Asbestos: New Year, Old Story
Over the weekend, several UK newspapers highlighted the results of a coroner’s inquest in Scunthorpe which found that retired schoolteacher Elizabeth Belt had died aged 68 in 2015 of an industrial disease.1
Primary school art teacher Elizabeth Belt.
For decades, Mrs. Belt had inhaled asbestos fibers in classrooms when she pinned up children’s artwork. In a statement given to her solicitors last year (2015), Mrs. Belt described “dusty” classroom conditions:
“There were large sections of boarding where the children's work was displayed and there would be a change of work every two to three weeks.” Recording his verdict, Coroner Paul Kelly told the Belt family: “I have no doubt that Mum contracted mesothelioma as a result of ingesting asbestos while working as a teacher at various schools in north Lincolnshire between 1968 and 1995.” The insurers for North Lincolnshire Council have settled the family’s claim for an undisclosed sum.
One hundred and seventeen years before Mrs. Belt’s death, a British Factory Inspector Lucy Deane had advised the authorities about the “abundant evidence” of the asbestos hazard, writing: “The evil effects of asbestos dust have also attracted my attention, a microscopic examination of this mineral dust which was made by H.M. Medical Inspector clearly revealed the sharp, glass-like, jagged nature of the particles, and where they are allowed to rise and they remain suspended in the air of a room, in any quantity, the effects have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected.”2 The fact that Miss Deane issued this warning in 1898, a full seventy years before Mrs. Belt began her teaching career, and that officials, politicians and employers failed to take heed constitute a betrayal of trust and a failure of governance by all those tasked with safeguarding British citizens. Shame on them!
Lucy Dean Streatfeild 1865-1950.
1 Weaver M. Teacher died from cancer after asbestos exposure. January 23, 2016.
‘Our sadness outweighs our anger’ – family reveals heartache after death of teacher mum Elizabeth Belt. January 22, 2016
Landin C. Teacher Died of Asbestos Poisoning. January 23, 2016.
2 Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for 1898: Part II.
Conservative Spivs, Parliamentary Betrayal
This week the Conservatives have given a late, but no doubt much appreciated, Christmas present to their friends in the insurance industry. As a consequence of the Tories’ munificence, insurers will be around £8 million pounds better off this year, with more windfalls to come.
This “nice little earner,” as spiv Arthur Daley would have termed it, comes about as a result of an announcement made regarding the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme Levy 2015/16 (see: Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme Levy 2015/16:Written statement - HCWS460) on January 12, 2016 by Justin Tomlinson, Minister for Disabled People.
Tomlinson has carried forward a £7.8m surplus from an insurance levy collected in 2014/15 “to fund a scheme of last resort for sufferers of diffuse mesothelioma who have been unable to trace their employer or their employer’s insurer.” Even though insurers agree that a levy set at 3% of the premiums of Employers’ Liability policies is affordable, the government will summarily decrease this figure thereby demonstrating, yet again, where its priorities lie.
Asbestos victims and trade unions think the levy should be maintained at the agreed 3% with surplus funds used for the benefit of UK asbestos victims. This is the opinion of The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK which said in its January 13th press release that:
“The levy on insurers announced yesterday represents about 1.7% of the premiums they raise from Employers’ Liability insurance policies they sell, down from the 2.2% they paid last year. If the levy had been set at the 3% figure promised by the Government in 2014 all applicants could have been paid compensation in full from the start of the scheme. There would also be enough money left over to compensate victims of other asbestos diseases unable to trace a former employer or their insurer.
It is time the Government stopped prioritising the financial interests of insurers over justice for asbestos victims. They should set a levy at the rate the insurers have already said they can afford, compensate fully those applicants who only received 80% compensation and make arrangements to compensate all asbestos victims whose lives have been ruined by their employer’s negligence and Government failure to ban asbestos until decades after the dangers were known.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady agrees: “The government,” she said, “should maintain the levy at last year’s level and use any surplus to extend the compensation scheme to all victims of asbestos or for research into treatment.”1
Throughout the glory days of the British asbestos industry, the government created the conditions in which sales of asbestos-containing products could flourish. Its collusion with asbestos profiteers lead to hazardous exposures which killed hundreds of thousands of citizens. That this golden opportunity to use insurers’ money to ease some of the asbestos suffering was so quickly dismissed shows that the Conservatives remain the “nasty party.”
