The Perfect Crime
Imagine how hard it would be to find evidence to solve a murder decades after it had taken place; indeed this is the premise at the core of many tv programs and motion pictures. Can a killer finally be captured using DNA and other technological innovations? Will justice be done for those whose lives had so brutally and callously been taken?
Achieving justice is the last hope of many dying asbestos victims. They too have had their lives stolen by a deadly killer, one which can take up to 50 years to end a life. Their prospects of obtaining restitution for the damage they and their families have suffered will be irreparably damaged should plans to delete files held by Companies House be approved.1 Asbestos victims have supported denunciations made by trade unionists, Labour politicians, legal specialists, journalists and financial investigators regarding plans to reduce the time vital corporate records are retained by Companies House from twenty to six years. In a letter sent on August 5, 2016 to Brian Landers, Chair of Companies House, MP Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions and MP Greg Clark, Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Graham Dring, Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups’ Forum UK, wrote:
“Asbestos victims face many hurdles when seeking legal redress for negligent exposure by a former employer. As disease typically develops decades after asbestos exposure (average of 35 years for mesothelioma), it is likely that the firm they worked for may have dissolved. Asbestos victims and their solicitors rely on records of dissolved companies held by Companies House to pursue a civil claim for compensation, for example in tracing the insurance company on cover at the time they were employed. These unnecessary proposals will result in access to justice being denied to many asbestos victims as well as victims of other industrial diseases.”
Many of the firms which negligently exposed workers to asbestos decades ago are now difficult to trace. Without access to the documents held by Companies House, the injured will be prevented from making legitimate claims. This proposal to destroy records will steamroll any chances they have of gaining justice for the crimes which were done to them. As the suffering continues, guilty corporations and their insurers will be let off scot free while the NHS provides care for the dying, the taxpayer picks up the tab for benefits and the government dissociates itself from its culpability in creating the country’s worst epidemic of occupational disease. Should this proposal be approved, there will be thousands of perfect crimes in the UK every year.
1 Labour urges PM to drop plans to delete company records. August 3, 2016.
Also see: Personal injury lawyers opposed plan to delete old Companies House records. August 3, 2016
Also see: Changes to company records would be bad for workers. August 8, 2016.
Death Toll Mounts as War Continues
The global scale of the asbestos war has been delineated this month (July 2016) by reports of major battles and fringe skirmishes. The resolute determination of industry stakeholders to torpedo UN attempts to regulate international sales of chrysotile (white) asbestos fiber was evinced yet again by the actions of lobbyists from Russia, Brazil, India, Kazakhstan, Canada and Zimbabwe at a workshop held under the auspices of the Rotterdam Convention in Riga, Latvia on July 2-4, 2016.1 As officials and delegates from 20+ countries explored ways of protecting populations from the asbestos hazard, vested interests did everything they could to block progress being made.
Amongst those at the Riga meeting who disputed the need to include chrysotile asbestos on Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention, a measure which would ensure that importing countries were advised of the hazardous nature of asbestos,2 were:
The Rotterdam Convention’s battle over chrysotile has paralyzed its ability to achieve its goals and casts doubt on its capacity to overcome commercial and political vested interests.
Against this backdrop, details continue to emerge on a daily basis of the asbestos legacy in countries such as Australia which, in former years, had enthusiastically embraced asbestos use. This week (July 11-16, 2016) it was revealed that asbestos-contaminated material had been found in a children’s hospital3 being constructed in Western Australia. Earlier this month, similar alerts were sounded over projects in Brisbane and Adelaide where banned chrysotile-containing imports from China may also have been used. Added to other documented incidents such as the sale to Australia of asbestos-contaminated automobiles and railway vehicles from China, it seems that even though a national asbestos ban had been in place for more than a decade, hazardous exposures remain commonplace.
