How Does Change Happen?
At a time when the public standing of political and religious leaders seems to have reached an all-time low, it is worth noting that there really are people who believe in public service. Over the last two years, I have been privileged to work with a group of such people. They come from many walks of life and represent different segments of civil society. They were drawn together by their outrage over the seemingly unending tragedy caused by the commercial exploitation of asbestos. Some of them were asbestos victims, others were family members or friends; some were politicians, civil servants or trade unionists while others were academics, medical professionals or health and safety activists. None of them would profit from their involvement in the campaign to address Europe’s asbestos legacy; all of them were already overworked.
It is hard to delineate how anger over asbestos injustice begat a pilot project which engendered an initiative that grew into a series of local activities that coalesced into a regional movement that led to specific demands for political action. Progress, as you can imagine, was neither quick nor easy.
Quantifying the challenges posed by the asbestos contamination of Europe’s infrastructure, delineating the measures required to protect citizens and formulating proposals for change were as laborious as they were complex. The legislative drafting process relied on input from many groups and experts, people who had first-hand knowledge of the issues involved. That a final text was produced owes everything to the good will and concerted effort of all those involved. The eight pages, seven sections, 300+ lines of text and 19 footnotes were drafted, redrafted, amended, deleted or reinstated more than once.
As was previously mentioned, the work required to see this process through to fruition was accomplished by a range of individuals and groups; in recognition of the contributions made, tribute should be paid to the following: MEP Stephen Hughes, Vice President of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, Rolf Gehring, Lars Vedsmand and Bernd Eisenbach of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers, Laurent Vogel of the European Trade Union Institute, Fiona Murie of the International Building and Woodworkers International, John McClean of the GMB Trade Union, Gerd Albracht of the International Association of Labour Inspection, the European Trade Union Confederation, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum (UK), the Association of Families and Victims of Asbestos of Casale Monferrato (AfeVA), the Belgian Asbestos Victims Group (ABEVA), the National Association of French Asbestos Victims (ANDEVA) and Hazards.
While the full substance of the document is outside the parameters of this blog, it is of relevance to note that the proposals made were organized under the following section headings: Screening and registration of asbestos, Ensuring qualifications and training, Development of removal programmes, Recognition of Asbestos-related Disease, Support for Asbestos Victims’ Groups and Strategies for a global ban on asbestos.1 As these titles suggest, the content of the bill was comprehensive.
The vote on the European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2013 on asbestos related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos (2012/2065(INI))2 was timetabled for the afternoon of March 13. Unfortunately, it was postponed due to the collapse of Giorgos Papastamkos, Vice-President of the European Parliament, whilst chairing a plenary session at the Strasbourg headquarters. Despite the delay, the outcome of the March 14 vote was a resounding success: 558 in favour, 51 against, 5 abstentions. MEP Stephen Hughes, whose experience and leadership on asbestos issues was instrumental in the success of this legislative effort, has called on the European Commission to follow up on the European Parliament’s initiative.3 “The Parliament has,” he said “today set a clear deadline for the total eradication of asbestos by 2028. With such a large majority of this house supporting my report we have sent a strong signal to the European Commission. It must now act.”4 We can only hope that the Commission heeds this call.
1 European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2013 on asbestos related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos (2012/2065(INI).
2 European Parliament. Summary of text adopted 14/3/2013.
3 Hughes, S. Asbestos still a major threat to citizens in Europe and beyond. March 18, 2013.
4 EFBWW. European Parliament demands the eradication of asbestos contamination.
A Tale of Two Cities
In 2007, after decades of asbestos mining operations, the Quebec town of Thetford Mines was declared “severely contaminated.” This categorization was based on an analysis of tests carried out in local homes; the unsafe levels of asbestos in the air, soil and dust would, had the properties been in the U.S., have triggered a clean-up by government agencies.1 As far as can be ascertained, since the publication of that report nothing has been done about this public health hazard.
