’s comments, a press release issued on February 13, 2014 by the International Conference on Monitoring and Surveillance of Asbestos-Related Diseases in Espoo, Finland – held under the auspices of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health – acknowledged that “There is no safe use of asbestos… Asbestos-related deaths are preventable by banning the use of asbestos, as WHO recommends.”
Even as these high-profile calls for a global end to the asbestos scandal are being made, vested interests continue their fight to protect lucrative markets in developing countries. Fortunately, civil society campaigners are now confronting them in multiple arenas and forums with a view to exposing their propaganda. 2014 is shaping up to be a watershed year in the global struggle to ban asbestos. An asbestos-free world is possible.
World Cancer Day 2014 – Reflections of a Ban Asbestos Campaigner
In recent years, more than twice as many Britons have died from asbestos-related cancers as from road traffic accidents. Translating the data into human terms, twelve people die from asbestos cancer every day in the UK. This fact, as horrific as it is, underestimates the true scale of the humanitarian disaster as it includes mortality from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer but excludes that from other cancers linked to asbestos exposure such as cancers of the larynx and ovary. As if twelve avoidable deaths a day were not enough, the reality is even worse.
Yesterday, at a press conference in London held by the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the authorities described a tidal wave of cancer engulfing the world’s population and emphasized the need for governments to embark on preventative strategies to reduce the incidence of cancer. One example cited of a successful initiative was the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which “has been critical in reducing tobacco consumption through taxes, advertising restrictions, and other regulations and measures to control and discourage the use of tobacco.”
For years ban asbestos campaigners have been calling for a Framework Convention on Asbestos which can, using the Tobacco Control Convention as a template, encourage governments to adopt measures to encourage the use of asbestos-free materials. By prioritizing an end to asbestos use, the WHO will protect millions of people in developing countries where the unregulated use of asbestos remains a fact of life. When it comes to asbestos disease, prevention is – as we know – the only cure.
IARC/WHO Press Release February 3, 2014: Global battle against cancer won’t be won with treatment alone.
Cancer Research UK 2014. Mesothelioma Fact Sheet
Playing with Fire
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is not much shared by Regina, Saskatchewan and Perth, Western Australia. The two state capitals – 10,000 miles apart – are on different continents and in different time zones; when it is noon in Regina on January 17, it is 2 a.m. in Perth on January 18. Different weather, different food, different sports. And yet, a review of today’s news revealed that there is indeed at least one shared legacy – the deadly repercussions of widespread asbestos use.
Canada, for most of the 20th century, was the world’s biggest producer of chrysotile (white) asbestos; the mineral was such a valuable commodity that it was nicknamed “white gold.” The high value of Canadian chrysotile exports earned the industry powerful friends in high places; throughout Canada, the fibers were incorporated into thousands of products and structures.
In Western Australia, the Wittenoom mine produced crocidolite (blue) asbestos for use at home and abroad. The owners of the mine, which was insured by the State Insurance Board, were well-connected and the daughter of Lang Hancock, who pioneered the asbestos mining at Wittenoom in the 1930s, is one of the world’s richest women.
Recent newspaper reports detail the aftermath of fires in Regina and in Perth (see: Asbestos cleanup delays explosion probe at Regina refinery and Warnings to Perth Hill residents as fire exposes deadly asbestos fibres). Pictures of the affected sites document the devastation caused and commentaries about the disasters include asbestos warnings to cleanup crews and residents. The fact that the asbestos contamination identified in both fires was, in all probability, home-grown adds a certain poignancy to these tragedies.
Had these structures been built with safer materials, the cleanup and recovery would have been more straightforward, less hazardous and far cheaper. The fact that asbestos had been used was due to aggressive marketing techniques exploited by ruthless industry stakeholders working on a global scale to promote sales of a known toxin.
As asbestos consumption continues to increase in some parts of the world, governments of nations where asbestos has not been banned would do well to reconsider the continuation of policies which endanger the lives not only of current citizens but also of generations to come. An asbestos-free future is possible!
Reflecting on 2013
As 2013 draws to a close, there seems to be no let-up in news being received from ban asbestos colleagues around the world. In December, a seminal publication – two years in the making – was released documenting the long-lasting effects of asbestos use in new Member States and candidate countries: Asbestos-related occupational disease in Central and East European Countries (see: Landmark Report on Europe's Asbestos Crisis).
As this report was being launched, news was released of a 109-page Memorandum from the Finnish Occupational Cancer Working Group which categorically states that there is an "indisputable" relationship between exposure to asbestos and cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and laryngeal cancer (see: Cancer Working Group Memorandum) The authors noted that: “Today, lung cancer and mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos are definitely the most important types of diagnosed occupational cancers.”
Looking back over 2013 we can see evidence of a substantial upsurge of ban asbestos activism around the world. The year began with news that citizens in rural Indian villages were mounting a determined and focused campaign to prevent the construction of asbestos factories in their towns (Indian Citizens Reject Asbestos!); it ended with reconfirmation by civil society that Indian citizens do not support the expansion of the asbestos industrial sector (India Says No To Asbestos!).
In difficult and often frustrating circumstances, colleagues progressed educational outreach projects, investigations and legal actions in asbestos-using and producing countries including: Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia, Bangladesh, Laos and even Russia as evidenced in the articles listed below:
There were many landmark developments during the year including:
As the year came to a close, news was received from Japan of a landmark ruling by a court in Osaka which held the Japanese government liable for its negligence over asbestos (see: Government Liable for Exposures. This ruling marked a landmark in asbestos litigation in Japan and will, hopefully, pave the way for many other victims to receive compensation.
With the leadership of the global asbestos lobby firmly in the hands of the Russian industry, there has been a resurgence of propaganda pro-chrysotile asbestos initiatives such as conferences in Manila and New Delhi, the publication of “academic” papers and attempts to undermine the ban asbestos positions of international agencies (see: A Scientist, A Professor and a Businessman).
The industry’s efforts are, however, being closely monitored by ban asbestos analysts, with online and print articles from Hazards, IBAS and RightonCanada detailing the devious ways in which asbestos lobbyists are working to create a climate in which the sale of a known carcinogen can continue to flourish.
Although the coming year will be challenging, there is no doubt that efforts of ban asbestos campaigners in 2014 will hasten the day when the deadly asbestos industry is outlawed the world over. The struggle continues!
Great Britain’s Deadly Asbestos Legacy
November 24, 2013 marked the 14th anniversary of the UK ban on asbestos. Since Parliament finally ended the use of this deadly poison, tens of thousands of people have died from asbestos-related diseases throughout Great Britain; Simon Pickvance was one of them. Simon lost his battle against the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma on November 23, 2012.1 He and all the others who have suffered at the hands of the asbestos industry are mourned and much missed.
Instead of engaging with the nationwide community of asbestos sufferers and campaigners, the coalition government remains determined to support UK PLC at whatever the cost to the injured. This attitude is made abundantly clear by the slant of the Mesothelioma Bill, due for its second reading at the House of Commons on December 2, 2013. While sufferers of mesothelioma remain in mortal danger, the insurers’ plea for leniency has persuaded the government to curtail compensation payouts. Many sufferers will receive nothing; some will receive a percentage of what they are entitled to.
The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and other campaigning groups have highlighted the appalling lack of probity in the proposed legislation which, many feel, is being fast-tracked through parliament. Can anything less than 100% compensation be acceptable to those who have paid with their lives for industry’s greed.
For those who argue that industry has only recently known about the risks posed by asbestos, I would suggest an afternoon trawling through the annual reports of London Boroughs’ Health Officers from 1848-1972 which are now online. Amongst these documents, you will find medical professionals documenting the deadly repercussions of daily asbestos exposures. Individuals like Dr Williams, the Medical Officer of Health for Barking, who was in the 1930s accused of being “obsessed” by the conditions at the notorious Cape Asbestos factory in East London.
The Government and the asbestos profiteers were happy to reap the benefits while generations of people died prematurely from occupational and environmental exposures. It is time for the guilty to do the honorable thing.2 All British asbestos victims deserve our compassion and support; Parliament must provide the justice they deserve and disregard the crocodile tears of a corrupt and ruthless industry. The Mesothelioma Bill must award 100% compensation, no less will do.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Tribute to Simon Pickvance. November 28, 2012.
Asbestos: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
This week Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, informed Parliament that 60,000 more mesothelioma deaths are expected between 2012 and 2041.”1 The same day (November 19, 2013), a primary school teacher with mesothelioma told the Minister of State for Schools David Laws that the government’s policies for keeping schoolchildren and staff safe from asbestos had failed. The teacher, her son and her MP urged the Minister to make fundamental changes; his muted response was indicative of this Government’s catastrophic disregard of the risks posed by asbestos contamination of the educational infrastructure.
Throughout the 20th century, over 6 million tonnes of asbestos were used in the UK. After decades of protests by asbestos victims groups, trade unions, medical and scientific experts Parliament finally banned asbestos in 1999. Elsewhere, consumption continues. Last year, over 2 million tonnes of asbestos were used globally; the majority was incorporated into construction and automotive products for Asian markets.
During the 21st century, asbestos consumption in the Philippines has remained stable at around 3,000 tonnes/year.”2 There is no doubt that much of the debris left in the wake of Typhoon Hayian contained asbestos. As people scramble to provide shelter for their families, broken pieces of asbestos-cement roofing will be handled, cut and reused. As there is no asbestos ban in the Philippines, it is likely that asbestos-containing building products will be used in the reconstruction.
It is significant to note that a fortnight before Hayian devastated much of the country, the asbestos lobby held a conference in Manila to promote the use of asbestos. The industry’s event on October 25 was sponsored by the International Chrysotile Association, the Association of Chrysotile Industries of the Philippines and the Chrysotile Information Center of Thailand.”3 There can be no doubt about the intentions of the industry to create a climate in which the use of their products continues to flourish regardless of the risks to workers, consumers or members of the public.
As thousands of UK asbestos sufferers know full well, hazardous exposures in the distant past have deadly implications for the future. The cost of the asbestos industry’s profits will be paid for by millions of people who contract avoidable but fatal diseases in the future. As mesothelioma widow and New Zealand ban asbestos campaigner Deidre van Gerven says: “They cheated because they wanted to, they lied because they could.” How much longer can society tolerate this situation?
1 Lords Hansards Text, 19 November 2013. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldhansrd/text/131119w0001.htm#13111952000423
2 According to data from the United States Geological Survey, the use of asbestos in the Philippines from 2001 until 2012, totalled 35,858 tonnes.
3 Abad, R.L, Expert pushes for controlled use ban on asbestos. November 19, 2013. http://businessmirror.com.ph/index.php/en/features/properties/23036-expert-pushes-for-controlled-use-ban-on-asbestos Ruff K. Global asbestos lobby organizes events in the Philippines and India to promote continued use of asbestos in Asia. October 31, 2013. http://www.rightoncanada.ca/?p=2241
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
Exactly one year ago today an article entitled “A Perfect Day”1 appeared on this website. The text of that feature detailed events which took place on August 31, 2012 at Brazil’s Supreme Court. On that day and in that place, international experts provided evidence on the nature of asbestos; that testimony was provided to assist the Court to act on a highly controversial legal challenge regarding the unconstitutionality of the “controlled use of asbestos” in the world’s 3rd largest asbestos-producing country.
One year on, no verdict has been handed down and it remains business as usual for Brazil’s profiteers: the asbestos mining companies, manufacturers, exporters and industry stakeholders.2 As asbestos blood money continues to buy this toxic industry friends and influence, Brazilian workers and non-workers continue to be diagnosed with asbestos-related respiratory diseases and cancers. Based on the most recent available data, in the twelve months since the hearings, 306,000+ tonnes of chrysotile asbestos have been mined, ~138,000 tonnes exported and ~168,000 tonnes consumed in Brazil.
A breakthrough may, however, be on the horizon. On September 2, 2013, it was announced that a new rapporteur, Judge Rosa Maria Weber Candiota da Rosa, had been appointed to oversee litigation before the Supreme Court which challenges the Brazilian law that allows the “controlled use of asbestos”. The former rapporteur, Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Ayres Britto, retired in November 2012. To take over his role in this litigation, the Court nominated Luís Carlos Barroso; when he declined due to a possible conflict of interest, Judge Weber was appointed. Judge Weber is a progressive jurist who is familiar with labor issues due to extensive experience in Labor Courts. Sixty-four year old Weber is one of two female Supreme Court Judges;3 she was appointed in 2011 by President Dilma Rousseff.
Speaking on behalf of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA), President Eliezer João de Souza applauded the substitution of Barroso by Weber:
The appointment of Judge Rosa Maria Weber Candiota da Rosa is an important development. We had serious concerns about the suitability of Judge Barriso as the rapporteur for ADI 4066/20084 due to his declared support for the ‘controlled use of asbestos’ policy. A controversial document he had signed, which was presented during the 2012 trial proceedings by asbestos industry lawyers, upheld the current status quo.
When ABREA learned of his nomination as rapporteur, we highlighted the potential conflict of interest and journalists reported our criticism in the newspapers. ABREA is closely monitoring the progress at the Supreme Court of all the constitutional challenges to state asbestos bans5 as well as developments regarding ADI 4066. It is this case that will decide if the controlled use of asbestos is constitutional or not. In our role as public watchdog we feel that our organization has played and continues to play a vital role in ending the impunity of the criminal asbestos industry and its lobby in Brazil.
Brazilian asbestos victims have waited patiently to see justice done; many of them have died during the long wait. One can only hope that the appointment of Judge Weber is a favourable omen. Perhaps by September 3, 2014, Brazil will have joined 54 other countries that have banned the mining, use, processing and sale of asbestos. Watch this space!
2 Kazan-Allen L. Impressions of a Judicial Impasse. November 3, 2012.
3 Currently, there are a total of 11 Supreme Court Judges.
4 ADI= Ação Direta de Inconstitucionalidade [Direct Action on Unconstitutionality]. An ADI is a type of action adjudicated by the Supreme Court; ADI 4066/2008 alleges that Brazil’s law (9055/95) which enshrines the “so-called” controlled use of asbestos policy, is unconstitutional.
5 Five Brazilian States – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco and Mato Grosso – have banned asbestos.
Eternit Brazil in the Dock
News released on August 18, 2013 that Brazil’s Labor Public Ministry has filed a massive civil lawsuit against Eternit, S.A. is reverberating around the globe. The accusations relate to deadly exposures experienced over a fifty year period by workers at the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Osasco, Sao Paulo. This, the largest lawsuit for punitive damages ever filed by the Ministry, is a remarkable development in a country which continues to mine, sell and export asbestos. If the exposures at this plant result in the R$1 billion penalty (estimated at around US$418m), the prosecutors are asking for, it is likely that other asbestos stakeholders may find themselves similarly indicted.