One of the standard arguments advanced by asbestos propagandists to forestall governments from outlawing use of this acknowledged carcinogen is that national economies would suffer drastically if asbestos were to be banned. A report released this month detailing information presented at a World Health Organization (WHO) 2016 meeting of representatives from East European countries, experts from international organizations and research institutes exposed the fallacy of this argument.4
“A new global report on the effects on gross domestic product, employment and health costs in countries that banned asbestos use in the 1980s was presented. The report found no observable effects on national or regional economies, except for a short drop in local employment in regions that were former large asbestos producers. Health costs for dealing with ARDs, however, far outweigh the benefits, with annual direct health care costs estimated at 2–3 billion US dollars. Also, high costs are associated with removal and replacement of asbestos and litigation.”
The evidence from countries attending the WHO meeting was categorical: when healthcare and legal costs plus bills for remediation, replacement and disposal of asbestos-containing products were considered, it was undeniable that the cheaper option was to use asbestos free materials.
Reflecting on the self-serving profiteering of asbestos lobbyists, it is clear they will not abandon the asbestos cash cow upon which they have feasted for decades. Their actions have consequences for every man, woman and child on the planet. A fortnight after the UK marked Action Mesothelioma Day, the memory of those whose lives were sacrificed to asbestos remain fresh in our minds. It is inconceivable that yet more people will die so that a few greedy men can continue to fill their Swiss bank accounts. The day is coming when this deadly technology will be consigned to the history books and those who profited from it will be called to account for their crimes against humanity.5
1 Ruff, K. Asbestos industry fighting to destroy UN Convention that protects populations from asbestos harm.July 4, 2016.
Also see: Workshop to support the intersessional work on the process of listing chemicals in Annex III to the Rotterdam Convention. 2016.
2 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention 2013. April 14, 2013.
3 Asbestos-tainted construction firm Yuanda's Australian projects ‘need investigation.’ July 14, 2016.
Asbestos check at new Royal Adelaide Hospital confirms suspect gaskets not used in construction. July 12, 2016.
4 WHO environment and health meeting on the economic costs of asbestos.
5 Kazan-Allen L. Action Mesothelioma Day 2016. July 6, 2016
Reflections on Public Service Day
Today, June 23, is designated Public Service Day by the United Nations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has thanked “all public servants for their daily efforts to make a difference.” It was a calling such as this that sent Metropolitan Detective Jonathan Woods to the site of a bomb blast at the Grand Hotel, Brighton on October 12, 1984. According to a solicitor representing the family:
“Jonathan Woods and 15 Met and 15 Sussex Police officers picked through the dust in the basement, which it turns out was contaminated with blue asbestos, but weren't protected.”
The lack of protection was confirmed by Neville Till, an ambulance worker, who stated that he was also “inside the building for some considerable time with no protection.”
Exposures Detective Woods received as a result of that emergency call may have proved fatal; he died of an asbestos-related disease on December 15, 2015. Although he is the first known asbestos casualty from that incident, it is believed that other first responders, including firemen, ambulance staff, police and medical personnel, could be similarly endangered.
During the 21st century, seven million tonnes of asbestos were incorporated into the British infrastructure. These fibers were mixed with other materials, such as cement, to produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic material – much of which remains in place.
On October 16, 2105, the Asbestos Sub-Group of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health published a report entitled The asbestos crisis – Why Britain needs an eradication law, that concluded:
“If we are to protect future generations from the risk of exposure to this deadly fibre, the All-Party Parliamentary Group believes that we need a new law on asbestos with a clear timetable for the eradication of asbestos in every single workplace in Britain.”
Unless the British Government agrees to eradicate this hazard, exposures such as that which caused the death of Detective Jonathan Woods will continue. If Poland and Australia can set deadlines for the elimination of deadly asbestos from their countries, there is no reason Britain cannot do likewise.
Asbestos: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Today (June 9, 2016), I saw the photo below which was taken on June 7th moments after vested interests blocked an attempt by the Senate to ban the “production, marketing, export, import and distribution of any variety of asbestos in Colombia.” The people in the photograph include politicians and workers from the asbestos mine in Capamento who are clearly jubilant that they succeeded in protecting their financial interests.
