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?