This lawsuit is the culmination of years of grassroots lobbying by Brazilian asbestos victims, led by the umbrella group ABREA (The Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed), and its supporters. Since its formation, ABREA has challenged the dictates of the powerful Brazilian asbestos lobby in the courts, in the streets and in the media. The remarkable transformation of the Brazilian debate on asbestos resulted in bans being adopted in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco and Mato Grosso. And even now, the Supreme Court is considering whether or not there are constitutional grounds for outlawing the country’s asbestos industry.
For more than a decade, I have been acquainted with ABREA and its members. I have witnessed first-hand the nearly impossible task victims face in their battle to have their diseases recognized and compensated. Although this is a civil case, should Eternit lose, the company could be faced with unprecedented penalties. For Brazil’s asbestos victims, this would be both a victory and a vindication.
Let us hope that the 9th Labor Court in São Paulo upholds a citizen's right to the dignity of labor, a right so clearly denied by a company which knowingly and ruthlessly exposed its workforce to a known carcinogen.
Dr. Audrey Finnegan 1963-2013
Today is my birthday. You will forgive me for not disclosing how old I am but, suffice to say, I am considerably older than Dr. Audrey Finnegan was when she died of mesothelioma in March this year. She was just 50 years old. Dr. Finnegan’s death was brought to my notice by a piece published in the British Medical Journal on July 31, 2013.1 She was exposed to a horrendous level of asbestos in 1986 at the Belvidere Hospital in Glasgow. In her own words, she described the on call accommodation for doctors in the Victorian building at this prestigious teaching hospital where asbestos removal was being carried out during renovation work:
It was like a building site. There were thick sheets of plastic hanging from the ceilings which you had to push through to enter the stairwell. Ceiling tiles were absent and stacked against the walls and there were electrical wires and cables protruding from everywhere. It was very dusty and I remember my footprints leaving their imprint on the flooring as I was accompanied to my room on the first floor. I was only there for a month but it was enough.2
All her life, she had wanted to be a doctor and even in the throes of a brutal an incapacitating treatment regime, she communicated her experience in medical terms detailing drugs used, dosages and symptoms. She described the surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments she endured, expressing her shock when she first saw her X-ray and the absence of my R (right) lung. Every day I miss having two lungs and can sometimes feel quite compromised by my respiratory reserve. I do not have the same stamina as before but I would rather be here, in some reduced capacity, than not at all. I try not to allow the condition to haunt me or paralyse me with fear as it did in the beginning.
On my birthday, I find myself reflecting on the many birthdays that Dr. Finnegan will miss and the years of love and care that her family have lost. The same is true for so many other people in countries all over the world. Our commitment to end the use of asbestos for all humankind must not waver. There is no excuse that can justify the continued consumption of this cancer-causing killer.
2 Mesothelioma by Dr. Audrey Finnegan. http://www.clydesideactiononasbestos.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Audreys-Story.pdf
Kicking the Asbestos Habit
In company towns the world over, the reluctance to criticise the local employer has been a fact of life. In asbestos towns like Belgium’s Kapelle-op-den Bois, Canada’s Asbestos, Brazil’s Minaçu and Russia’s Asbest, a vow of silence has persisted regarding the human consequences of asbestos exposures. When Belgium asbestos victim Eric Jonckheere made his pilgrimage to Quebec’s asbestos heartland, the local priest refused to meet him.1 Commenting on this atypical behaviour of a man of God, Jonckheere wrote: “Omerta had, I guess, even affected the man in black!”
In recent years, Russian asbestos lobbyists have ratcheted up their efforts to mobilize community support for the asbestos industry. They have millions of reasons to do so; annual sales of Russian asbestos are worth $540 million. It has been estimated that in the town of Asbest, 17% of the residents work for the industry. Articles by municipal dignitaries from Asbest featured in industry propaganda distributed at the May 2013 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention. Texts included were written by:
Each of the articles kept to the party line, highlighting the importance of the asbestos industry, the good life it provides to local people and the longevity and well-being of the town’s population. The arguments of asbestos industry salesmen were clearly being parroted by asbestos industry beneficiaries. There is no question about the complete dominance asbestos vested interests exert on municipal debates and decisions. Reflecting the influence of the industry, in 2002 the Asbest City Council adopted a new flag.
The white lines symbolize asbestos fibers which pass through a ring of fire.
On July 13, 2013, a feature – City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit2 – was published in the New York Times which signalled the beginning of the end of the Russian industry’s monopoly of the asbestos debate. For the first time, residents of the town of Asbest spoke out. Former factory employee Boris Balobanov said: “Every normal person is trying to get out of here… People who value their lives leave. But I was born here and have no place else to go.” N.Y. Times Journalist Andrew Kramer reported that the six asbestos workers he interviewed were suffering from a “persistent cough, a symptom of exposure to what residents call ‘the white needles.’” Describing the conditions at the mine, asbestosis sufferer Valentin Zemskov said: “There was so much dust you couldn’t see a man standing next to you.” The asbestos hazard is not confined to miners and factory workers; the town lives under a blanket of pollution according to resident Nina Zubkova who said: “Of course asbestos dust covers our city… Why do you think the city is named Asbest?”
Denying the problem is not a solution. Politicians, business leaders and citizens need to engage in a wide-ranging and open debate about the problem and begin the process of transition to an economy which is not dependent on the commercial exploitation of a substance capable of causing illness and premature death.
1Jonckheere E. A Canadian Pilgrimage. October 19, 2012.
2Kramer A E. City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit. July 13, 2013.
Working towards an Asbestos-free Future
The funeral took place today (June 1, 2013) of Belgian Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, one of two defendants condemned last year in a landmark asbestos ruling handed down by the Turin criminal court. On Monday (June 3), the appeal verdict of this case will be announced. Under Italian jurisprudence, the Baron’s death ended proceedings against him and the company he represented; whether civil charges will be pursued by his victims remains to be seen. The eagerly awaited decision will have implications not only for Stephan Schmidheiny, the sole remaining defendant, but also for Eternit companies, past and present, all over the world. In fact, two of the prosecutors in this case, Sara Panelli and Gianfranco Colace, are keynote speakers at a conference in Brazil, a country where Eternit asbestos operations continue, later this month.
On June 3 and 4, Korean and Japanese asbestos victims and campaigners will meet in Pusan, formerly the center of Korean asbestos production; at the same time an asbestos workshop will take place in Plymouth during the annual meeting of the GMB trade union. Within days an announcement is expected by the UK’s Committee on Carcinogenicity regarding the vulnerability of children to asbestos exposure.
A June 14 conference on asbestos in Doncaster will update members of the British legal profession on current developments. The following week, delegates attending an Open Expert Meeting on Safety and Health in Brussels will learn about a highly innovative new project, “Detecting asbestos and taking appropriate action,” designed to help raise asbestos awareness amongst union members, the self-employed and the community. Sessions organized on June 18 and 19 by the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers will also allow time for the book launch of “The Long and Winding Road to an Asbestos Free Workplace” and discussion of a project entitled: “Asbestos Diseases in Europe.”
Despite the asbestos debacle which took place last month at the Rotterdam Convention conference, it is becoming increasingly clear that civil society will not tolerate the loss of more lives to asbestos. The commitment of asbestos victims’ groups, NGOs, trade unions remains wholehearted. An asbestos-free future is possible.
A Deadly Alliance
Reading an article sent to me this morning reminded me of the quote by Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
What is evil? Well, we know it is evil to murder another human being. Surely, whether the murder is fast or slow is irrelevant – murder is murder. On that basis, exposing someone to a substance which can harm and even kill them is evil.
This is what asbestos businessmen have done for over one hundred years. This is what they still want to do.
Next week there will be a meeting of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention. The Convention is a multilateral treaty designed to increase environmental and social justice by protecting populations in developing countries from exposure to deadly pesticides and chemicals.1
This is achieved through the introduction of a right to prior informed consent protocols. In other words, exporting countries must advise importing countries of the toxic nature of designated substances so that informed decisions might be made about whether these substances can be used without causing human poisoning or environmental damage.
Russia, the world’s biggest asbestos producer, has announced it will block action on designating chrysotile asbestos as hazardous at the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP6). In fact, it has become a Party to this Convention for the sole purpose of doing so.2
Zimbabwe, another asbestos producing nation, has adopted the same strategy.3 An article on Sunday (April 28) made the intentions of Zimbabwe crystal clear: the “Government is confident that the campaign (to list chrysotile) will falter as Zimbabwe, which will vote against the move, will for the first time attend the meeting…”
And what plans are there for Brazil’s participation (Brazil being the world’s 3rd biggest asbestos producer)? Well, as before, Brazil will sit it out on the sidelines and let others do its dirty work. Even though five Brazilian states have banned asbestos and the Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of the government’s asbestos policy of “controlled use,” its representatives intend to remain silent.
I will be in Geneva next week to stand witness to the actions of representatives promoting the self-serving instructions of the Russian and Zimbabwe governments. I will be part of a delegation of civil society groups present under the umbrella of ROCA: the Rotterdam Convention Alliance.
The Brazilian policy of sitting it out is intolerable. Brazil, a country which lived under a dictatorship for more than twenty years, knows full well the consequences of collusion. It is appalling that President Dilma Rousseff, a woman who was herself tortured under the dictatorial regime, is willing to allow others to die so that Brazil can profit.
1 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention 2013. April 18, 2013.
3 Dark cloud hovers over asbestos, SMM revival in focus, Decision to determine future of asbestos trading. April 28, 2013.
When is a demonstration not a demonstration?
Today was the day of the first asbestos demonstration outside the Russian Embassy.1 Like many veteran ban asbestos campaigners I had long been familiar with the venue and logistics outside Canada House in Trafalgar Square, the Russian Embassy in Kensington, however, was a new location for me.
In good time, I made my way to the private road on which the Embassy stands at 6/7 Kensington Palace Gardens. Alas, when we began to assemble at this address we were told by two polite security guards that as this was a private road we were not allowed entry.
We were informed that, in any case, the front entrance of the Russian Embassy was around the corner on Bayswater, a wide London thoroughfare. However, when we moved to this locale we were informed by the police officer standing guard that it was not permitted to demonstrate on the pavement directly outside the Embassy. All protests, we were told, had to take place across the street. As this was indeed a very wide street, relocating would have undermined what we were hoping to do: to confront the Russian authorities on their home ground.
Bayswater Entrance to Russian Embassy
As various individuals tried to reason with the constable and calls were made to a police liaison officer with whom the protest had been lodged, there was some milling about and photos were taken. As no one seemed keen to move us on, we just got on with it. Masks of President Putin were distributed and photographs were taken of Putin holding up a banner saying, in English and Russian, “Russia, keep your deadly asbestos in the ground.”
Different groups assembled for more photographs and hazmat suits were put on by members of the Merseyside and Victims Asbestos Victims Group; flimsy dust protection masks were distributed to help visualize the problems of protecting workers from asbestos.
All of this went on for some time and I kept thinking we would be moved on very soon. The police however seemed content to let us to get the shots we wanted – those with the Russian flag in the background. When the level of activity had lessened once again we were asked politely to cross over to the space where the fencing had been erected for our protest. The traffic was stopped so that we could cross the street safely.
It was then that I realized what had taken place. This was a classic example of English compromise. Yes, a demonstration on the pavement outside of the Russian embassy was not permitted but what we had been engaged in was not a demonstration but a photo opportunity. As such, the officials were perfectly happy for us to do what we needed to do.
Once across the street, we were positioned outside the Guyana High Commission on a much narrower stretch of pavement than the one in front of the Russian Embassy. One cannot help wonder how many other protests this narrow section of London pavement had hosted. As the lunchtime traffic began to build up, we vacated that strip of territory which had, for a few brief moments, been ours.
Earth Day: Reflections of a Ban Asbestos Campaigner
Today, April 22, is Earth Day. People in 192 countries are taking part in activities to highlight issues such as climate change, green initiatives and environmental pollution. There is no doubt that the challenges facing our planet are enormous and that any activity which raises public awareness of the havoc being caused by humankind is well worth doing.
Myself and others in the UK are currently focused on plans for a public demonstration on April 26 to mark International Workers Memorial Day. We will be exercising our democratic right to protest the fact that asbestos stakeholders continue to profit from a trade which is killing thousands of workers. The greed and self-interest of ruthless individuals is responsible for the suffering of people all over the world.
Asbestos lobbyists, using the same rhetoric and tricks as the tobacco industry, proclaim that evidence regarding the asbestos hazard remains inconclusive; asbestos can, they say, be used safely. International agencies tasked with protecting occupational and public health disagree; all types of asbestos are, they say, carcinogenic and the only way to end the epidemic of asbestos-related deaths is to ban the use of asbestos.
It is hard to believe that 43 years after the first Earth Day took place, two million tonnes of asbestos are still being sold every year. In most industrialized countries the conclusion has been reached – asbestos is too hazardous to be used. Unfortunately, asbestos salesmen continue to pressurize governments and consumers elsewhere to buy their toxic wares. They often do so with the full support, encouragement and political clout of their own governments.
On Earth Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to living a greener and less polluting life; a life which has no place for asbestos.
The Deadly Reach of Asbestos
Let’s call him Harry.
Harry died from asbestos cancer. Sixty years ago he began working with asbestos. He breathed it in as part of his daily routine as a lagger at a British shipyard.
Harry and I never met but in 1991 we spoke on three occasions about the conditions on board an iconic Cunard ocean liner which was being refurbished at the dockyard. He told me about mixing Newall’s asbestos pug with water and applying the mixture around pipes. Newall’s asbestos slabs, approximately 36” long x 6” wide x 2/3/4” thick were, he told me, used on pipes and turbines and were cut to size on site. They were nicknamed “Maggie slabs” as they were made of 85% Magnesia and 15% Asbestos. The slabs came in cardboard boxes marked Turner & Newall’s. “Caposite” slabs were used in the bulkheads in engine and boiler rooms. The wide variety of asbestos powder, pre-formed sections and slabs were supplied by Turner & Newall Ltd. and the Cape Asbestos Co. Ltd.