Although the veto orchestrated by Eternit Colombiana S.A., Eternit Pacifico S.A., Eternit Atlántico S.A and other commercial and governmental asbestos stakeholders was not unexpected, the news of these developments reminded me once again about the complex dynamics involved in progressing the campaign to protect human beings from the asbestos hazard.
This photo brought to mind a day in Ottawa in 2003 when asbestos mine workers and residents from the Quebec asbestos mining town of Thetford picketed the Canadian Parliament to “defend our product” from the unjustified slurs being made by victims, scientists, medical experts and campaigners attending the country’s first independent asbestos conference.1 One Thetford spokesman told journalist Elizabeth Thompson that the conference was “an attempt by foreign interests to cut off the lifeblood of their communities.”
Thirteen years after that demonstration, Canada’s asbestos industry is extinct and the country is on the verge of banning asbestos. The former asbestos communities are left to deal with the toxic contamination left behind as are the thousands of workers and members of the public whose lungs are full of deadly asbestos fibers. There are no jubilant Senators to hold their hands as they make their way to the medical clinics for treatment and no industry trade association such as The Chrysotile Institute (formerly known as the Asbestos Institute) ready to make restitution for the damage done.
When Colombia eventually bans asbestos, and it will, those people who celebrated the June 7th vote will be left high and dry and, more likely than not, sick and abandoned by the industry’s supporters who are pictured alongside them in the photo above. Politicians, trade unionists, workers and residents of Campamento would be better served in seeking to attract alternative industries and safer employment to the region rather than supporting this out-dated and deadly technology.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern. October 23, 2003.
Confronting Canada’s Asbestos Legacy
Throughout most of the 20th century, Canada was the world’s leading producer of chrysotile (white) asbestos (see: National Asbestos Profile: Canada). As recently as 2012, mining operations were ongoing in Quebec, the heartland of the country’s production of the mineral known locally as “white gold.”
For decades the vast majority of Canada’s asbestos output was exported around the world. Some of it was, however, used at home. From 1997 to 2007, asbestos was used to reinforce asphalt to pave Quebec’s roads; the sites where this material was used were recorded by regional managers. In 2011, the use of asbestos for this purpose was disallowed through an alteration of technical standards by the Ministry of Transport.
The current situation is confused and confusing not only for the authorities but for the people employed to work on the roadways and for members of the public. The official line is that when paving work is required at contaminated sites, employees must, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport, wear protective clothing and be provided with respirators. Once removed, the debris from the contaminated road surfaces is sealed in bags and sent to certified technical landfills. These are the procedures being followed for ongoing road work in the Quebec region of Bas-Saint-Laurent.1
The strict standards of occupational protection for at-risk workers has been deemed excessive by officials from the former asbestos mining region of Thetford Mines, Quebec who are calling for a “relaxation of rules for workers in contact with asbestos tailings.”2 Marc-Alexandre Brousseau, the Mayor of the city of Thetford Mines, and local businessmen have complained publicly about the high cost of the mandated protections which inflate the cost of required roadwork by up to 30%. Reiterating long-standing asbestos industry rhetoric that “no blue-collar workers in Thetford Mines have developed a disease link to asbestos,” Brousseau alleges that requiring such a high level of safeguards is unjustified. In May 2016, the Mayor and other regional stakeholders conveyed this opinion to Quebec’s Labor Minister Dominique Vien during a personal meeting. According to Mayor Brousseau, Minister Vien was “bombarded with information about the history of the region and about the work with asbestos.”
It is astonishing that even as Canada stands poised on the brink of a national asbestos ban,3 vested interests remain as entrenched as ever in the past. Denial is not the answer. Dealing with the asbestos challenges in former mining regions by understanding the problems and developing an action plan for a phased removal of the hazard is the responsible path to follow. The future is asbestos-free!
