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.