This detail was of paramount importance for a court case in the United States. Harry and others like him gave their time and memory to identify the types and brands of asbestos products used on the ship. Largely due to their input, an out of court settlement was obtained of nearly one million dollars for the family of the deceased American worker.
I had forgotten about Harry until today when out of the blue a letter arrived from a solicitor who had been instructed by Harry’s family to pursue a claim for his asbestos-related death. Unfortunately, Harry did not give a deposition during his lifetime and the details of his employment history were sketchy. In his papers was found a letter from me dated October 8, 1991 in which I had thanked Harry for his help in this case and informed him of the successful outcome achieved for the family.
The fact that Harry kept this letter for over twenty years has touched me greatly. The fact that I was able to access the files and supply his solicitor with the information he had so willingly provided to me all those years ago was, I hope, some recompense.
I wanted you to know about Harry; one more victim of a silent killer stalking us through the years.
New Zealand’s Asbestos Policy – An Exercise in Political Flim-Flam
A letter shared with me by my colleague Deidre VanGerven brings to mind the long-running British TV series: Yes, Minister!, a satirical sitcom which exposed the inner workings of the British political system.
The letter in question, which was received by Deidre on April 11, 2013, was written by Amy Adams, New Zealand’s Minister for the Environment, Communications and Information Technology and Associate Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery.
This policy is one of denial rather than engagement. While New Zealand banned the import of amosite and crocidolite asbestos in 1984 and the import of chrysotile asbestos in 1999, in 2008 the ban on chrysotile fiber imports was rescinded. Although the chrysotile asbestos fiber import ban was replaced by a regulatory scheme, the import of asbestos-containing materials remains unregulated.
In the April 11, 2013 letter, Adams uses political double-speak to divert attention from the main issue – why New Zealand has not banned asbestos. Adams speaks of an “integrated approach” to the management of the asbestos hazard when what she describes in her letter is a fragmented and uncoordinated policy which leaves New Zealand citizens exposed to hazardous exposures from both asbestos-containing products in situ and new products, the import of which is not monitored.1
Adams says that the “risks to people from hazardous substances [like asbestos] are appropriately managed.” This could not be further from the truth as we have seen by the exposures which took place during the Christchurch earthquake and the remediation work currently underway. Deidre VanGerven is utterly appalled at her government’s intransigence:
“Clause F1.1 of the New Zealand Building Code Hazardous Agents on Site states that the objective of this provision ‘is to safeguard people from injury and illness caused by hazardous agents or contaminants on a site.’ In light of this, it is incomprehensible to me that anyone can believe it is okay to allow products containing asbestos to be used here in New Zealand. Honestly, it does not make sense to have a building code that says this and have the Minister of Environment say it’s okay for products containing asbestos to be used. The ‘integrated approach’ referred to by the Minister in her letter is a smokescreen behind which we find an inefficient group of people tasked with protecting New Zealanders who are literally doing nothing but ‘passing the buck’ once more.”
1 In Adams' letter of February 14, 2013, she told Ms. VanGerven: “…asbestos products can still be imported. While New Zealand does not monitor the importation of asbestos products due to the difficulties in identifying these products at the border, I note that the use and trade of asbestos products is decreasing internationally and that many are now unavailable.”
How Does Change Happen?
At a time when the public standing of political and religious leaders seems to have reached an all-time low, it is worth noting that there really are people who believe in public service. Over the last two years, I have been privileged to work with a group of such people. They come from many walks of life and represent different segments of civil society. They were drawn together by their outrage over the seemingly unending tragedy caused by the commercial exploitation of asbestos. Some of them were asbestos victims, others were family members or friends; some were politicians, civil servants or trade unionists while others were academics, medical professionals or health and safety activists. None of them would profit from their involvement in the campaign to address Europe’s asbestos legacy; all of them were already overworked.
It is hard to delineate how anger over asbestos injustice begat a pilot project which engendered an initiative that grew into a series of local activities that coalesced into a regional movement that led to specific demands for political action. Progress, as you can imagine, was neither quick nor easy.
Quantifying the challenges posed by the asbestos contamination of Europe’s infrastructure, delineating the measures required to protect citizens and formulating proposals for change were as laborious as they were complex. The legislative drafting process relied on input from many groups and experts, people who had first-hand knowledge of the issues involved. That a final text was produced owes everything to the good will and concerted effort of all those involved. The eight pages, seven sections, 300+ lines of text and 19 footnotes were drafted, redrafted, amended, deleted or reinstated more than once.
As was previously mentioned, the work required to see this process through to fruition was accomplished by a range of individuals and groups; in recognition of the contributions made, tribute should be paid to the following: MEP Stephen Hughes, Vice President of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Rolf Gehring, Lars Vedsmand and Bernd Eisenbach of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers, Laurent Vogel of the European Trade Union Institute, Fiona Murie of the International Building and Woodworkers International, John McClean of the GMB Trade Union, Gerd Albracht of the International Association of Labour Inspection, the European Trade Union Confederation, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum (UK), the Association of Families and Victims of Asbestos of Casale Monferrato (AfeVA), the Belgian Asbestos Victims Group (ABEVA), the National Association of French Asbestos Victims (ANDEVA) and Hazards.
While the full substance of the document is outside the parameters of this blog, it is of relevance to note that the proposals made were organized under the following section headings: Screening and registration of asbestos, Ensuring qualifications and training, Development of removal programmes, Recognition of Asbestos-related Disease, Support for Asbestos Victims’ Groups and Strategies for a global ban on asbestos.1 As these titles suggest, the content of the bill was comprehensive.
The vote on the European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2013 on asbestos related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos (2012/2065(INI))2 was timetabled for the afternoon of March 13. Unfortunately, it was postponed due to the collapse of Giorgos Papastamkos, Vice-President of the European Parliament, whilst chairing a plenary session at the Strasbourg headquarters. Despite the delay, the outcome of the March 14 vote was a resounding success: 558 in favour, 51 against, 5 abstentions. MEP Stephen Hughes, whose experience and leadership on asbestos issues was instrumental in the success of this legislative effort, has called on the European Commission to follow up on the European Parliament’s initiative.3 “The Parliament has,” he said “today set a clear deadline for the total eradication of asbestos by 2028. With such a large majority of this house supporting my report we have sent a strong signal to the European Commission. It must now act.”4 We can only hope that the Commission heeds this call.
1 European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2013 on asbestos related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos (2012/2065(INI).
2 European Parliament. Summary of text adopted 14/3/2013.
3 Hughes, S. Asbestos still a major threat to citizens in Europe and beyond. March 18, 2013.
4 EFBWW. European Parliament demands the eradication of asbestos contamination.
A Tale of Two Cities
In 2007, after decades of asbestos mining operations, the Quebec town of Thetford Mines was declared “severely contaminated.” This categorization was based on an analysis of tests carried out in local homes; the unsafe levels of asbestos in the air, soil and dust would, had the properties been in the U.S., have triggered a clean-up by government agencies.1 As far as can be ascertained, since the publication of that report nothing has been done about this public health hazard.
Like Thetford Mines, the town of Amiantos, Cyprus had a long history of asbestos mining.2 Unlike the situation in Thetford Mines, in Amiantos attempts began more than 20 years ago to address the asbestos mining legacy. Resources allocated for this work by the Cypriot authorities have been reinforced by funds from the European Economic Area (EEA). Last month (February 2013), the EEA agreed to help fund a new biodiversity conservation project to restore 14 hectares around the mine which include plans for the “Stabilisation and reshaping of (asbestos) waste heaps, transporting and covering it with natural topsoil ground preparation, planting and sowing.”
There is no question about the public health threat posed to people in Thetford Mines and Amiantos by asbestos contamination in the air, water, soil and infrastructure. Research conducted in South Africa, a country which mined three types of asbestos fiber, has highlighted the disastrous environmental impact of asbestos mining on local communities. The authors of the 2013 paper: Compensation for environmental asbestos-related diseases in South Africa: a neglected issue called for “the rehabilitation of abandoned asbestos mines and the environment.”3 Apparently, their call has been heard in Cyprus; it is yet to reach Canada.
2 Stevenson P. Asbestos scar slowly fading away. March 3, 2013
Social Justice and Asbestos
Today, February 20th is the World Day of Social Justice. What exactly is social justice? I looked for guidance from the Oxford Dictionary of English; no such term is listed. A Google search informed me that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon believes it to be “an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations.” The National Association of Social Workers suggests a more utilitarian definition: “Social justice,” the NASW states is “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”
However you define social justice, one thing is certain: in a socially just society, there is no place for exposure to deadly poisons. And yet, in many countries around the world such exposures take place on a daily basis. In 2013, the large-scale use of asbestos remains commonplace in 35 countries. The dockers who unload the asbestos, the people who process it, the tradesmen who use products containing it, and the people who live or work near sites where asbestos is being stored, used or handled are exposed to the risk of contracting deadly asbestos diseases.
In the UK we are seeing an epidemic of asbestos cancer amongst teachers and others who worked in schools with asbestos-containing material. For each teacher in an asbestos-contaminated classroom, there were up to 30 pupils. Dianne Willmore was one such pupil. She died of asbestos cancer in 2010; she was only 49 years old. The day before she died the Court of Appeal confirmed that the source of the deadly exposure which had caused her death was asbestos at her school.
Despite Dianna’s death and that of so many others, asbestos fiber and asbestos products are marketed globally without legal sanctions or trade restrictions. Attempts made by the United Nations Rotterdam Convention to impose even minimal conditions on the sale of chrysotile asbestos have been torpedoed by asbestos stakeholders on numerous occasions.
Perhaps on a day devoted to social justice it is fitting for us to call on asbestos vested interests to take a good look at the consequences of their actions: condemning people to early graves by selling them asbestos is immoral, unethical and socially unjust. Maybe February 20, 2013 is the day they accept that the future we all want is one which is asbestos-free.
Valentine Day’s Reflections
How do people show their love in the 21st century? Valentine’s Day – February 14 – is recognized the world over as a day for lovers to express their feelings; failure to do so can result in dire consequences for many a significant other.
This year, the universal day of romantic love coincides with the commencement of appeal proceedings in the trial of former asbestos executives convicted a year ago for their role in the asbestos deaths of thousands of Italians.
Hundreds of people will be at the Turin courthouse today to bear witness to the judicial effort to apportion blame for the deaths of their loved ones. People like Romana Blasotti Pavesi who lost her husband Mario, her sister, her cousin, her nephew and her daughter Rosa to asbestos cancer will make the journey from Casale Monferrato to Turin in the early morning to ensure her place in the courtroom. She will watch as the judges and lawyers engage in the ritualistic battle which is required for the dispensation of justice. It is unlikely that anything will be resolved today, tomorrow or the day after but Romana will be there. Like so many others from the towns of Casale Monferrato, Cavagnolo and Rubiera, she will be there to pay tribute to the memory of the loved ones whose lives were stolen by the actions of the asbestos criminals.
The emotion which this tribute represents is a manifestation of the everlasting nature of true love. It is love which motivates a non-combatant to endure hour after hour, day after day of tortuous legal argument in the hope that justice will finally prevail. Shakespeare said it best:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
Love which is true, love which does not alter with time or age, will be in the Turin courtroom today as Romana and her colleagues continue their 30-year fight for justice. Our hearts are with them in this battle.
Asbestos and The Environment
When we are children we learn that water is wet and fire is hot. We are taught not to put our fingers into an open flame or jump in front of a speeding car. There are, our parents tell us, consequences for what we do.
Why then do people react with surprise following disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011), Hurricane Sandy (2012) and the Tasmanian Bushfires (2013) when news is released of asbestos contamination?
Surely if you put hazardous asbestos fibers into schools, civic centres, factories or homes, when the fabric of the building is disturbed, human health is endangered. Asbestos is a known carcinogen; no matter how you process it or regardless of what you mix it with, the fibers retain the capacity to kill. You do not need a crystal ball to predict that the destructive force of natural disasters will liberate asbestos fibers into the atmosphere. Once airborne, they can be inhaled by populations and emergency responders in the affected areas.
The cause for these reflections is a paper just published by South African authors detailing the fallout from decades of asbestos mining operations. The paper entitled: “Compensation for environmental asbestos-related diseases in South Africa: a neglected issue” confirms the deadly impact on local populations. The authors write: “Mesothelioma was the most common disease diagnosed, but most cases were not compensated… To stop this ARD [asbestos-related diseases] epidemic, there is a need for the rehabilitation of abandoned asbestos mines and the environment. These issues may not be unique to South Africa as many countries continue to mine and use asbestos.”
Just like South Africa, Canada, formerly a major asbestos producer, has huge swathes of land poisoned by asbestos mining and processing. Only now that the asbestos industry has closed down are people in the mining areas beginning to consider the environmental calamity which has left mountains of asbestos tailings in the towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos. Judging by the South African experience, the rehabilitation of these areas and the remediation of the towns are not tasks which can be accomplished easily:
“Calls have been made for the South African government to address asbestos-related pollution of the environment. Many dumps have been rehabilitated, but erosion of the rehabilitated dumps and exposure to the tailings that were used for road and building construction by nearby communities remain issues that need to be addressed. Improved monitoring and evaluation is required to endure that exposures remain low and that interventions that are implemented are sustained.”
To avoid the dangerous and expensive work entailed by post-disaster asbestos decontamination and environmental clean-ups, the obvious solution would be to ban the use of asbestos and shutdown all asbestos mining and processing. Even a child can see that!
World Cancer Day 2013
Every day people around the world live with and die from asbestos cancers. International agencies believe that the annual asbestos death toll exceeds 100,000. Activists on the asbestos frontline disagree, asserting that this figure is an underestimate. Despite this lack of consensus one thing is certain: asbestos cancers are avoidable diseases.
Today, February 4, is World Cancer Day. This year the focus of activities to mark this day is dispelling myths such as the belief that cancer is “just a health issue.” This disease, which causes more than 7 million deaths a year, has wide-reaching social, economic, development and human rights implications. Does everyone have a right to live a life free from exposure to deadly carcinogens? Judging by the data, they don’t. Nearly half of all cancer cases occur in the developing world; by 2030, it is predicted that this figure will increase to 81%.
It is no coincidence that the use of asbestos, a known carcinogen, continues to flourish where cancer rates are climbing. Ruthless asbestos profiteers are unloading their deadly wares on populations in countries with no legislation or import restrictions on asbestos. Of particular concern is the situation in Asia where the majority of asbestos is now being consumed. In 2000, Asian countries accounted for 47% of global asbestos use; this figure has now risen to 63%. In years to come, an asbestos cancer tsunami will occur in these countries as a consequence of occupational, domestic and environmental exposures to asbestos.