Like Thetford Mines, the town of Amiantos, Cyprus had a long history of asbestos mining.2 Unlike the situation in Thetford Mines, in Amiantos attempts began more than 20 years ago to address the asbestos mining legacy. Resources allocated for this work by the Cypriot authorities have been reinforced by funds from the European Economic Area (EEA). Last month (February 2013), the EEA agreed to help fund a new biodiversity conservation project to restore 14 hectares around the mine which include plans for the “Stabilisation and reshaping of (asbestos) waste heaps, transporting and covering it with natural topsoil ground preparation, planting and sowing.”
There is no question about the public health threat posed to people in Thetford Mines and Amiantos by asbestos contamination in the air, water, soil and infrastructure. Research conducted in South Africa, a country which mined three types of asbestos fiber, has highlighted the disastrous environmental impact of asbestos mining on local communities. The authors of the 2013 paper: Compensation for environmental asbestos-related diseases in South Africa: a neglected issue called for “the rehabilitation of abandoned asbestos mines and the environment.”3 Apparently, their call has been heard in Cyprus; it is yet to reach Canada.
2 Stevenson P. Asbestos scar slowly fading away. March 3, 2013
Social Justice and Asbestos
Today, February 20th is the World Day of Social Justice. What exactly is social justice? I looked for guidance from the Oxford Dictionary of English; no such term is listed. A Google search informed me that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon believes it to be “an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations.” The National Association of Social Workers suggests a more utilitarian definition: “Social justice,” the NASW states is “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”
However you define social justice, one thing is certain: in a socially just society, there is no place for exposure to deadly poisons. And yet, in many countries around the world such exposures take place on a daily basis. In 2013, the large-scale use of asbestos remains commonplace in 35 countries. The dockers who unload the asbestos, the people who process it, the tradesmen who use products containing it, and the people who live or work near sites where asbestos is being stored, used or handled are exposed to the risk of contracting deadly asbestos diseases.
In the UK we are seeing an epidemic of asbestos cancer amongst teachers and others who worked in schools with asbestos-containing material. For each teacher in an asbestos-contaminated classroom, there were up to 30 pupils. Dianne Willmore was one such pupil. She died of asbestos cancer in 2010; she was only 49 years old. The day before she died the Court of Appeal confirmed that the source of the deadly exposure which had caused her death was asbestos at her school.
Despite Dianna’s death and that of so many others, asbestos fiber and asbestos products are marketed globally without legal sanctions or trade restrictions. Attempts made by the United Nations Rotterdam Convention to impose even minimal conditions on the sale of chrysotile asbestos have been torpedoed by asbestos stakeholders on numerous occasions.
Perhaps on a day devoted to social justice it is fitting for us to call on asbestos vested interests to take a good look at the consequences of their actions: condemning people to early graves by selling them asbestos is immoral, unethical and socially unjust. Maybe February 20, 2013 is the day they accept that the future we all want is one which is asbestos-free.
Valentine Day’s Reflections
How do people show their love in the 21st century? Valentine’s Day – February 14 – is recognized the world over as a day for lovers to express their feelings; failure to do so can result in dire consequences for many a significant other.
This year, the universal day of romantic love coincides with the commencement of appeal proceedings in the trial of former asbestos executives convicted a year ago for their role in the asbestos deaths of thousands of Italians.
Hundreds of people will be at the Turin courthouse today to bear witness to the judicial effort to apportion blame for the deaths of their loved ones. People like Romana Blasotti Pavesi who lost her husband Mario, her sister, her cousin, her nephew and her daughter Rosa to asbestos cancer will make the journey from Casale Monferrato to Turin in the early morning to ensure her place in the courtroom. She will watch as the judges and lawyers engage in the ritualistic battle which is required for the dispensation of justice. It is unlikely that anything will be resolved today, tomorrow or the day after but Romana will be there. Like so many others from the towns of Casale Monferrato, Cavagnolo and Rubiera, she will be there to pay tribute to the memory of the loved ones whose lives were stolen by the actions of the asbestos criminals.