1 De l'amiante dans les routes du Bas-Saint-Laurent [Asbestos in the roads of the Bas-Saint-Laurent]. June 2, 2016.
2 Le statu quo n'est pas une option pour Thetford Mines [The status quo is not an option for Thetford Mines]. May 2, 2016.
Tobacco and Asbestos: The Deadly Twins
In many ways, the tobacco and asbestos industries are mirror images; at the heart of both businesses is a relatively cheap but toxic product. To maximize profits derived from the commercial exploitation of tobacco and asbestos, marketing strategies were pioneered, corporate structures altered, public relations playbooks devised and pseudo-scientific research advanced. That cigarettes and asbestos are still being sold in the 21st century is testament to the effectiveness of the deadly propaganda war deployed by the industries’ lobbyists.
Nevertheless, last week (May 19, 2016) the lawyers for big tobacco experienced their own Waterloo moment in a London high court when Mr. Justice Green rejected desperate 11th hour pleadings to overturn plans to mandate the sale of cigarettes in “uniformly drab green-brown packaging” as stipulated by UK regulations that came into force hot on the heels of a new EU tobacco directive.1 On the last page of the 386-page judgment, in paragraph 1000, the Judge baldly stated: “In conclusion I reject the Claimants’ submissions.”
Addressing the court during this litigation, David Anderson QC, one of big tobacco’s senior lawyers, admitted:
“We have been trying at the bar to imagine whether we can think of any other group of legal or natural persons, terrorist suspects, arms dealers … in respect of whose evidence one might even begin to think that one could tenably say, ‘Well, of course, in looking at this evidence I have been very careful because I know from the past that these people are a bit devious and a bit unworthy, and the only thing they’re really interested in is subverting public health.’”
It is telling that this legal expert admitted so candidly what we all know – no one trusts big tobacco. The same can be said for the asbestos industry which still peddles false assurances that its products can be used safely to ill-informed consumers, civil servants and trade unionists in industrializing countries.
As cigarette smoking is decreasing in developed countries – it fell by 26% in western Europe between 1990 and 2009 – consumption is increasing in the very countries where the widespread and unregulated use of asbestos is growing. The interaction of asbestos exposure and smoking hugely increases the risk of contracting lung cancer. Every decrease in smoking will improve public health; every ban on asbestos will do likewise.
1 How big tobacco lost a crucial battle for hearts, lungs and minds. The Observer. May 22, 2016.
Judgment. Mr. Justice Green. Tobacco Packaging Case. May 19, 2016.
Asbestos Crimes: Eternit Condemned!
On May 10, 2016, the Administrative Court of Appeal of Versailles overturned a lower court ruling1 which had ordered that asbestos defendant Eternit – formerly the biggest asbestos-cement conglomerate in France – be reimbursed for compensation awarded to the family of an employee who had died from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. The company had argued that as its actions had been guided by French regulations, the Government was equally culpable for this death.
The rejection of this argument has been warmly welcomed by campaigners and victims in France and beyond. A press release issued on May 12, 2016 by ANDEVA, the French organization representing regional asbestos victims’ groups, said that the May 10 decision was a “victory for the widow and ANDEVA, which had interceded in the proceedings, and for all asbestos victims.”2
Acknowledging the shortcomings of government policy, the decision of the Administrative Court of Appeal of Versailles established that before 1977, Eternit had not taken any measures to protect employees at its asbestos-cement factories from hazardous exposures. Such measures could have included: dust suppression, air monitoring, engineering controls or protective equipment.
In just over two weeks the Italian Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) will issue its ruling on whether Swiss asbestos billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny will face trial on murder charges over his failure to protect individuals working in Eternit asbestos-cement factories in Italy from the consequences of asbestos exposures. One can but hope that the decision of the Versailles Court is a good omen for what is to come.3
1 In 2014, the Versailles Administrative Court had awarded Eternit €160,766 from the State which was half the compensation payment awarded by the Court to the family of Mr. Bazin, a former Eternit employee who died of an asbestos-related cancer aged 51.