1 Press Release TUC. Government must maintain mesothelioma levy. January 12, 2016.
Asbestos: 2016 Reboot
As life began to return to normal after the holidays, it came as something of a shock to observe developments which reinforced the continued need for perspective, vigilance and pre-emptive action.
An article in the January 5th, 2016 issue of The Independent newspaper entitled “How the world's biggest asbestos factory tried to stop campaigners exposing the killer dust's dangers”1 provided the opportunity for a new spin on an old story: the use of dirty tricks to discredit the work of ban asbestos campaigners. The “secret documents” referred to by the journalist have long been known to UK activists as was the surveillance ordered by Turner & Newall (T&N) – the UK’s biggest asbestos conglomerate – of “subversive” elements who dared to challenge the industry orthodoxy that asbestos was an essential natural resource. One of those the industry sought to undermine, unsuccessfully I might add, was Mrs. Nancy Tait, the founder of the world’s first asbestos victims’ action group (see: In Memory of Nancy Tait).2
By a quirk of fate, January 5th was also the day that the Mesothelioma Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons.3 The Hansard report noted that MP Mike Kane, the bill’s sponsor, called for the introduction of statutory funding for a disease that is predicted to kill 60,000 Britons in the next 30 years “unless new treatments are found.” The current “unreliable” funding for mesothelioma research “jeopardises ongoing research, which impacts not only on the British research industry, but on mesothelioma mortality in the UK. That is why statutory funding must be secured for the research,” Kane said. The purpose of this bill is the imposition of a levy on the insurance industry to provide a steady stream of “financial assistance for research into mesothelioma.” The bill was introduced to Parliament under the Ten Minute Rule; it was a Private Member’s Bill. Its second reading is scheduled for January 29, 2016.4
These developments – the airing of the asbestos industry’s dirty laundry and the desperate need for potential life-saving research – have a cause and effect relationship. Had T&N not been so successful at controlling the national asbestos agenda, fewer people would be dying from mesothelioma. As the new year begins we must rededicate ourselves to the fight for asbestos justice for all those whose lives have been damaged in pursuit of asbestos profits.
1 Kirby D. How the world's biggest asbestos factory tried to stop campaigners exposing the killer dust's dangers. January 6, 2016.
2 In 1996, Nancy’s services to the country were officially recognized when she received an MBE.
3 Hansard. Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2) Debate. January 5, 2016.
Text of Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2). January 5, 2016.
4 Mesothelioma (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2015-16.
Star Wars 0 Asbestos 1
In the week the latest Star Wars extravaganza premiered in Europe, it was a very different sort of film which grabbed my attention. The 11- minute video clip which I viewed yesterday – Time Bomb: A rare cancer shatters a worker's life – has stayed with me all day long.1 Upended by America’s “third wave” of asbestos disease,2 the investigative feature which accompanied it, reinforced the emotional impact of a story simply told.
The subject of this intelligent reportage by the Center for Public Integrity was the effects of asbestos exposure on a typical American family. When husband and father Kris Penny was told he had the fatal asbestos cancer, mesothelioma he was just thirty-nine years old. During scenes shot in the hospital, Kris, his wife, father and six-year old daughter are shown grappling with the news.
His wife’s remark that: “people get up, and they go to work, and they come home, and they have dinner. And they do all these things, and our life is just not like that” resonated with me as I am sure it did with other viewers. No one expects or deserves to be handed a death sentence for going to work!
The physical transition of Kris from a handsome and cheeky-looking young man into a skeletal figure over a 6-month period is hard to watch, no less endure. The response of those accused of causing his illness was equally hard to stomach. AT &T, the company which engaged the contractors who employed Kris to install fiber-optic cables, disowned any obligation to him:
“We hire sophisticated contractors that are experienced in dealing with asbestos, and we require them to comply with [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations.”