The emotion which this tribute represents is a manifestation of the everlasting nature of true love. It is love which motivates a non-combatant to endure hour after hour, day after day of tortuous legal argument in the hope that justice will finally prevail. Shakespeare said it best:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
Love which is true, love which does not alter with time or age, will be in the Turin courtroom today as Romana and her colleagues continue their 30-year fight for justice. Our hearts are with them in this battle.
Asbestos and The Environment
When we are children we learn that water is wet and fire is hot. We are taught not to put our fingers into an open flame or jump in front of a speeding car. There are, our parents tell us, consequences for what we do.
Why then do people react with surprise following disasters such as the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011), Hurricane Sandy (2012) and the Tasmanian Bushfires (2013) when news is released of asbestos contamination?
Surely if you put hazardous asbestos fibers into schools, civic centres, factories or homes, when the fabric of the building is disturbed, human health is endangered. Asbestos is a known carcinogen; no matter how you process it or regardless of what you mix it with, the fibers retain the capacity to kill. You do not need a crystal ball to predict that the destructive force of natural disasters will liberate asbestos fibers into the atmosphere. Once airborne, they can be inhaled by populations and emergency responders in the affected areas.
The cause for these reflections is a paper just published by South African authors detailing the fallout from decades of asbestos mining operations. The paper entitled: “Compensation for environmental asbestos-related diseases in South Africa: a neglected issue” confirms the deadly impact on local populations. The authors write: “Mesothelioma was the most common disease diagnosed, but most cases were not compensated… To stop this ARD [asbestos-related diseases] epidemic, there is a need for the rehabilitation of abandoned asbestos mines and the environment. These issues may not be unique to South Africa as many countries continue to mine and use asbestos.”
Just like South Africa, Canada, formerly a major asbestos producer, has huge swathes of land poisoned by asbestos mining and processing. Only now that the asbestos industry has closed down are people in the mining areas beginning to consider the environmental calamity which has left mountains of asbestos tailings in the towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos. Judging by the South African experience, the rehabilitation of these areas and the remediation of the towns are not tasks which can be accomplished easily:
“Calls have been made for the South African government to address asbestos-related pollution of the environment. Many dumps have been rehabilitated, but erosion of the rehabilitated dumps and exposure to the tailings that were used for road and building construction by nearby communities remain issues that need to be addressed. Improved monitoring and evaluation is required to endure that exposures remain low and that interventions that are implemented are sustained.”
To avoid the dangerous and expensive work entailed by post-disaster asbestos decontamination and environmental clean-ups, the obvious solution would be to ban the use of asbestos and shutdown all asbestos mining and processing. Even a child can see that!
World Cancer Day 2013
Every day people around the world live with and die from asbestos cancers. International agencies believe that the annual asbestos death toll exceeds 100,000. Activists on the asbestos frontline disagree, asserting that this figure is an underestimate. Despite this lack of consensus one thing is certain: asbestos cancers are avoidable diseases.
Today, February 4, is World Cancer Day. This year the focus of activities to mark this day is dispelling myths such as the belief that cancer is “just a health issue.” This disease, which causes more than 7 million deaths a year, has wide-reaching social, economic, development and human rights implications. Does everyone have a right to live a life free from exposure to deadly carcinogens? Judging by the data, they don’t. Nearly half of all cancer cases occur in the developing world; by 2030, it is predicted that this figure will increase to 81%.
It is no coincidence that the use of asbestos, a known carcinogen, continues to flourish where cancer rates are climbing. Ruthless asbestos profiteers are unloading their deadly wares on populations in countries with no legislation or import restrictions on asbestos. Of particular concern is the situation in Asia where the majority of asbestos is now being consumed. In 2000, Asian countries accounted for 47% of global asbestos use; this figure has now risen to 63%. In years to come, an asbestos cancer tsunami will occur in these countries as a consequence of occupational, domestic and environmental exposures to asbestos.
World Cancer Day is a time to reflect on what could and should be done to conquer cancer. With some cancers, long-term multimillion dollar research programs will be needed to find new diagnostic tools, treatment protocols and cures. For the prevention of asbestos-related cancers, the solution is simple: ban the mining, processing, sale and use of asbestos. Once that has been done, work can begin on remediating national infrastructures and disposing of contaminated debris. An asbestos-free future is possible.