World Cancer Day is a time to reflect on what could and should be done to conquer cancer. With some cancers, long-term multimillion dollar research programs will be needed to find new diagnostic tools, treatment protocols and cures. For the prevention of asbestos-related cancers, the solution is simple: ban the mining, processing, sale and use of asbestos. Once that has been done, work can begin on remediating national infrastructures and disposing of contaminated debris. An asbestos-free future is possible.
The Global Spectre of Turner & Newall
Looking for a misplaced document today, I had cause to go through a file relating to the operations of the British multinational: Turner & Newall (T&N).
For most of the 20th century, Turner & Newall was the dominant force in the British asbestos industry. To celebrate its “golden anniversary,” the company published an 87-page celebratory report entitled: “Turner & Newall Limited: The First Fifty Years: 1920 – 1970.”
The copy I found in the filing cabinet is not in great condition; it was, after all, a copy of a copy when I received it more than twenty years ago. Nevertheless, it is still legible and still capable of conveying a shocking narrative.
What caught my eye was the incredible level of global penetration the T&N Empire achieved. So many subsidiaries and so many projects which were using T&N’s asbestos products and technology.
For much of the 20th century, T&N’s sprayed limpet asbestos fireproofing was exported for use on high-profile projects such as Montreal Airport, Quebec’s Hydro Hotel, La Grande Magazines de la Belle Jardiniere (Nantes, France), the Virginia Beach Auditorium (U.S.), the Manguinhos Refinery (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the Petroleos Mexicanos (Mexico City), the Maerske Refinery (Copenhagen, Denmark); see: Selection of Sprayed Limpet Asbestos Fire Protection Applications.
T&N was an export-oriented organization and worked assiduously to develop international markets for its asbestos-containing building products, fireproofing materials, insulating products and automotive parts, as a result of which construction workers, motor mechanics and others in far-flung countries had the misfortune to use T&N’s asbestos-contaminated products.
At the time of T&N’s 50th anniversary, there were T&N operations in Canada, India, the Republic of South Africa, Rhodesia, Zambia, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, the US, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, India, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere. As recently as 1998, chrysotile asbestos was being used at T&N Friction Products (Pty) Ltd. South Africa plants in Durban, Swaziland and Zimbabwe; see: letter from Ian Speakman, T&N plc 4 March, 1998.
Considering the long latency of asbestos-related diseases – which can take more than fifty years to become manifest – populations around the world must now be succumbing to cancers and respiratory diseases caused by exposures to T&N asbestos.
In 2001, T&N and its parent company went into administration in the UK and Chapter 11 in the U.S. During the corporate reorganizations which followed, trust funds were set up to deal with asbestos-related liabilities, two of which pertain exclusively to overseas claims:
For more information on the procedures to be followed for bringing claims see:
T&N will never apologize; it seems that their former directors and executives will go unpunished for the damage their decisions caused. The financial recompense which might be obtained from these funds is no consolation for the injuries which have been sustained but in some cases the money might be useful. It is truly shameful that no one has been brought to book for the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases in Britain and abroad caused by the operations of T&N and other British asbestos profiteers.
For more information on the activities of Turner & Newall see:
Asbestos Vacuum in Pacific Island Countries
When it comes to asbestos, the saying what you don’t know can’t hurt you could not be more wrong. Asbestos profiles of Chuuk and Pohnpei, states belonging to the Federated States of Micronesia, reveal a disturbing lack of asbestos awareness. In a 2012 Asbestos Profile uploaded to the website of the World Health Organization, key informants from Chuuk said:
The situation in Pohnpei is equally bad according to the Pohnpei Asbestos Profile, which highlights the fact that no law or guidelines have been implemented to regulate the use of asbestos or to define acceptable standards for asbestos management. There is no workers’ compensation system, no individual or class action asbestos lawsuits and no system for monitoring asbestos-related diseases.
The situation in Guam is, according to the Guam Asbestos Profile, somewhat better. Although there is no system for monitoring asbestos-related diseases in Guam, there is a pulmonologist who has diagnosed a few patients with asbestosis and up to 15 cases of pleural plaques in the last seven years. Guam’s Cancer Registry has recorded three cases of asbestos-related cancer since 1998. There is, on the island, some capacity for asbestos testing, removal, abatement and remediation.
That such a wide discrepancy remains in the level of asbestos awareness in the 21st century is troubling. International agencies, regional authorities and civil society must extend efforts not only to ban asbestos but also to educate stakeholders about the hazards posed by asbestos products within their countries.
Asbestos and Construction Workers
If fashion designers, life-style gurus or celebrity chefs disappeared overnight, the lives of most people would continue unabated and unaffected. The same cannot be said for construction workers without whom no new homes would be finished, no collapsed roofs would be repaired and no leaky pipes would be fixed. We depend on them for the fabric of our lives. And yet, when a silent killer stalks their ranks civil society turns a blind eye.
Generations of construction workers have paid a heavy price for the popularity of asbestos-containing insulation products, fireproofing and roofing materials, ceilings, facades, partitions, panels, soffits, pipes, guttering and water storage tanks. The latest analysis of British mortality data for the asbestos cancer mesothelioma shows a high incidence amongst carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Nearly half of all mesothelioma deaths occurring in British men born in the 1940s are due to asbestos exposures in the construction industry. High levels of asbestos-related disease amongst construction workers have also been reported in Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Australia and the U.S.
It would be nice to think that now that asbestos has been banned in 54 nations, construction workers in those countries are safe. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Asbestos contamination remains hidden within office buildings, schools, transport systems, homes and on waste sites, derelict industrial estates, riverbanks and in landfills. In countries where asbestos use is legal, hazardous occupational exposures remain routine. In India, where a dramatic rise in asbestos consumption has taken place throughout the 21st century, the situation has been termed an “Asbestos Time Bomb.” As in the UK, it will be construction workers who will pay the price for asbestos profits. Isn’t it time to stop this insanity?
New Year's Reflections
2012 was a pivotal year in the global campaign to ban asbestos. Outreach projects were launched in new geographical areas even as grassroots activists elsewhere continued efforts to mobilize civil society opposition to the continuing use of chrysotile asbestos. Members of the ban asbestos community achieved many high-profile successes during the last twelve months, all of which involved serious commitments of time and hard work.
In February 2012, after more than a decade of research and preparation, the Italian judicial process handed down a guilty verdict in the iconic trial of former directors of the multinational asbestos giant: Eternit. This judgment was hailed as a landmark in the fight by victims and was reported not only in Italy but around the world. The IBAS monograph Eternit & The Great Asbestos Trial, which was published on the day the decision was announced in Turin, is now available in English, Portuguese, Thai and Japanese.
In May, members and supporters of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) set off on an inaugural 600 kilometre trek from Kalgoorlie to Perth to raise awareness and research funds for the Wittenoom children. After more than 30 years supporting Australia's asbestos victims, the ADSA continues at the forefront of the Australian campaign for asbestos justice.
Brazilian activists, known for their creativity and constancy, ensured that asbestos, an issue omitted from the Rio+20 agenda, took center-stage during the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in mid-June. "The Rio+20 Asbestos Toxic Tour," organized by asbestos victims, trade unions and their supporters was a colourful, vocal and dynamic visualization of grassroots ban asbestos activism. Just a few weeks after this took place, the Brazilian Supreme Court held asbestos hearings in Brasilia to consider the issue of whether or not state asbestos bans were constitutional.
At the same time, ban asbestos activists were also participating in activities in the asbestos-producing countries of Russia and Canada. Shortly afterwards, a new government in Quebec announced the withdrawal of government support for the asbestos industry; the actions taken by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois brought about the end of over 100 years of asbestos mining in Canada.
Throughout the year, public demonstrations, political meetings and other activities have signalled the escalation of ban asbestos activism in India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. High-level discussions regarding the implementation of asbestos ban legislation were proceeding in several jurisdictions. Elsewhere, campaigners in countries which have already banned asbestos succeeded in highlighting the plight of victims at venues such as the European Parliament, the U.S. Congress and the French Senate as well as at the Australian, Japanese, Italian and British Parliaments.
Much of what has taken place has been covered in the hundreds of items uploaded this year to the IBAS website. Feedback from ban asbestos campaigners confirms the importance of the IBAS website as a global resource; statistics reveal that the IBAS site is attracting thousands of unique visitors every month. IBAS articles, interviews, news items, blogs, conference papers and information provide up-to-date, accessible and archived material to an ever-expanding network.
There is no doubt that 2013 will prove challenging - even now vested interests are finalizing their strategy to achieve domination of the asbestos dialogue at the upcoming meeting of the Rotterdam Convention. Russian lobbyists from industry and the government continue efforts to promote asbestos in developing countries like Thailand where the use of asbestos remains legal and politicians remain receptive to pro-asbestos rhetoric.
This year, asbestos lobbyists will continue efforts to whitewash chrysotile asbestos; they will use their political connections, financial muscle and dirty tricks to co-opt international agencies and mislead the scientific community.
The ban asbestos community is well aware of the tactics employed by asbestos stakeholders; we stand vigilant, united and determined to work with all sectors of civil society to end the unconscionable dumping of a deadly substance and discredited technology on innocent populations. An asbestos-free future is possible!
Asbestos Victims vs. James Hardie
Some years ago, my daughter came home and in response to the standard question “What did you do at school today,” told me that they had begun to study the Vietnam War in history. I was astonished as I stood there open mouthed and said “That’s not history. I remember it happening.”
This response came back to me with a vengeance last night when I watched two episodes of Devil’s Dust, a two-part TV docudrama about the devastation caused by Australian asbestos giant James Hardie. Not only had I lived through many of the developments being recounted but I had personally known some of the individuals whose actions were being re-enacted. Spooky!
But it is one thing knowing and another thing seeing. The recreation of the conditions at Hardie’s asbestos factory in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta was breathtaking. Having read the book on which the mini-series was based – Killer Company by Matt Peacock – I should have been prepared for what I would see but I wasn’t. Bernie Banton, incredibly well-played by Actor Anthony Hayes, and his co-workers spent their working days surrounded by asbestos; clouds of dust hung in the air, mounds of fibrous debris piled up on the factory floor. That this was taking place in the 1970s, long after the hazards of asbestos were known, was shocking.
The story told spans four decades and counterposes the human effects of exposure to asbestos and the attempts by corporate personnel to deny liability for the consequences. The face of the victims is that of Bernie Banton, a former James Hardie employee, who became an Australian icon; the industry’s position is represented by the character of John Reid who, for more than 20 years, oversaw Hardie’s successful asbestos strategy of denial, collusion and deflection. Tying together the strands of the story is the character of Matt Peacock, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who had, since 1977, been following the asbestos story.
As the program progresses we become aware of the mounting toll being paid by former Hardie workers who are contracting debilitating and deadly diseases. The victims’ fight for justice is stymied at every turn by politicians, civil servants, labor inspectors and others who are happy to do the bidding of James Hardie, a household name in Australia. As executives, legal experts and public relations consultants progress a corporate agenda designed to move James Hardie and its assets half a world away from the injured, Bernie becomes the public face of Australia’s worst ever industrial disaster.
Epidemiologists predict that by 2030, more Australians will have died from asbestos than were lost on the battlefields of World War I. James Hardie was responsible for many of the 60,000 asbestos deaths which will occur. “Devil’s Dust,” which was shown on ABC1 on November 11 & 12, 2012, should be compulsory viewing for every civil servant, politician, trade unionist and grassroots campaigner not only in Australia but all over the world. It is a classic recounting of the humanitarian catastrophe which occurs wherever profits have been made from the commercial exploitation of asbestos.
Since the commercial exploitation of asbestos first began, industry stakeholders have strenuously resisted the introduction of mandatory measures to minimize hazardous exposures. Documentary evidence exists which details lies told to workers, consumers and governments regarding the the dangers of asbestos. The denial that people became sick from exposure to asbestos was a central tenet of industry propaganda; no disease meant no costly control measures and no expensive protective equipment. When the first ever asbestos regulations were passed in Great Britain – the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931 – the country’s “Asbestos Giant” relocated some of its asbestos manufacturing operations to France to avoid implementing the most basic safety measures
The strategy adopted by Turner & Newall Ltd. in the 1930s is still common practice. As countries banned asbestos or introduced workplace safeguards, asbestos companies transferred their equipment, processes and technology abroad. The reality of this “Asbestos Roulette” is detailed in a paper published on November 28, 2012 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine entitled: Trades of Dangers: A Study of Asbestos Industry Transfer Cases in Asia.
The three Korean co-authors describe the findings of research undertaken over the last five years into the dumping in Asia of discredited asbestos textile production as a result of which the region has become the world’s main asbestos processor. The dates, facts and results of the transfer of asbestos technology from Japan to Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and China are discussed as is information related to the transfer of asbestos production from Korea to Malaysia and China and from Germany to Korea. In no case was the export of the hazardous processes accompanied by health and safety measures such as the provision of exhaust ventilation or airborne fiber sampling which had been mandated in the countries of origin. The authors state:
“…we observed that even with transfers of entire engineering processes at plants, the health and safety measures that should accompany the transfer, including technical capacities for risk assessment and management, regulatory protections, and cultural practices, were in fact not transferred.”
Even now Russian asbestos propagandists argue that asbestos use is safe under “controlled conditions.” Such conditions did not and do not exist in the factories described in this paper. They do not exist in developed countries like Canada, which has a de facto ban on asbestos use, nor do they exist in developing countries. The only safe use of asbestos is no use.
Dying for a Living
My friend Hirofumi Ochiai died today.
His death occurred in a hospice in the Japanese city of Yokosuka. I was 6,000 miles away in London when he died but just a few days earlier we had shared some good moments with his daughter Fumiko, his friends and members of the Yokosuka Pneumoconiosis and Asbestos Victims Group.
As was the case with many of his co-workers, Mr. Ochiai had been suffering from asbestosis for a number of years; he was recently diagnosed with asbestos-related lung cancer. His condition deteriorated over recent months and at the beginning of November he moved into a hospice. He liked it there not only because the atmosphere was informal and he could have visitors at any time of the day – he loved company – but because he could drink beer. Mr. Ochiai loved beer. He loved the taste of it, the rituals associated with it and the good times that went with it. Even when he was too weak to eat, he savoured the drops of beer he could swallow. In the end, I was told, the nurse managed to put a few drops on a sponge for him.