2 Press Release. Asbestos: Eternit will pay! May 12, 2016.
3 Kazan-Allen L. Global Asbestos Hegemony; Global Asbestos Crimes. February 15, 2016.
Asbestos Industry Medics Attend Cancer Conference
Dr. Milton Nascimento, the director of Occupational Health at Eternit S.A., Brazil’s largest asbestos conglomerate, is attending the 13th Conference of the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG) in Birmingham next week (May 1-5, 2016). Dr. Nascimento frequently presents arguments supporting the continued use of asbestos at events in Brazil and abroad. He is a much-traveled spokesmen and a member of respected international organizations such as the American Thoracic Society.
During a recent debate about Brazil’s national asbestos policy, Nascimento told delegates to the Pernambuco Congress of Safety at Work that “from a technical point of view, you can work safely with asbestos and other (hazardous) substances, as long as criteria are observed” (author’s translation). Claiming that ban asbestos propaganda is part of a trade war, Nascimento said that although people had experienced hazardous exposures in the past, modern methods for processing asbestos were nontoxic.1
There is unanimity amongst independent global experts and international agencies that even low level exposures to all asbestos types, including chrysotile (white) asbestos from Brazil, can cause mesothelioma, the signature asbestos disease. A new fact sheet issued earlier this year2 confirms this position as does an editorial which was published this week.3
No doubt Nascimento will find the discussion about chrysotile on May 2 of great interest. Two eminent international experts – Dr. David Egilman and Dr. Julian Peto – will make presentations during sessions entitled: “Cancer and Chrysotile” and “How Much Cancer does Chrysotile Cause.” It will be interesting to see if the Eternit representative will seek to challenge the scientific consensus that states categorically that no use of asbestos is safe.
Nascimento will not be on his own at IMIG. Dr. Markus Heitz from Becon (Switzerland) will also be attending; Becon is the holding company for the Swiss Eternit company. As Heitz was also at the last IMIG conference, no doubt he will have briefed his colleague about the educational and other opportunities offered by IMIG. It is of interest to note that as far as can be ascertained, Dr. David Bernstein, the asbestos industry’s favorite “consultant,” whose participation at IMIG caused something of a furore in 2014, will not be attending this year.4 I am sure that in his absence, the two Eternit employees will do their best to monitor the presentations and discussions and report back to headquarters the views of IMIG participants. Who knows, they might even learn something? Stranger things have happened!
1 Uso do amianto debatido em congress [Asbestos debate in Congress].
2 Chrysotile Fact Sheet. 2016.
3 Terracini B, Mirabelli D, Baur X, Landrigan P. Commentary: Comments on the Causation of Malignant Mesothelioma: Rebutting the False Concept That Recent Exposures to Asbestos Do Not Contribute to Causation of Mesothelioma. April, 2016.
4 Kazan-Allen L. International Mesothelioma Conference. October, 2014.
Canadian Asbestos Ban on the Horizon?
On April 1, 2016, coincidentally April Fool’s Day, a new policy came into effect which could be a harbinger of a much anticipated government U-turn that would see asbestos banned in Canada.1
For most of the 20th century, Canada was the world’s chief supplier of chrysotile (white) asbestos. As such, Canadian commercial interests worked hand-in-glove with civil servants and diplomats to promote export sales. Some might claim, and indeed I myself made such a claim at a 2011 Ottawa press conference, that Canadian ambassadors, politicians and civil servants were acting as pimps for the country’s asbestos pushers.
As recently as February, 2016 asbestos-containing building products were still being used in the construction of new federal buildings in Canada. As of April 1, this has been stopped under an order issued by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) which stated that as of that date: “there will be a new departmental ban on the use of asbestos-containing materials in all new construction and renovation projects.” PSPC is the federal government’s purchasing agent and property manager for the Ottawa government; it oversees the operations of buildings used by 265,000 federal workers. As some federal property is managed by other departments, it is unclear whether the PSPC’s prohibitions will be adopted by all departments.