The Global Spectre of Turner & Newall
Looking for a misplaced document today, I had cause to go through a file relating to the operations of the British multinational: Turner & Newall (T&N).
For most of the 20th century, Turner & Newall was the dominant force in the British asbestos industry. To celebrate its “golden anniversary,” the company published an 87-page celebratory report entitled: “Turner & Newall Limited: The First Fifty Years: 1920 – 1970.”
The copy I found in the filing cabinet is not in great condition; it was, after all, a copy of a copy when I received it more than twenty years ago. Nevertheless, it is still legible and still capable of conveying a shocking narrative.
What caught my eye was the incredible level of global penetration the T&N Empire achieved. So many subsidiaries and so many projects which were using T&N’s asbestos products and technology.
For much of the 20th century, T&N’s sprayed limpet asbestos fireproofing was exported for use on high-profile projects such as Montreal Airport, Quebec’s Hydro Hotel, La Grande Magazines de la Belle Jardiniere (Nantes, France), the Virginia Beach Auditorium (U.S.), the Manguinhos Refinery (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), the Petroleos Mexicanos (Mexico City), the Maerske Refinery (Copenhagen, Denmark); see: Selection of Sprayed Limpet Asbestos Fire Protection Applications.
T&N was an export-oriented organization and worked assiduously to develop international markets for its asbestos-containing building products, fireproofing materials, insulating products and automotive parts, as a result of which construction workers, motor mechanics and others in far-flung countries had the misfortune to use T&N’s asbestos-contaminated products.
At the time of T&N’s 50th anniversary, there were T&N operations in Canada, India, the Republic of South Africa, Rhodesia, Zambia, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, the US, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, India, Malaysia, Australia and elsewhere. As recently as 1998, chrysotile asbestos was being used at T&N Friction Products (Pty) Ltd. South Africa plants in Durban, Swaziland and Zimbabwe; see: letter from Ian Speakman, T&N plc 4 March, 1998.
Considering the long latency of asbestos-related diseases – which can take more than fifty years to become manifest – populations around the world must now be succumbing to cancers and respiratory diseases caused by exposures to T&N asbestos.
In 2001, T&N and its parent company went into administration in the UK and Chapter 11 in the U.S. During the corporate reorganizations which followed, trust funds were set up to deal with asbestos-related liabilities, two of which pertain exclusively to overseas claims:
For more information on the procedures to be followed for bringing claims see:
T&N will never apologize; it seems that their former directors and executives will go unpunished for the damage their decisions caused. The financial recompense which might be obtained from these funds is no consolation for the injuries which have been sustained but in some cases the money might be useful. It is truly shameful that no one has been brought to book for the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases in Britain and abroad caused by the operations of T&N and other British asbestos profiteers.
For more information on the activities of Turner & Newall see:
Asbestos Vacuum in Pacific Island Countries
When it comes to asbestos, the saying what you don’t know can’t hurt you could not be more wrong. Asbestos profiles of Chuuk and Pohnpei, states belonging to the Federated States of Micronesia, reveal a disturbing lack of asbestos awareness. In a 2012 Asbestos Profile uploaded to the website of the World Health Organization, key informants from Chuuk said:
The situation in Pohnpei is equally bad according to the Pohnpei Asbestos Profile, which highlights the fact that no law or guidelines have been implemented to regulate the use of asbestos or to define acceptable standards for asbestos management. There is no workers’ compensation system, no individual or class action asbestos lawsuits and no system for monitoring asbestos-related diseases.
The situation in Guam is, according to the Guam Asbestos Profile, somewhat better. Although there is no system for monitoring asbestos-related diseases in Guam, there is a pulmonologist who has diagnosed a few patients with asbestosis and up to 15 cases of pleural plaques in the last seven years. Guam’s Cancer Registry has recorded three cases of asbestos-related cancer since 1998. There is, on the island, some capacity for asbestos testing, removal, abatement and remediation.