AT & T also said that Penny “knew and understood the risks and hazards of asbestos and voluntarily exposed himself to these risks” and that his “injuries, if any, were caused by his own negligent conduct, or by the negligent conduct of others.” Needless to say, his lawyer didn’t agree; nor do we.
As we look forward to the upcoming holidays, spare a thought for the Perry family and others like them in countries all over the world whose only mistake was to trust their employers and their governments to protect them from this deadly killer. On behalf of all of those affected, we reaffirm our commitment to an asbestos-free world and justice for all asbestos victims.
1 Time Bomb: A rare cancer shatters a worker's life.
2 Upended by America’s “third wave” of asbestos disease. December 17, 2015.
Censorship of Italy’s Asbestos Dialogue
In recent days, articles have appeared in the Italian media which detail how Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny continues to exert his financial and legal muscle to protect his public image from accusations relating to his former asbestos businesses.1 Journalists writing for La Repubblica, La Stampa and others have reported the pressure brought to bear on authors and publishers to withdraw a book which Schmidheiny’s lawyers say present him as “a ruthless industrialist who values his own profit higher than the security and life of his employees.”
The text at the center of this controversy was an English translation of an Italian book called: Dossier Eternit: Il grande processo [Dossier Eternit: The Big Trial] by Rosalba Altopiedi and Sara Panelli. Reading the correspondence between Schmidheiny’s lawyers and Amazon EU and the online media coverage, it seems that the objections were initially restricted to the English version of this text. It now seems that the contents of the original Italian language version were also contentious.
In a cease and desist letter dated March 10, 2015 sent by Adrian Bachman from the Swiss law firm of Bachmann Rechtaanwaite AG to Amazon EU, operators of the Amazon online bookstore, Schmidheiny’s lawyer wrote:
“Although the text has been published in December 2014 for the Italian edition and in January 2015 for the English edition, it does not reflect or even mention the verdict of the Italian Corte di Cassazione of November 19, 2014, in which Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny was released from all charges… The fact that Dr. Stephan Schmidheiny is untruthfully presented as a convicted criminal despite having been legally released from exactly these charges, is merely the most blatant of a whole series of personally infringements (sic) in this text.”2
After being contacted by Amazon EU, the Italian publishers were forced to withdraw the publication. Commenting on that decision, publisher Carla Nespolo told La Repubblica “we were not strong enough to take it on.”
We cannot comment on the substance or content of either the original or English translation of this work as we have been unable to obtain copies. Having edited the first English language book about Italy’s Great Asbestos Trial3 and having followed developments closely from the lower court’s verdict up until the Court of Cassation judgment, we are, however, well aware of the national and international importance of the legal proceedings on behalf of Italy’s asbestos victims.4 For more than thirty years, ordinary people living in affected communities were engaged in a David and Goliath battle to ban asbestos use, obtain their rights and remediate their towns. Their actions succeeded in attracting the attention of the Turin public prosecutor who spent over a decade investigating their claims before initiating a lawsuit on their behalf. Every facet of this story deserves to be told.
1 Il magnate dell’amianto blocca su Amazon il libro sul processo Eternit [Asbestos tycoon blocks Amazon sales of book on Eternit legal case]. December 4, 2015.
Amianto, il patron dell'Eternit "censura" Amazon: "Non vendete quel libro, mi danneggia.” December 4, 2015.
Schmidheiny blocca la versione inglese del libro-dossier scritto dal magistrato del processo Eternit. December 4, 2015.
2 Letter by Adrian Bachman from Bachmann Rechtaanwaite AG to Amazon EU. March 10, 2015.
3 Allen D. Kazan-Allen L. Eternit and The Great Asbestos Trial. February 2012.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Postcript to the Great Asbestos Trial. Revised January 14, 2015.
National Asbestos Legacies: Who Cares?