Mr. Ochiai had been a fisherman, before he went to work at the U.S. Naval Dockyard. Whilst employed there he was exposed to asbestos as a result of which he, like so many others, became ill. Mr. Ochiai was the first named plaintiff in the first class action against the U.S. authorities for the asbestos injuries sustained at the Yokosuka dockyard. The case was won. From 2004 until 2012, Mr. Ochiai was the President of the Yokosuka Pneumoconiosis and Asbestos Victims Group. He took his responsibilities seriously and only resigned his position when ill health made it impossible for him to continue to fulfil his duties.
Upon arriving in Japan on Thursday (November 22), I immediately went to Yokosuka to visit Mr. Ochiai. I had been warned that his condition was serious. It was late when we arrived and even though the hospice doors had been locked, there was no problem gaining entry. My friend Rie Monika and I spent two hours with Mr. Ochiai and his daughter Fumiko.
Suffering from pneumonia and seriously malnourished, he was now too weak to eat, did not prevent Mr. Ochiai from communicating. He was able to utter a few syllables but otherwise used a board with Japanese characters to indicate what he wished to say. With a great deal of patience and enormous determination, he made his thoughts known. In this way we were able to share our memories of the time we had shared. He indicated that it was his plan to attend the annual meeting of the Yokosuka group on Saturday. I never imagined he would be able to do so but I was underestimating the iron will which kept him going.
Saturday arrived. Just a short while after the meeting began, the door opened and Mr. Ochiai entered in his wheelchair. He was accompanied by his daughter and two hospice nurses. As he was wheeled to the front of the meeting hall everyone rose to shake his hand and greet him. From every part of the room, people rose to take his photo and at the end of the meeting, fully alert and happy to be amongst friends, he took the centre position in the group photos which were taken. If someone who was dying can be happy, I would say that at that moment and in that place, Mr. Ochiai was happy. Five days later, he died.
Brazilian City Moves to Ban Asbestos
Curitiba, the capital of Paraná State Brazil's biggest producer of asbestos-cement has taken legislative action to ban asbestos! On November 5, 2012 by a vote of 26:7, city councilors voted in favour of a bill that would prohibit the use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products in the municipality. On November 7, a second vote was won which left the final obstacle to the ban becoming law the signature of the Mayor. At a meeting on November 7 it was announced that the Mayor will endorse the law within 15 days. The bill allows a three-year phase-out period for all workplaces in Curitiba.
The timing of this process is significant as it comes just days after the Brazilian Supreme Court reached an impasse on litigation regarding the constitutionality of Brazil's use of asbestos. In the absence of a national ban, several municipalities and five states - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco and Mato Grosso - have taken unilateral action and banned asbestos. These states account for 90% of the Brazilian population. With the new ban in Curitiba, one has to wonder how long it will be before Paraná State follows suit. The sooner, the better!
Once again, the impact of a humanitarian disaster has shattered lives and destroyed communities. Watching the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy unfold in the Caribbean and North America you cannot help but be struck by the limitations of human beings in the face of such a colossal force of nature. During such a time, it is neither productive nor wise to go over old ground. The immediate priority has to be safeguarding human life. In the storm’s wake, people are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and to move forward. Perhaps now is a good time to consider what precautions might have been taken to limit the hazards unleashed by Sandy.
After the Kobe earthquake (1995), the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington (2001), the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011) and the Christchurch earthquake (2011), substantial amounts of asbestos-contaminated debris were created and elevated levels of asbestos were measured. The more asbestos in the air, the greater the danger to human life. When an infrastructure is demolished by a Sandy-size force, a cocktail of pollutants, including asbestos, is let loose.
More than 30 million tonnes of asbestos has been used in the United States; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that up to 35 million office buildings, homes, schools and commercial premises still contain asbestos. Had asbestos been banned in the United States as the EPA had intended, structures built in the hurricane zone after 1990 would have been asbestos-free. Unfortunately, asbestos lobbyists succeeded in overturning the U.S. ban as a result of which a further 300,000+ tonnes of asbestos was incorporated into the national infrastructure. Although it is unknown how much of it wound up in the area battered by Sandy, what is obvious is that in such circumstances the less asbestos there is, the better. More than 20 years after the U.S. asbestos ban was overturned, is it time to rethink America’s asbestos policy? I, for one, think so.
Ban Asbestos Mobilization on the Rise
Even with an increasing number of national asbestos bans and decreasing consumption in most non-ban countries, industry stakeholders have been able to cultivate markets in developing countries. With increasing coordination amongst civil society groups engaged in the battle to ban asbestos around the world, however, the asbestos hazard is now being raised as a point of discussion even in major producing and consuming countries such as Russia, Thailand, India and Indonesia. Recent conferences in Brussels (September 2012) and Paris (October 2012) have made great inroads in raising the visibility of the asbestos risk and in fostering links amongst global ban asbestos actors.
Yesterday (October 17) at a meeting in London members of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK approved a message congratulating French colleagues from ANDEVA on the asbestos mobilization achieved by events in Paris on October 12 & 13. The message of solidarity approved by the Forum was signed by members from UK groups in Sheffield, Merseyside, Glasgow, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Newcastle, Manchester and London. At the culmination of the meeting, a group photograph was taken of the participants with the banner which had been used in the asbestos demonstration in Paris on Saturday.
The text of the Forum's message to ANDEVA can be read here: Message from Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK.
Matt Peacock, who has been following the Australian asbestos saga for decades, not only has the journalistic skills to track down a story but also has forty years of research experience. So, when Matt published a book entitled “Killer Company: James Hardie Exposed” in 2009, the Australian public was willing to listen. And listen they did as Matt disclosed the fact that recycled asbestos bags which had been turned into carpet underlay were in homes throughout the country. The phrase “sweeping it under the carpet” took on a new resonance after Matt’s book was published.
News that a mini-series was being planned somewhat perplexed me as I was unsure how a four hundred page book, crammed with facts and references, about a corporate giant’s responsibility for an epidemic of asbestos-related deaths could be transposed into a two-part mini-series. But as shooting began in March 2012, I am guessing that scriptwriter Kris Mrksa must have solved that dilemma.
It is hard to tell much from a short clip uploaded today to the internet. Clearly the program had to center on a couple of key figures; it appears that the storyline will be revealed through the experience of Bernie Banton, a former James Hardie worker, who contracted asbestosis and the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Banton’s struggle against his former employer made front-page news on more than one occasion. In 2005, Banton received the Order of Australia “for service to the community, particularly as an advocate for people affected by asbestos-related illnesses. As a mark of respect, the former asbestos worker received a state funeral on December 5, 2007; on that day, flags on government buildings throughout New South Wales were lowered to half-mast.
At this stage there is no way to know whether the filmmakers have made a program which will grab people’s attention whilst staying true to the facts. A prime-time TV program could do a lot to raise awareness about the asbestos hazard in a country which led the world in the use of asbestos after World War II. As Matt reported in his book, asbestos is everywhere in Australia. As the only cure is prevention, the more people who see this mini-series, the better!
An Important Month in an Important Year
There is little doubt that 2012 has been a watershed year for the global campaign to ban asbestos. And the year has three months left for developments to unfold.
As we come to the end of September, it is informative to look back at what has taken place over the last few weeks. As the month began, news was disseminating about developments in Russia and Brazil, respectively the 1st and 3rd biggest asbestos producers in the world. A workshop and meetings in Volgograd are discussed in a report by event coorganizer Olga Speranskaya, while the Supreme Court asbestos hearings in Brasilia are described in the article A Perfect Day.
As news of the ban asbestos mobilization in these stakeholder countries was being digested, a seismic change was about to take place in Canada, for decades the world’s dominant asbestos producer. Elections in Quebec on September 4 brought to power the Parti Québécois whose leader Pauline Marois had promised to end Quebec’s support for the asbestos industry. Ten days later, the federal government also distanced itself from the once all-powerful asbestos lobby when it indicated that it would no longer block efforts to regulate the international trade in asbestos. Without the support of the Quebec and Ottawa Governments, Canada’s asbestos industry is doomed.
Whilst the news from Canada was rapturously received by ban asbestos campaigners, it was not welcomed by asbestos profiteers. As if to add insult to injury a few days after Ottawa’s U-turn, a meeting took place in Brussels to address the asbestos hazard in East European countries, many of which are grossly contaminated with asbestos imported from former Soviet Bloc countries. Participants at the September 17 & 18 conference “Europe’s Asbestos Catastrophe” included asbestos victims’ representatives, trade unionists and campaigners from 22 countries. A hearing at the European Parliament on September 18 provided the opportunity for calls to be made for urgent action to be taken by European agencies.
As the events in Brussels were unfolding, a meeting took place at the Municipal Theater in Casale Monferrato, the Italian town which has become an icon in the history of the ban asbestos movement. It was largely due to the actions taken by campaigners from this town that former asbestos executives Stephan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were brought to justice for their part in the asbestos-related deaths of thousands of Italians.
As a result of this landmark case, Italian politicians and civil servants agreed that asbestos would be a priority issue. Reflecting the public and political sensitivity regarding asbestos matters, three Italian Ministers – Renato Balduzzi, Elsa Fornero and Corrado Clini – participated in the September 17 meeting in Casale. Local campaigners, politicians and experts highlighted the urgent need for the construction of hazardous waste dumpsites and a regime for supervising the disposal of asbestos debris as well as the lack of funding for research into the treatment and care of people with asbestos-related diseases. An Italian Asbestos Summit will be held in Venice from November 22-24, 2012. Following the discussions in Venice, an Italian proposal will be submitted to the EU for dealing with the emerging health crisis caused by asbestos.
It seems that wherever you look, asbestos producers are being forced into a corner. With increasing public and medical awareness of the toxic nature of asbestos, global markets are shrinking. Calls being made for the imposition of “the polluter pays” principle is a clear indication that attempts will be made to punish those guilty of spreading the asbestos contagion around the world.
Yes, September 2012 was definitely a very encouraging month. Roll on October!
Message to the Citizens of Asbestos and Thetford Mines, Quebec
For too long your towns have suffered from the operations of the asbestos mining industry. To preserve your jobs, the mine owners told you that wages had to be cut and no-strike agreements signed. You complied to protect the economic future of your town. Despite your best efforts, however, it looks like the end of the road has been reached for the asbestos industry in Quebec.
I believe that this is a good thing as do many others. Not only for people in developing countries which imported Quebec’s asbestos but also for people in the asbestos mining regions. It is time to embrace a future which is asbestos-free; to provide jobs in Quebec which do not endanger workers, members of the community or people in importing countries.
To do this will not be easy; viable alternatives and finances must be found to make a just transition to an asbestos-free economy. The Quebec and Ottawa Governments must honor their promises to assist with this process. Your municipalities have suffered massive environmental contamination from the mining of asbestos; the mountains of asbestos-containing tailings dominating the landscape are testament to that. Civil servants, regional and federal politicians provided the political and diplomatic framework within which the asbestos industry operated. It is incumbent upon them to find the means and measures to rehabilitate the land and set up medical and surveillance schemes for the population.
With the end of the asbestos industry, the political and economic force field which prevented an honest debate on the asbestos hazard from taking place in Quebec has collapsed. The asbestos victims, rendered invisible by Quebec’s conspiracy of silence on all things asbestos, must, at long last, be recognized, and compensated.
The ban asbestos community expresses its solidarity with the people of Asbestos and Thetford Mines. We are ready to assist the campaign to obtain justice for Quebec’s asbestos victims, identify the means to deal with the pollution and pursue a future which is free of asbestos.
Britain’s Asbestos Catastrophe
As researchers and scientists convene on September 11-14, 2012 for the 11th meeting of the International Mesothelioma Group (iMig), a poster I have produced will inform delegates of the British public health disaster created by one hundred years of asbestos use. iMig is a unique organization which brings together medical investigators dedicated to unlocking the secrets of mesothelioma, an aggressive and fatal asbestos cancer, to discuss progress and develop research initiatives.
The poster is based on The Female Face of Britain’s Asbestos Catastrophe, a paper which focused on British women whose lives and deaths were pivotal in the evolution of Britain’s asbestos history. They were factory workers, wives, schoolteachers and granddaughters; ordinary people who suffered extraordinary fates because of their exposure to asbestos. It is fitting that they will have a presence at the iMig conference in Boston.
Adieu Charest! Adieu Jeffrey Mine?
Premier Jean Charest, whose support for Quebec’s asbestos industry has been unwavering, lost his seat in the election held on September 4, 2012. Inside sources are predicting he will resign the leadership of the Liberal Party which after a run of ten years in power has now become the official opposition party. Charest’s departure from frontline politics cannot come soon enough for me. Over the last ten years, he has been one of the asbestos industry’s most vociferous supporters; who else would give a $58 million hand-out to an industry which was an anathema to civilized societies the world over.
The Premier-elect of Quebec, albeit one presiding over a minority government is Pauline Marois, head of the Parti Québécois (PQ). In the run-up to the election Marois promised to cancel Charest’s multimillion dollar gift to the consortium developing a new underground asbestos operation at the Jeffrey Mine. Asbestos mining was she said an “industry from another era.” Promising that the loan would be revoked by the PQ, even if special legislation were required to do so, Marois promised that funds would be invested by a PQ Government to diversify the economy in the asbestos mining region.
Just before midnight Marois, the first-ever female Premier of Quebec, took to the stage at the Metropolis Theatre in Montreal to thank supporters. Midway through her speech a gunman opened fire. Although Marois was not injured, one person in the crowd was killed and another critically injured.
New Zealand’s Asbestos Policy = No Policy?
The post-earthquake situation in Christchurch, New Zealand is an excellent example of why the use of asbestos should be banned. While asbestos merchants claim that asbestos can be used safely under “controlled conditions,” they never address the issue of what happens under uncontrolled conditions, such as those that often occur during demolition – particularly if the demolition is effected by an earthquake.
As a result of the February 2011 earthquake, thousands of buildings in Christchurch were contaminated with asbestos which had been contained in textured ceilings, cladding and roofing material. In the article “Asbestos fears grow over huge Chch housing fix” it is assumed that asbestos-containing materials will be present in any homes constructed in Christchurch between 1940 and 1990.