Despite the lack of clarity which exists, this is very good news. The groundswell of public opinion supporting a ban is complimented by positions held by asbestos victims, trade unions, labor federations, municipalities, medical associations and civil society groups, all of which agree that the time for action has come. An editorial in The Globe newspaper last month was categorical:
“Canada should join a 50-nation ban on asbestos that has the support of the World Health Organization, the Canadian Cancer Society and labour groups in this country. There’s an urgency to this. Ottawa is about to embark on an infrastructure spending spree, and labour and health officials are worried that asbestos could show up in building materials. That would be a huge mistake. Asbestos is the number-one killer of Canadian workers. More than 2,200 of them died from asbestos-related diseases between 2007 and 2012. Another 2,000 are diagnosed with these diseases every year…”2
Yesterday (April 11, 2016), the Canadian Environmental Law Association made public the contents of a letter sent to the Prime Minister last week:
“We are very concerned that the current regulatory framework in Canada is wholly inadequate to ensure protection of the public from asbestos use throughout its lifecycle…The government should take a number of immediate steps towards a ban on asbestos. The government has the necessary legal authority to pass regulation to prohibit the use of asbestos in products under the Canadian Environment Protection Act.”3
There is great optimism that the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau will have the impetus to ban asbestos – after more than a century, the time has surely come. Once that has been achieved he might phone his neighbour Barack Obama and see what might be done to persuade him that an asbestos-free future is possible.
1 Ireton, J. Feds ban asbestos in construction, renos at government sites. April 10, 2016.
2 Desjardins L. Globe editorial. Asbestos: It’s (finally) time for Ottawa to shut the industry down. March 28 2016.
3 Canadian Environmental Law Association. Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau. April 7, 2016.
The Mesothelioma Handbook 2016
On the evening of March 24, 2016 an important resource for mesothelioma sufferers – The Mesothelioma Handbook – was launched by the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund (JHMRF), at an event in central Leeds.1 The date was significant as it was almost twenty years since legal proceedings brought by mesothelioma sufferer June Hancock over environmental exposure to asbestos ended with a substantial victory.2 Commenting on the precedent set by her lawsuit, Mrs Hancock told journalists: “It proves however small you are you can fight and however big you can lose.”
In the years since the JHMRF was established, more than a million pounds have been donated by the memorial fund to mesothelioma research. According to the JHMRF website: “Proposals that have the potential to improve current treatments, to develop new treatment options or improve the way care is delivered for mesothelioma patients are of particular interest.”
The new handbook certainly has the capacity to make a difference to patients and those who care for their physical and mental well-being. The almost 100 pages of this well-designed book contain essential information presented in an accessible manner. The diagrams, illustrations and cartoons break up the text and provide breathing space for readers; the language is clear and the sections are logically organized. The excellence of the work is no surprise given its origin. The author Dr. Helen Clayson has been involved in the care of mesothelioma patients for over thirty years, first as a general practitioner, then as a physician in hospice and hospital palliative care in the north of England. This lady knows what she is talking about.
In an interview with Dr. Clayson after the launch, she said:
“The Mesothelioma Handbook is based on experience and research in the care of people with mesothelioma and has been produced in collaboration with patients and family carers. I hope that it will be a useful and practical source of information for people facing mesothelioma and empower them with the knowledge they need to deal with this extremely difficult situation.”
The handbook will, in due course, be uploaded to the JHMRF website (in the meantime, a hard copy can be requested via the website). I strongly urge anyone who has mesothelioma or is caring for a patient with this disease to acquire a copy of this highly recommended book.
1 Book for mesothelioma sufferers launched before anniversary of Leeds legal case. March 24, 2016.
2 Kazan-Allen, L. Remembering June Hancock. British Asbestos Newsletter issue 67. Summer 2007. http://www.britishasbestosnewsletter.org/ban67.htm