There are a lot of reasons to envy people living in Australia. The country is vast, with loads of natural resources and spectacular landscapes. Australian food and wine are phenomenal while the weather is pretty decent too (English understatement). But while all these advantages are certainly capable of inducing Australia-envy on a damp, grey English day, the subject of this blog is none of the above.
What I am envious of is the forthright attitude and engagement of government departments, federal agencies and independent bodies with the challenge posed by the country’s asbestos problems.
On December 1, it is informative to look back at the huge media coverage, new resources and public outreach events that took place in November to mark Australia’s Asbestos Awareness month.1 On November 27, National Asbestos Awareness Day, two new modules to help homeowners identify asbestos-containing materials in and around their homes were uploaded to one of the country’s leading asbestos awareness websites. The video Asbestos in your Home and the online asbestos product database are potential life-savers. They are user-friendly, accessible and intended for ordinary people, with no specialist knowledge of the asbestos hazard.
These resources did not come out of thin air. They were the result of hard work by professional people commissioned to work on these projects. In Australia there are multiple bodies engaged in the campaign to raise asbestos awareness. They include the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease, the Asbestos Education Committee, the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases, asbestos victims’ support groups and trade unions. Each of these stakeholders brings a unique expertise and voice to the asbestos debate.
In the UK, we have hard-working asbestos victims’ support groups and trade unions working on shoestring budgets to address the multiplicity of asbestos challenges faced in the country with the world’s incidence of asbestos mortality. Yesterday, news was released that one of the state dining rooms in Buckingham Palace was contaminated with asbestos. I am sure that no expense will be spared in safeguarding the royal family and their guests from toxic exposures; do the rest of us deserve any less?2
As UK efforts to prevent hazardous exposures stagnate, Australia has taken a leadership role in addressing the multi-faceted problems faced by individuals and society caused by asbestos use. Isn’t it time the UK did likewise?
1 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Awareness Down Under! November 12, 2015.
2 Buckingham Palace dining room closed over ceiling safety concerns. November 30, 2015.
The Global Asbestos War: Battles, Skirmishes and Propaganda
The same week as asbestos campaigners mounted a demonstration outside Italy’s Ministry of Labor (November 11, 2015) and held a general assembly in Casale Monferrato, the town at the epicentre of the country’s asbestos epidemic (November 13, 2015), an academic paper was published which underscored the effects that toxic exposures had had on the unsuspecting community of Casale Monferrato.1 Anyone who has ever had anything to do with the peer review publication process will tell you that there is no way that the publication date could have been timed so precisely that these events would have occurred almost simultaneously.
The fact that they did, and that they took place during lung cancer awareness month, serves to remind us all of the titanic battle which is being fought over asbestos on many fronts. Even as asbestos industry lobbyists hit back this week at plans by the Sri Lanka government to outlaw asbestos by 2018,2 medical and scientific health experts from around the world called on the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister to implement national prohibitions to end more than a century of asbestos production and consumption in the country which dominated the global asbestos narrative for most of the 20th century.3
Today (November 13, 2015), as news was circulating that asbestos debris had been discovered at migrant camps in Calais, it was announced that a $2+ million donation for mesothelioma research had been received by pioneering Australian scientists to facilitate work on immunotherapy protocols to shrink mesothelioma tumors. With two million tonnes of asbestos used every year, and evidence emerging that the long-predicted Asian epidemic of asbestos cancer was becoming manifest – “a relatively large number of mesotheliomas (n=48) were recently reported in a community in China [one of the world’s largest asbestos consumers] that produces chrysotile asbestos textiles” – medical breakthroughs for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are more needed than ever as is pressure by civil society stakeholders on governments, regional authorities, international agencies and commercial organizations. The struggle continues.
1 Stayner L. Para-occupational exposures to asbestos: lessons learned from Casale Monferrato, Italy. November 9, 2015.
2 Asbestos industry cries foul over 2018 ban. November 12, 2015.
3 Letter to Canadian Prime Minister. November 9, 2015.
Good Luck, Klaas!