Yet even faced with the backlog of vital repairs and huge bills for the required work resulting from the earthquake, New Zealand has not officially banned asbestos. In fact, it seems the Government has more or less given up on the idea of controlling the import of asbestos-containing products. In a letter written by the Minister of Environment, MP Dr. Nick Smith weeks after the earthquake devastated New Zealand’s 2nd largest city, he told IBAS:
“New Zealand does not monitor the importation of manufactured articles containing asbestos due to the difficulties in identifying these articles at the border… Efforts are being made to ensure that asbestos in New Zealand is managed safely… if evidence warrants further restrictions, your suggestions of banning asbestos-containing materials remains a possibility for the future.”
What is it he does not understand? It really is pretty simple. You put asbestos into a building and you create a potentially hazardous situation which could affect generations of inhabitants, repairmen or building users. When disaster strikes, as it did in Christchurch, the “potential” for widespread contamination is realized. Why, knowing all that, would the Government not act to protect New Zealanders and comprehensively ban the import of raw asbestos fiber and asbestos-containing products?
What do you think of when you think of epidemiologists: number crunchers? boffins? chroniclers of human mortality? It is unlikely you would have thought of them as activists, people who, having confronted the status quo, would set out on a campaign to change it.
Evidence of a transformation from academics to “warriors” was contained in a document released to the media on July 24, 2012 by the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (JPC-SE), confirming that “all types of asbestos fibre are implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death” including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. (See: Position Statement on Asbestos: Full Statement or Summary)
The statement makes clear the repercussions of asbestos consumption in low-to-middle income countries: “If unstopped, this continued and increasing use of asbestos will lead to a public health disaster of asbestos-related illness and premature death for decades to come in those countries, repeating the epidemic we are witnessing today in industrialised countries that used asbestos in the past.”
In the carefully worded and well-referenced 25-page document (plus appendices), the scientists reviewed the current knowledge about the asbestos hazard and concluded that there is “irrefutable scientific evidence of harm to human health resulting from exposure to all forms of asbestos.” The Committee expressed “grave concern that governments – particularly in Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam – are recklessly putting not only their own citizens in peril by allowing asbestos mining and trading to take place, but also those people in countries where asbestos products continue to be used.”
At the top of the recommendations is a call for a “global ban on the mining, use, and export of all forms of asbestos.”
In the media release accompanying the Position Statement on Asbestos, Professor Colin Soskolne issued a scathing indictment of the asbestos industry which, he said, “continues today to undermine public health policy by denying the overwhelming scientific evidence and promoting asbestos use in developing countries.” Echoing these sentiments, Chair of the Joint Policy Committee Dr. Stan Weiss explained that the epidemiologists felt compelled to take “a clear position in support of the objective scientific evidence that all use of asbestos should stop” (See: The Epidemiology Monitor, July-August 2012).
The outspoken and proactive stand on asbestos taken by the epidemiologists is not something which comes naturally to cautious professionals in this line of work; throughout the extensive consultation on the position paper, however, some individuals “who were initially opposed to taking a stand came to believe it was not right to sit back and not speak out” (See: The Epidemiology Monitor, July-August 2012). The reasoned thesis by the JPC-SE, an independent and authoritative body, is a timely exposé of the blatant errors, discredited propaganda and moral bankruptcy in statements issued by commercial and government stakeholders backing Quebec’s new asbestos mine. Canadian ban asbestos campaigner Kathleen Ruff has praised the “outstanding leadership,” shown by the JPC-SE, calling the Position Statement “inspiring.” It is hard to disagree with her assessment.
For decades, ban asbestos campaigners have been fighting to expose the lies told by duplicitous and wealthy vested interests. Government officials, regional authorities, elected representatives and corporate interests continue to support the asbestos industry despite the mountain of evidence documenting the toxic nature of asbestos. The powers-that-be have refused to listen to us – maybe they will listen to the epidemiologists?
Confronting Merseyside’s Asbestos Legacy
It was wet in Liverpool on Friday morning. Looking out the window the scene which greeted me was more reminiscent of a late November afternoon than a July morning. The pavements were awash with rain as the drains struggled to cope with a never-ending deluge of water. The weather forecasters had predicted that a months’ worth of rain would fall in Liverpool on July 6; they were right.
But it takes more than a bit of rain to dampen the enthusiasm and spirit of the stalwart campaigners who belong to the asbestos victim support groups from Merseyside and Cheshire. The fact that this year’s attendance at the Action Mesothelioma Day event in the civic chamber at Liverpool Town Hall reached a record level speaks volumes not only for the determination of those affected to come together on this important day but also of the human need to reach out to those still suffering and their relatives to let them know: “You are not alone.”
As the speakers Dr. Christopher Warburton, Clinical Director/Respiratory Physician from Aintree Chest Centre, Bernie Sanders, Macmillan Information and Support Manager, and myself made our presentations, the names of those being remembered were projected on the screens behind us: Susan Waters, Joseph Carr, Brian Ryder, Tony Williams, Peter Leyshon, Leslie Bailey, and so many more. All the names were accompanied with words that rooted the deceased in the heart of his/her family and community.
During the lunch break, Marlene Watson told me of her Uncle Brian who had died of mesothelioma with only his wife to look after him. When Marlene’s best friend Pat got sick, her condition was diagnosed as a “bad back,” by her GP. Marlene, a nurse, knew that there was more to Pat’s illness that that. Finally, after interminable delays, it was discovered that Pat had contracted mesothelioma from her work at a Manchester factory. Marlene brought Pat and her partner to live with her so that Pat could be nursed at home and die surrounded by her family and friends. This is what Pat wanted, and as her best friend Marlene wanted it too. What can you say in the face of such humanity; what can you do except wonder about the extraordinary capacity human beings have to care and nurture each other.
As the rain slackened, the decision was made that the dove release could go ahead. The meeting was temporarily suspended as the crowd exited the chamber and proceeded to the town square where the Lord Mayor of Liverpool Councillor Sharon Sullivan, the Young Lord Mayor, a schoolgirl from Knotty Ash, the Mayor and Mayoress of Halton, Councillors Tom McInerney and Mrs. Angela McInerney and Deputy Mayor of St. Helens, Andy Bowden, took their places behind a heart-shaped wicker basket. As the crowd counted down to 0, the lid was lifted and five doves headed skywards.
Photo courtesy of Chris Gregory
Today, I met an amazing lady. Neroli Sharp, a New Zealander transplanted to the UK, is a wife, mother, carer, artist, singer and inveterate tea drinker. She is a quietly composed woman with immense charm, a lovely sense of humor and a heart as big as the great outdoors. She has mesothelioma.
Neroli, who told me that she shares her name with that for the essential oil produced from orange blossoms, was in London for the launch of the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Tissue Bank. It was clear that her presence at this event was taking its toll; Neroli becomes breathless if she walks too far – further than the front gate of her Cambridgeshire home – or talks too much. As she is a spontaneous and communicative lady, our conversation left her at times short of breath. The use of a hand-held fan helped as did frequent pauses to catch her breath.
Neroli Sharp with hand-held fan.
From 1957 to 1965, Neroli worked at the Fletcher Industries Ltd. asbestos-cement factory in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her job in the laboratory, testing samples of asbestos-cement, exposed her to asbestos on a routine basis. She had concerns about the asbestos hazard and when visiting the factory would often ask the workers why they were not wearing protective equipment.
In 2009, when Neroli experienced breathlessness, having previously been a very fit person who enjoyed long and frequent walks, she went to see her doctor. He told her she could go to hospital for an X-ray on Tuesdays or Thursdays without an appointment. As she was teaching a watercolour class on Tuesday she opted to go on Thursday. The X-ray showed that her lung was full of fluid and she was sent immediately for treatment during which 2 litres of fluid were drained.
Neroli is grateful for the early diagnosis of her mesothelioma, for the fellowship provided by the “wonderful” mesothelioma support group at the Papworth Hospital and for the “honesty, compassion and warmth” of her medical team including Dr. Robert Rintoul and Mesothelioma Nurse Specialist Gerry Slade. She was glad to have had the opportunity to attend the day’s launch of the Mesothelioma Tissue Bank, an initiative which she views as of great significance. (The Mesobank, a UK based bioresource for malignant mesothelioma, is funded by the British Lung Foundation and the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund.) “It is,” she told me “important for mesothelioma to be before the public eye because it can concern so many people who have no idea what is out there. The situation in British schools worries me to death.”
From left, Pat Wood, Gerry Slade, Neroli Sharp
The Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Tissue Bank – Mesobank – is a promising development, about which I will write at greater length. For now, I would like to pay tribute to Neroli and her fellow mesothelioma sufferer Pat Wood who I also met today in London. Ladies – we salute you!
Asbestos on Flamingo Beach!
As Rio+20 draws to an end, we can reflect on an opportunity wasted. Press reports circulating have highlighted how the vision and hopes for this much anticipated event have fallen by the wayside in the light of economic and national self-interest.
It will surprise absolutely nobody that efforts to block the inclusion of asbestos on the official agenda of Rio+20 were almost successful. Brazil is, after all, a country which supports the “controlled use of asbestos” as an excuse to preserve the status quo. Nowadays Brazil is the 3rd largest producer of chrysotile asbestos and even though five Brazilian states have banned asbestos as have almost two dozen municipalities, asbestos remains a big business with many politically powerful and well-resourced vested interests.
It is to the credit of Brazilian civil society that asbestos managed to make its way onto the agenda of the People’s Summit, a nine-day side event to the United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, sessions of which were restricted to accredited governmental and official representatives.
The success of the June 15th Rio+20 Asbestos Toxic Tour was due to Brazilian activists and institutions which back the campaign to outlaw the use of asbestos; amongst those who should be mentioned in relation to the successful asbestos events in Rio de Janeiro last week are the folks from Fiocruz, an institution of the Brazilian Ministry of Health, ABREA, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed, ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health, CEBES, the Brazilian Center for Health Studies, and the CUT trade union.
The activities on June 15 included positive action, in the form of a 7 a.m. demonstration outside the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in the Guadalupe area of Rio de Janeiro where hundreds of employees continue to work with asbestos. The afternoon session which took place in a tent on Flamingo Beach provided the opportunity for dialogue amongst individuals and groups from four continents, all of whom agreed that “The Future We Want,” the slogan of Rio+20, is one free of asbestos. The IBAS report on Brazil’s asbestos debate is due out later this week.
Reflecting on Global Asbestos Developments
It seems that almost every day reports are being received of "new" asbestos scandals; over the last week, articles documented asbestos exposés in Belgium, Dubai, Lebanon and the Seychelles. These cases are just the tip of the iceberg; wherever asbestos has been mined or used, the contamination which is an integral part of the production or manufacturing cycle has been widespread. And when the time comes for the asbestos companies to move on, the pollution remains.
The fact that the corporations which profited from the commercial exploitation of asbestos accept no responsibility for cleaning up their mess should come as no surprise. Neither should it surprise us that even as the noose is tightening on the global asbestos industry, vested interests are making determined efforts to fight their corner.
In years past, these efforts would have been orchestrated by Canadian asbestos lobbyists but with the closure of the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute the leadership of the global asbestos marketing campaign has been passed to Russian lobbyists who are, even now, making preparations for a high-profile chrysotile love-in due to take place next month (June) in Moscow.
As the world's biggest producer of asbestos, there are billions of reasons for the Russians to exert their financial clout and political connections to make this a gala event. It is likely that many of the "so-called experts" named by the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute to testify in Brasilia at Supreme Court hearings on asbestos this August will be telling delegates in Moscow what they want to hear: that chrysotile can be used safely and that the condemnation of chrysotile as a deadly carcinogen is a plot backed by a Western capitalist conspiracy.
Back in Canada, much depleted but ever-optimistic asbestos stakeholders continue their efforts to restart asbestos production. Simon Dupéré head of the bankrupt LAB Chrysotile, re-launched as NEWCO Operations Black Lake, reached agreement last week (May 20) with former LAB workers on plans to rebuild a highway destroyed by a landslide of asbestos waste and undertake development work at LAB's chrysotile mine, which ceased production last year. Funding for the road works has been allocated by the Quebec government and work could commence as soon as June 3. Dupéré says he is optimistic that investors can be found to back the preparatory mine work. For the sake of the workers and public in Thetford Mines and the people in asbestos-consuming countries around the world, I hope he is wrong.
Asbestos Crime and Punishment
News of asbestos-related developments in Australia on just one day (May 8, 2012) reveals a wide range of problems existing in this post-ban country. As elsewhere, the legacy of asbestos consumption does not end when legislation is adopted banning its use. Contaminated products incorporated into the national infrastructure continue to pose an potent health threat for decades to come. Today, the Western Australian (WA) Government revealed that there has been a huge increase in illegal dumping of asbestos waste in the south-west of the State, an area recently affected by a massive bush fire.
Unfortunately, despite Australia’s ban (2003) some asbestos-containing products are still making their way into the country. Today it was also reported that Clyde Bergermann Senior Thermal, an international engineering company with offices in Perth, has been fined $64,000 for importing from China machinery parts containing chrysotile for use in a power plant.
And, of course, the biggest asbestos story in Australia continues to be the Supreme Court’s decision condemning the actions of former non-executive directors of James Hardie, Australia’s biggest asbestos conglomerate. A column in the Herald Sun expresses the views of many, when it asks why it took 11 years and as much as $50 million of taxpayers’ money to prove what was “bleeding obvious:” that James Hardie directors had broken the law.
Taken together, these developments make it clear that the best way to control the asbestos hazard is never to use it. Countries which continue to consume asbestos are storing up massive public health as well as environmental problems. As in Italy and now in Australia, executives who profit from the commercial exploitation of asbestos will be held to account. With the fall of the Canadian Chrysotile Institute, global efforts to market asbestos are diminishing even as international support for banning asbestos increases. Entrepreneurs, decision-makers and governments need to reassess their priorities and take steps to protect their populations. An asbestos-free future is possible.
May You Live in Interesting Times
The news of the Chrysotile Institute’s demise has caused me to reflect on the global asbestos scenario. It seems that whichever way I look, the asbestos lobby has been wrong-footed. Even as confirmation was received of the Chrysotile Institute’s closure, the Quebec Government continues to stall its decision regarding the $58 million loan guarantee for the new asbestos mining facility at the Jeffrey Mine. Deadlines have come and gone but each time one expires an extension is granted. It seems that Quebec politicians cannot envisage a future without asbestos.
In Brazil, an erstwhile asbestos defender Federal Deputy Carlos Alberto Leréia Da Silva has been caught up in a high-profile political scandal, while in Thailand, the latest marketing ploy by asbestos-cement producer Oranit backfired when the lies told on its asbestos tee shirts provoked a reaction from the WHO. Outraged by Oranit’s dishonesty – the company said that the WHO certified that chrysotile is safer than substitutes – WHO Thailand issued a statement making its support for an asbestos ban crystal clear.