This week, Klaas Jasperse’s lawsuit against the Government of the Netherlands progressed to the next level when an appeal was launched at The Hague on Monday, November 2, 2015.1 As a result of the bankruptcy of Mr. Jasperse’s former employer – the owners of the Pechiney aluminium factory in Vlissingen – a claim is being pursued against the Dutch Government which had, it is alleged, failed to protect citizens from the occupational asbestos hazard. As a result of its negligence, Mr. Jasperse contracted the fatal asbestos cancer mesothelioma.2
This is the first attempt to hold the Dutch state liable for an occupational asbestos-related disease. In the last twenty-five years, hundreds of asbestos lawsuits have been mounted against Dutch employers and asbestos manufacturers but due to the financial insolvency of the company, this was not possible in this instance.
Proceedings in the lower court began in November 2013 in Mr. Jasperse’s case, four years after he had been diagnosed. If this action succeeds, it could pave the way for others in the Netherlands and abroad. The ruling of the court is expected on January 12, 2016. Until then, messages of solidarity are being conveyed to Mr. Jasperse, his family, friends and legal team – let justice be done!
2 Ruers, B. First Asbestos Claim Brought Against the Dutch State. February 24, 2014.
Remembering Dr. Irving J. Selikoff
A symposium is being held in New York City on October 16, 2015 to mark the centenary of the birth of Irving J. Selikoff (January 15, 1915 – May 20, 1992).1 The work of Dr. Selikoff, who established beyond doubt the link between asbestos exposure and cancer, was crucial in gaining recognition of the occupational asbestos hazard. An activist as well as an astute medical researcher, Dr. Selikoff remains an inspiration for those who seek to improve public health and obtain compensation for people injured by exposure to industrial toxins.
Dr. Irving J. Selikoff (Photo courtesy of Bill Ravanesi).
Because of discrimination policies by U.S. medical schools, Selikoff began his medical studies in Melbourne, Australia. He was awarded a degree in medicine in 1941 after further studies in Glasgow, Scotland. His first employment in the United States was the same year when he joined the staff at the Mount Sinai Hospital. Friends, colleagues and admirers will remember him during the event sponsored by Mount Sinai’s Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health.
1 October 16 Symposium Commemorating 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Dr. Irving Selikoff.
Standing Up for Asbestos Victims!
In a rare but timely intervention, the Collegium Ramazzini, an internationally revered scientific society, today reacted to threats posed to innocent men and women by asbestos lobbyists and those employed by them to minimize the financial repercussions of deadly workplace exposures.
In the press release and commentaries on the pathological diagnosis of diseases caused by asbestos and the causation of malignant mesotheliomas by occupational asbestos exposures, issued today (October 14, 2015), the Collegium made its position crystal clear when it, once again, denounced the “public health hazards of asbestos exposure.”
Its critique of the 2014 Helsinki Consensus Report on Asbestos expressed concerns about guidelines which could:
“lead to missed diagnoses of cases of disease caused by asbestos, failure of workers’ compensation system to properly compensate workers who have been exposed to asbestos, and lost opportunities for public health authorities to recognize asbestos hazards and to prevent asbestos-related disease.”
The Collegium’s commentary on The Causation of Malignant Mesothelioma: Rebutting the False Concept that Recent Exposures to Asbestos do not Contribute to Causation of Mesothelioma was scathing in its damnation of the “false, mendacious, and scientifically unfounded … claim put forth by the Italian asbestos industry and its expert witnesses that in cases of prolonged exposures to asbestos only the earliest periods of exposure contribute to mesothelioma induction, while all subsequent exposures have no causal role.”
Asbestos defendants the world over utilize every trick in the book to refute, delay and curtail their asbestos liabilities. As the legal, administrative and legislative fight for justice grinds on, victims die from asbestos diseases, leaving families bereft and communities devastated. The Collegium Ramazzini has today made it clear that honest scientists will not stand by while experts-for-hire collaborate with voracious executives and corrupt government officials to deny asbestos victims their human and legal rights.