In Australia, government cutbacks in funding for life-saving research into asbestos-related diseases has fuelled an innovative protest by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia which has embarked this week on a 600 km trek through the outback to raise money for research. Public support has flooded in from well-wishers including Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, British MP John Sheridan, Chair of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group, and Canadian MP and asbestos victim Pat Martin. As the walkers reached the half-way point, a High Court ruling buoyed their spirits when a judgment found seven former directors of Australia’s asbestos giant James Hardie guilty of misleading the Australian Stock Exchange about the company’s ability to fund asbestos compensation claims.
The developments described above are the result of decades of mobilization by the international community of those working to eliminate the asbestos hazard; ban asbestos campaigners, asbestos victims, trade unionists, environmentalists, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and academics – the gamut of civil society working together to reach a common goal: a world free from asbestos. While there is no room for complacency, see yesterday’s article in the Bangkok Post, the developments we have seen in recent days suggest that the time will come when asbestos is consigned to the dustbin of discredited technologies. As our friends say in Brazil: A Luta Continua! The Struggle Continues.
Schmidheiny, the Citizen Kane of our day?
Anyone who has seen Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane will recall the isolation and loneliness which was the eventual fate of yellow journalist Charles Foster Kane, a character based on American newspaper entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst. Kane, formerly a man of great influence and immense power, was in the end reduced to a sad and solitary figure, abandoned by his erstwhile allies and shunned by his so-called friends.
Like Kane, Stephan Schmidheiny has been feted and respected on the world stage. Born into a life of privilege, Schmidheiny used his inheritance and skills to create vast wealth. He has hobnobbed with the great and the good, been an advisor to President Clinton and the United Nations and received honours galore from eminent institutions such as Yale University (see: Stephan Schmidheiny; Saint or Sinner?).
Schmidheiny played a key role in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 as well as the founding and operations of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The business magnate turned environmental guru travelled the world preaching the doctrine of sustainable development (see: Asbestos Magnate or Environmental Guru: the Trials of Stephan Schmidheiny).
But that was then and this is now. Two months ago, Schmidheiny was convicted by an Italian Court of causing wilful permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules, as a result of which thousands of Italians died from asbestos-related diseases. In the aftermath of his criminal conviction, will his former friends and confidants remain loyal or will he, like Kane, be abandoned by those who once benefited so handsomely from their association with him (see: Landmark Verdict for Italian Asbestos Victims!).
In the countdown to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development civil society groups are calling on the United Nations to prevent Stephen Schmidheiny from taking part in the June event. An online petition urges the UN and the Brazilian President “to declare Mr. Stephan Schmidheiny ‘persona non grata’ and prohibit him from participating in Rio+20” (see: Solemn Appeal to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations).
I have signed the petition. Will you?
Brazil’s Asbestos Rubicon
Although Italy’s conviction of asbestos executives from Eternit companies in Europe has had worldwide repercussions, the February 13th judgment could well be Brazil’s asbestos rubicon, a point from which there is no turning back.
In the aftermath of the verdict, Brazilian asbestos lobbyists began a damage limitation exercise. On February 17th, the Brazilian Eternit Group issued a press release stating “ Eternit S.A. is a locally-owned, publicly traded company… and bears no relation to Eternit in other countries, including Italy.”
The Brazilian stock market remained impervious to Eternit S.A.’s reassurances and on three consecutive days after the Italian judgment was handed down, Eternit’s share value fell. No doubt Brazilian investors were also cognizant of the increasing support in Brazil for a national asbestos ban. There are currently asbestos bans in five states, with a state ban in Paraná on the cards. A court case due to start shortly before the Supreme Court could well pave the way for a comprehensive ban being adopted in Brazil.
Brazilian prosecutors, who closely followed developments in Turin, regard the 128-page verdict of the Turin criminal court as a precedent to be used in on-going actions in Brazil. In light of this, executives from Eternit S.A. and other Brazilian asbestos companies might one day find themselves in the dock, charged with similar offenses to those faced by their European counterparts. Should they be convicted by Brazilian authorities of crimes against Brazilian citizens, it is likely they too will face incarceration.
Eternit Asbestos Executives Condemned!
No one slept the night before the February 13th verdict (see: lead-up to the verdict announcement).
The tension in the Turin courtroom had a physical presence even as people chatted amongst themselves in the minutes before the proceedings began.
The three judges entered the main court and silence fell. The initial minutes were taken up by some procedural aspects and then it was announced that the reading of the verdict would begin at 1:15 p.m.
So, we waited… and waited... and waited. Some people went in search of coffee machines, some people bit their nails and some people chatted. A delegation of miners who were part of a big contingent of asbestos victims from France seized the occasion to present Romana Blasotti Pavesi, the head of the Casale Monferrato victims’ association, with a miners’ lamp as a symbol of her leadership in the struggle for justice.
During the interval, I was taken to meet with Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, the man most people credit with pioneering this historic case, and present him with a copy of the new publication: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial (see this link, on IBAS website, for the online version: http://ibasecretariat.org/eternit-great-asbestos-trial-toc.htm).
He seemed very calm in those hours before the verdict was given. I took that as a good sign.
Then as scheduled the judges returned. They stood as they read the three-hour verdict . As we heard the English translator say “In the name of the Italian people, the Turin criminal court declares the defendants Schmidheiny and De Cartier guilty,” the burden of expectation which had been pressing down on us all dissipated. The skies cleared and the sun shone brightly in the courtrooms where victims, their family members, supporters and consultants were gathered.
Listen to the verdict interpreted into English on: http://www.livestream.com/greenbox_/video?clipId=pla_0c7ba848-010d-4338-9afe-e6f75fa45c5d.
The 16 year sentences handed down for both defendants swiftly followed the guilty verdict. At that moment, I felt such pride in what the people of Casale Monferrato had achieved. Not only for their loved ones, their friends and their neighbours but for asbestos victims all over the world whose lives had counted for nothing in Eternit’s pursuit of profit.
With modern technology, the news spread worldwide in minutes. Coverage in Italy was massive and national newspapers ran front page stories of the verdict with TV coverage on all channels.
In Canada, speculation was rife about the implications of this trial for asbestos propagandists and executives in Quebec. In France, attempts to replicate the Turin process are being made but success has not yet to be achieved. Elsewhere, ban asbestos campaigners look on in awe at what has happened in Italy.
February 13 was a great day for the people of Casale Monferrato and the other Italian towns where Eternit’s operations contaminated workers and the community. It is a historic victory that will endure as a testament to the capacity of human beings to achieve justice in the face of overwhelming odds. A victory of enormous proportions; a victory which belongs to us all.
Parliamentary Asbestos Debate
For nearly half an hour last night, British MPs debated the issues of asbestos contamination in schools during an adjournment debate obtained by Labour MP Ian Lavery (see: Adjournment debate February 7, 2012: Columns 277 – 284).During the debate, cross-party concern was expressed by Parliamentarians from England and Northern Ireland regarding the “serious situation facing the nation’s schools,” the risk posed by asbestos to the health of pupils, teachers, cleaners and administrators and the failure of successive governments to get to grips with the scale and nature of the problem.
MPs called for the “phased removal of asbestos in a strategic manner” from schools.” MP Lavery asked:
“Does the minister agree that children should have the same rights as adults in an asbestos environment? Those rights could reasonably be exercised through parents, guardians and teachers... does the Minister accept that the details of asbestos incidents in schools need to be collated centrally and open to public and internal scrutiny, so that the effectiveness of the Health and Safety Executive, Department of Education and local authority asbestos management policies can be assessed?”
The answers provided by Nick Gibb, Minister of State, Department for Education, was a full ten minutes of political flim-flam. The priority for this Government, the Minister said, is to “ensure the safety of staff and pupils at school.” The best way to do that is… to do nothing. All will be well… everything is under control… or, in other words, carry on killing
The Minister’s carefully constructed defense of the current regime was a diversionary tactic intended to downplay the public condemnation of the scandal which has been stimulated by this week’s release of a parliamentary publication entitled Asbestos in Schools – the Need for Action.
A government prepared to shell out millions to puff up the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is not prepared to take vital measures to protect future generations from the asbestos hazard. I bet if the children of cabinet members went to State schools, there would be a lot more concern about this problem but what do millionaire politicians know about life in these asbestos-riddled facilities? Don’t know and don’t care about sums it up.
Two Women, Two Positions on Asbestos
Roshi Chadha and Silvano Mossano have very different takes on the asbestos reality of the 21st century. Chadha, a Canadian asbestos promoter, is linked to an aggressive campaign to pour millions of tax dollars into the development of new asbestos mining resources in Quebec. Italian journalist Mossano, the wife of a man dying from asbestos cancer, is otherwise engaged; her professional career has been dominated by efforts to expose her country’s asbestos scandal.
On January 29, Chadha issued a public statement announcing her intention to suspend her good works for Canadian charities; her affiliation with the Canadian Red Cross, McGill University and St. Mary’s Hospital has been widely condemned by asbestos victims’ and civil society groups in Canada and abroad (see: article by Gazette Environment Reporter Michelle Lalonde, February 1). As she was doing so, thousands of miles away, Mossano was putting the finishing touches on her play, Malapolvere (bad dust) which opened in Turin to a full house at the Gobetti Theatre two nights later. The play, a monologue, was performed by Luciana Curino, a well-known Italian actress; the substance of the drama is the 1,800 missing people, asbestos dead, from Casale Monferrato, the town which was home to the Eternit asbestos-cement factory. The Casale deaths are just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the world so many lives have been sacrificed to asbestos. It is unconscionable that people like Chadha are willing to see this humanitarian disaster continue so long as there are profits to be made.
Tories Bully, Victims Die
Even as the Tory-led UK Government continues its condemnation of the negative impact of the country’s “monster” health and safety regime on the economy (See: PM David Cameron attacks health and safety 'monster'; January 5, 2012), its own epidemiological data has revealed the consequences of lax regulation of workplace hazards.
A report released by the Health and Safety Executive weeks before Prime Minister David Cameron declared war on occupational safeguards documented the inexorable national rise of asbestos cancer; according to the latest available data, in 2009 there were 2,321 deaths from mesothelioma, of which 1,933 (83%) were male and 388 (17%) were female (Mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain 1968-2009).
To understand the human consequences of the government’s desire to revert to the “good old days” of laissez-faire capitalism, it is informative to look at how mesothelioma mortality has risen over recent decades: in 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 there were respectively 159, 434, 909, 1615 and 2321 British mesothelioma deaths.
In other words, in the last forty years the national incidence of just one type of asbestos-related disease has increased by almost 15 times. Despite the fact that asbestos has been banned in the UK, millions of tonnes remain within the infrastructure. In 2011, the UK Government was indicted by EU authorities for non-compliance with occupational asbestos guidelines, resources for the body tasked with protecting occupational safety were slashed and measures were progressed through Parliament which might shut-down asbestos victims’ support groups throughout the country. The current economic crisis certainly has a silver lining for the Tories, a party known for its anti-union and anti-labor bias.
Illogical and deadly: Canada’s asbestos mind-set
When it comes to asbestos, don’t look to Canada for any logical or cohesive policy. Even as the Canadian Red Cross was whitewashing the credentials of its “valued member,” asbestos trader Roshi Chadha, McGill University, another organization she is associated with, remains “schtum” on its relationship with the Montrealer.
Unlike the WHO, the ILO and other independent organizations, McGill seems unconcerned about the asbestos hazard. Indeed, one might even say the university is embracing it – why else would it be boasting of its plans to use asbestos-cement drainage pipes, containing up to 13% asbestos, at the new $2.5 billion McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) (See: Asbestos-free hospital no pipe dream by A. Derfel [accessed January 13, 2012]). In a statement released last month, MUHC officials claimed that “There will be no asbestos fibres circulating in the air at the MUHC.” As if this were ever going to be a realistic proposition; like everywhere else in the world, pipes in Montreal break, age and leak. According to an MUHC spokesperson “The (asbestos) fibres are not brittle, and therefore pose no risk of emission of particles in the air.” As if!
A different decision has been taken by the consortium building Montreal University’s superhosptial which has publicly stated that “there will be no asbestos anywhere in the research centre.” Two hospitals, two decisions – guess which one has the long-term commercial association with the Canadian asbestos industry?
New Year’s Thoughts
As 2012 dawned, developments on three continents indicate that progress is being made in the campaign to tackle the global asbestos scandal. The intervention of the Italian Minister of Health in the debacle over a potential deal between asbestos defendant Stephan Schmidheiny and the town of Casale Monferrato has proved pivotal. Impending ministerial level discussions will hopefully resolve the difficulties caused by the multimillion euro offer made by Schmidheiny’s lawyers. At this very moment, asbestos victims’ campaigners in Casale Monferrato and their supporters are preparing for a day of action which will culminate with a concert tonight (January 7) to reaffirm civic solidarity with the victims’ cause.
In Brazil, Estado de São Paulo, a daily Brazilian broadsheet, and Época magazine have this week predicted that a Brazilian ban on asbestos will be implemented in 2012. Journalists writing for these publications reported that the Attorney General has asked the Supreme Court to declare as unconstitutional the law (n.º 9.055/95) which allows the “controlled use of asbestos.”
News that Belgian asbestos victim Eric Jonckheere had written to Canada’s Prime Minister and Quebec’s Premier urging them to ban asbestos was confirmed in a January 4 interview with Radio Canada. There is “no safe use of asbestos,” Mr. Jonckheere told the Canadian interviewer. When asked to respond to asbestos propaganda spouted by lobbyist Guy Versailles, from Balcorp Ltd., Jonckheere said all types of asbestos can kill. The asbestos which killed four members of his family came from Canada; it is time, he said, for the killing to stop.
Like mushrooms, the asbestos industry can only flourish in the dark. Once exposed to the light of day, the propaganda and ruthless machinations of the asbestos industrialists are revealed for all to see. Society cannot condone or allow this trade to continue.
Redemption in Quebec?
The Quebec Government is expected to issue its decision regarding support for a new asbestos mine within days. The fact that negotiations are on-going between Canada and India for a deal to end import duty on Canadian asbestos presupposes that Canada will have asbestos to export to India. At the moment it has none as the last two mines have run out of asbestos. So, the trade negotiations are a clear indication that the funds needed for the mining project have already been approved.
A year ago the Asia–Quebec Solidarity delegation went to Quebec to appeal directly to the population, government officials, trade unionists and others to stop the export of asbestos to Asian countries. Amongst the 7 members of this delegation was asbestos cancer sufferer Rachel Lee. Mrs. Lee died yesterday in a Korean hospital surrounded by her family.
Today, a letter has been sent to Minister Gignac reminding him of his meeting on December 9, 2010 with Mrs. Lee and the attack made on her by Jacques Dunnigan, someone who has had a long association with the Canadian asbestos industry. Dunnigan accused Mrs. Lee and the Asian delegation of trickery, “falsely saying that she was not really suffering from mesothelioma.” The letter sent to the Minister requests that he “restore the honour of Quebec…(and) honour the appeal made to you by Rachel Lee on behalf of asbestos victims around the world and not fund the Jeffrey mine.”
In the run-up to Christmas such a decision, would be very welcome. It is the honorable thing to do.
Infamous Decision by Town Council
Representatives of the Italian town of Casale Monferrato cowered into the early hours of December 17 in the town hall to avoid angry protesters surrounding the building. The demonstrators had brought their banners and anger with them to express outrage at the betrayal by Mayor Demezzi and the Council who voted on Friday night (December 16) to accept a deal worth €18.3 million to settle town’s lawsuit against former asbestos executive Stephan Schmidheiny. See: Link to Update from Casale Monferrato.
This act of treachery dishonours a town which had become a beacon of hope for so many asbestos victims around the world. It has, as one Italian journalist written, shattered the social contract forged between the town’s asbestos-injured and their elected representatives – a contract which had progressed the quest to obtain justice for the thousands who had been injured by exposure to Eternit asbestos.
The honorable men and women who have devoted their lives to the campaign for justice need to know that our thoughts are with them at this dark hour. Please take a few minutes to send expressions of solidarity to the leaders of the asbestos victims in Casale Monferrato. Please send your messages by email to:
The verdict in the case against Schmidheiny and his co-defendant is expected on February 13, 2011. It is unclear at this time how this deal will impact on the legal proceedings.
The Mother of all Betrayals
If things proceed as expected, tomorrow night the town council of Casale Monferrato will rubber-stamp an offer worth up to €20 million. The money will be handed over to buy the town’s silence. The deal will bring to an end Casale’s support for the grass-roots campaign mounted by victims poisoned by Eternit asbestos. See: Justice for Sale? and Surprise Moves by Schmidheiny’s Lawyers
The criminal trial in Turin of two former Eternit executives is a landmark in the global fight against asbestos; the significance of the proceedings has resulted in massive media coverage and huge international attention. The 11th hour offer by Stephan Schmidheiny, termed a “transparent ploy” by one observer, could impact on the court’s verdict; the deal with Casale could not only ensure that the victims no longer have the support of the civic authorities but also that the Judges find extenuating circumstances to reduce Stephan Schmidheiny’s punishment should he be found guilty as charged.
AFeVA, the group representing the Italian victims, is understandably outraged by this betrayal. For years the town of Casale has stood shoulder to shoulder with the injured, their families, trade union activists, medical advisors and environmental campaigners. Holding to account the parties responsible for the operations of the Eternit Casale factory was always the top priority in their struggle for justice.
Individuals and victims’ groups from around the world have contacted Mayor Demezzi to express solidarity with the victims and beg the town to reconsider its decision.
The Mayor can be contacted by email at:
Please cc: the message to: AFEVA Casale asbestos victims association:
Please do it today as tomorrow will be too late.
Roshi Chadha and the Red Cross
There are certain things you just know. One of them is that wherever a disaster strikes, the Red Cross (RC) is on hand to ease human suffering. In less dramatic situations, the Red Cross also strives to safeguard human life. One recent example is the RC’s work in Indonesia to help raise public awareness of the asbestos hazard (see December 7th entry: The Red Cross Rocks!) To criticize the Red Cross is like slagging off Santa Claus or saying the Easter Bunny promotes tooth decay on account of the chocolate treats he distributes.
What then are we to make of the news that a board member of the Canadian Red Cross has proven links with the global asbestos trade? Roshi Chadha, wife of Canada’s asbestos cheerleader Baljit Chadha, is simultaneously a Member of the Board of the Canadian Red Cross and an executive of a company that sells Canadian asbestos to India.
Mrs. Chadha seems reluctant to respond to enquiries over the possible conflict of interest posed by profiting from the sale of asbestos in her professional life and undertaking good works in her private life. On her behalf, a Balcorp spokesman said the furore over her RC affiliation is all stuff and nonsense: “a lot of noise and a lot of fuss.” Leah Nielson, whose dad died of asbestos cancer, does not agree. She has asked the RC to remove Roshi Chadha from its Board.
Mrs. Chadha’s position is untenable. To save this esteemed organization any more bad publicity, she should do the decent thing and resign. She should also resign her membership of the Board of Governors at McGill University and the Board of Directors at St. Mary’s Hospital.
There is another way: Mrs. Chadha could always turn her back on the asbestos industry. She might even convince her husband that his attempt to revive the Canadian asbestos industry is ill-conceived and immoral, as it most surely is.
The choice is hers.
Heroes of the Ban Asbestos Movement
One year ago today, the members of the Asian Solidarity Mission to Canada embarked on the last day of their quest to convince ordinary Canadians of the deadly price paid in Asia for the use of Quebec asbestos. To commemorate the success of their trip, a series of articles has been commissioned by IBAS which includes pieces by two of the Asian participants, Anup Srivastava and M. Darisman, and Canadian Kathleen Ruff, the delegation’s liaison officer.
Today, all of the members of the Asian delegation to Canada continue their efforts to combat the asbestos scourge nationally, regionally and internationally. Their presence at the 2011 meeting of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network in Rajasthan last month, reaffirmed their commitment to work towards a universal ban on asbestos. As in Canada, the emotional impact made by asbestos cancer sufferer Rachel (whose Korean name is Jeong-rim Lee) was immense. At a press conference on November 14 in Jaipur, Rachel told journalists that her cancer had now progressed and that she was in great pain. Nevertheless, she had made the trip to India to plead with the media and the government to ban asbestos. “I do not want there to be any more asbestos victims,” she said.
Many of the texts issued, events conducted and photographs taken during the delegation’s frantic days in Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa are documented on this website; see:
Asian Solidarity Delegation to Quebec, Canada: Events in Canada
Asian Solidarity Delegation to Quebec, Canada: Briefings-Statements-Letters
Asian Solidarity Delegation to Quebec, Canada: Media
Asian Solidarity Delegation to Quebec, Canada: Global Demonstrations Asian Solidarity Delegation to Quebec, Canada: Mission Aftermath
Belgian Family vs. Asbestos Goliath
A French language TV documentary broadcast in Belgium on the RTL channel [http://www.rtl.be/rtltvi/video/373239.aspx] exploded the culture of silence which had long dominated the national dialogue on asbestos. The once invincible multinational Eternit has been brought to account by a family determined to obtain justice for their father, mother and two brothers, all of whom have died from exposure to Eternit asbestos [see: Justice for Francoise?].
The thirty-minute program provides interviews with Eric, Xavier and Benoit Jonckheere, the surviving sons of Pierre and Francois Jonckheere. Footage of medical tests undertaken by Eric and Benoit underline the continuing health risks the men face from the asbestos they inhaled as children living in Kapelle-op-den-Bos. Commenting on the wonderful childhood they had had roaming the countryside, playing in the woods and by the nearby canal, Xavier said that for children this town had been a paradise. Now, he added, it had become a hell. Walking through the area, Eric pointed out pieces of asbestos-contaminated cement pipes littering the ground.
Eternit’s culpability for the deadly diseases suffered by the Jonckheeres was confirmed last month by the trial judges in Brussels whose language, said the RTL reporter, left no doubt as to the company’s active participation in the asbestos scandal.
It is particularly relevant to view this film in the context of a press release issued today by the Alliance for Cancer Prevention (the Alliance) which highlights the fact that a huge proportion of cancers now occurring are not caused by lifestyle choices such as drinking, smoking and overeating but by hazardous exposures which take place at the workplace and environmentally. The text of the Alliance press release shows the relevance of the Jonckheeres’ experience not just for Belgians but for people all over the world whose lives have been sacrificed by greedy industrialists.
The Red Cross Rocks!
It is terrific to see tangible results from the work undertaken by Red Cross Indonesia (Palang Merah) and the International Federation of the Red Cross, in conjunction with grassroots groups and technical experts, to raise awareness of the hazard posed by the consumption of asbestos in Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous country.
Two colourful Red Cross leaflets produced in Bahasa, the language of Indonesia, explain in words and images some of what people need to know about asbestos.
Apakah asbes ITU? (What is asbestos?) click here for enlarged image
Pembuangan Limbah Asbes (Disposal of asbestos material) click here for enlarged image
The text explains what asbestos is, where it is used, the dangers to human health, including links of asbestos exposure to three killer diseases, and suggests basic techniques to minimize hazardous exposures.
Considering the fact that Indonesia is the world’s fifth biggest market for asbestos, with annual consumption nearly tripling between 2006 and 2010, tackling the country’s asbestos challenge is no easy task. Nevertheless efforts are being made by groups such as the Indonesian Ban Asbestos Network (Ina-Ban) and others to quantify the problem and provide practical solutions to protect human health and the environment from deadly contamination.
Mesothelioma in the UK
It is not unknown but it is rare for an academic piece of work to have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary individuals. A UK doctoral dissertation entitled: The experience of mesothelioma in Northern England by Dr Helen Clayson is that rare bird. Dr Clayson’s work has dramatically impacted on the UK’s dialogue about the needs of mesothelioma sufferers and questions surrounding radical surgical procedures. Having researched the experience of pleural mesothelioma for patients, their families and the medical professionals who treat them, Dr Clayson pinpoints key oversights – in particular the lack of palliative care treatment. This thesis – which is now available online – is a MUST read for people who find themselves through misfortune or professional happenstance to be involved in this subject area. See: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/1775/
Dr Clayson speaking about the role of palliative care in the treatment of asbestos patients at the November 2011 meeting of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network
What happens to those who Asbestos leaves behind?
The landscape of the mining towns in Quebec are dominated by huge mountains of asbestos waste. These tailings can contain up to 10% or more of raw asbestos fiber and constitute a potent threat to the health of townspeople. When the asbestos industry was flourishing, no one took responsibility for the waste; now that the industry is in dire straits it looks even less likely that the public health hazard represented by the waste will be addressed.
The plight of a once-thriving town in Swaziland provides little hope for Quebeckers from Thetford Mines and Asbestos. For decades, the Havelock chrysotile asbestos mine in Bulembu shipped asbestos fiber around the world. Heavy losses were followed by bankruptcy and the mine owners slunk off, as they traditionally do, leaving behind a landscape dominated by asbestos mountains, polluted water and contaminated air. Nowadays Bulembu is a ghost town – will Thetford Mines and Asbestos fare any better?
Views of Bulembu courtesy of Jock McCulloch
Australia & AsbestosAussies are known for taking a practical and hands-on approach to life. Having acknowledged the fact that their country was in the grip of an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases, in 2006 the federal government adopted a coordinated medical strategy to tackle the diseases caused by exposure to asbestos by setting up the National Centre for Asbestos-related Diseases.
Current developments in Australia indicate that asbestos-related issues remain a high priority on the country’s political agenda. In early November a parliamentary motion calling for the Australian Government “to use strong diplomatic efforts to convince the Canadian Government to cease both production of and trade in asbestos," was adopted by the Australian Senate. A short while later, Asbestos Awareness Week (November 21-27) was chosen as the time to launch a new federal body the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease (PGARD) to address the multi-faceted challenges posed by massive asbestos consumption prior to the imposition of a national asbestos ban in 2003. And this weekend (December 2-4, 2011), Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd MP, from 2007-2010 Australia’s Prime Minister, will call on the Australian Government to take a leadership role in the global campaign to ban asbestos. “Australia must,” he wrote be at the forefront of global efforts to eliminate the scourge of asbestos.”
So far so good.
And yet, when Australia had the chance to showcase the global asbestos tragedy in front of the world’s media, it blew it. Despite attempts by ban asbestos campaigners to get asbestos timetabled on the agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (October 28-30, 2011) in Perth, asbestos remained the elephant in the room (or, in this case, the conference hall). No one wanted to acknowledge the unsavoury fact that Canada, a Commonwealth Member and a major force in the global asbestos lobby, has for decades been dumping asbestos on Commonwealth Member States such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria and Kenya. It seems a gross betrayal of the Commonwealth principles for one member to dump an acknowledged carcinogen on another.
Canada has also been the one country which has consistently blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos on the prior informed consent list of the Rotterdam Convention. Indeed, we are currently waiting to hear whether the Government of Quebec will approve a $58 million loan guarantee so that work on a new asbestos underground mining facility can be completed. If the loan guarantee goes through and work on this project is completed, Canada hopes to ship millions of tonnes of asbestos to developing countries in the coming 25 years.
If Australian politicians are looking for a place to start their lobbying efforts, it seems that the Canadian High Commission in Canberra and the Consulate General of Canada in Sydney might be suitable targets.
Asbestos House Online: At the June 30, 2011 seminar Asbestos Still a Killer, which was held at the European Parliament, I was introduced to an innovative online project the Asbestos House which aims to raise awareness of the presence of asbestos within residential properties.
Unfortunately, while this resource was available in French, German and Italian, there was no English language version. Having drawn the attention of the administrators of the SUVA website to this omission during the Summer, I am now delighted to inform you that they have now made an English version of the Asbestos House available.
The situation regarding asbestos contamination of UK schools is a mess. Every year more teachers die from asbestos-related diseases contracted from workplace exposures. Adults, whose childhood exposures to asbestos took place at school, are also dying from avoidable asbestos cancers. And yet, a long awaited and very successful campaign to raise awareness of occupational asbestos hazards has been derailed by government cutbacks. In its place is an "e-campaign" and a promise of some free training by commercial organizations; hardly, a strategic approach to a serious problem.
This month, the Philippines Department of Education (DoE) announced plans to removal asbestos wire gauzes, used in laboratory work, from state schools; DoE officials are soon to issue a memo on the proper handling and disposal of these items. Furthermore, the DoE requires each school to annually report the status of its asbestos management plan, including any planned asbestos removal work, to the parent-teacher organization. Such transparency and openness is not encouraged by the UK's Health and Safety Executive, local authorities or school administrators where secrecy seems to rule the day.