That such a wide discrepancy remains in the level of asbestos awareness in the 21st century is troubling. International agencies, regional authorities and civil society must extend efforts not only to ban asbestos but also to educate stakeholders about the hazards posed by asbestos products within their countries.
Asbestos and Construction Workers
If fashion designers, life-style gurus or celebrity chefs disappeared overnight, the lives of most people would continue unabated and unaffected. The same cannot be said for construction workers without whom no new homes would be finished, no collapsed roofs would be repaired and no leaky pipes would be fixed. We depend on them for the fabric of our lives. And yet, when a silent killer stalks their ranks civil society turns a blind eye.
Generations of construction workers have paid a heavy price for the popularity of asbestos-containing insulation products, fireproofing and roofing materials, ceilings, facades, partitions, panels, soffits, pipes, guttering and water storage tanks. The latest analysis of British mortality data for the asbestos cancer mesothelioma shows a high incidence amongst carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Nearly half of all mesothelioma deaths occurring in British men born in the 1940s are due to asbestos exposures in the construction industry. High levels of asbestos-related disease amongst construction workers have also been reported in Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Australia and the U.S.
It would be nice to think that now that asbestos has been banned in 54 nations, construction workers in those countries are safe. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Asbestos contamination remains hidden within office buildings, schools, transport systems, homes and on waste sites, derelict industrial estates, riverbanks and in landfills. In countries where asbestos use is legal, hazardous occupational exposures remain routine. In India, where a dramatic rise in asbestos consumption has taken place throughout the 21st century, the situation has been termed an “Asbestos Time Bomb.” As in the UK, it will be construction workers who will pay the price for asbestos profits. Isn’t it time to stop this insanity?
New Year's Reflections
2012 was a pivotal year in the global campaign to ban asbestos. Outreach projects were launched in new geographical areas even as grassroots activists elsewhere continued efforts to mobilize civil society opposition to the continuing use of chrysotile asbestos. Members of the ban asbestos community achieved many high-profile successes during the last twelve months, all of which involved serious commitments of time and hard work.
In February 2012, after more than a decade of research and preparation, the Italian judicial process handed down a guilty verdict in the iconic trial of former directors of the multinational asbestos giant: Eternit. This judgment was hailed as a landmark in the fight by victims and was reported not only in Italy but around the world. The IBAS monograph Eternit & The Great Asbestos Trial, which was published on the day the decision was announced in Turin, is now available in English, Portuguese, Thai and Japanese.
In May, members and supporters of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) set off on an inaugural 600 kilometre trek from Kalgoorlie to Perth to raise awareness and research funds for the Wittenoom children. After more than 30 years supporting Australia's asbestos victims, the ADSA continues at the forefront of the Australian campaign for asbestos justice.
Brazilian activists, known for their creativity and constancy, ensured that asbestos, an issue omitted from the Rio+20 agenda, took center-stage during the People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in mid-June. "The Rio+20 Asbestos Toxic Tour," organized by asbestos victims, trade unions and their supporters was a colourful, vocal and dynamic visualization of grassroots ban asbestos activism. Just a few weeks after this took place, the Brazilian Supreme Court held asbestos hearings in Brasilia to consider the issue of whether or not state asbestos bans were constitutional.
At the same time, ban asbestos activists were also participating in activities in the asbestos-producing countries of Russia and Canada. Shortly afterwards, a new government in Quebec announced the withdrawal of government support for the asbestos industry; the actions taken by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois brought about the end of over 100 years of asbestos mining in Canada.
Throughout the year, public demonstrations, political meetings and other activities have signalled the escalation of ban asbestos activism in India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. High-level discussions regarding the implementation of asbestos ban legislation were proceeding in several jurisdictions. Elsewhere, campaigners in countries which have already banned asbestos succeeded in highlighting the plight of victims at venues such as the European Parliament, the U.S. Congress and the French Senate as well as at the Australian, Japanese, Italian and British Parliaments.
Much of what has taken place has been covered in the hundreds of items uploaded this year to the IBAS website. Feedback from ban asbestos campaigners confirms the importance of the IBAS website as a global resource; statistics reveal that the IBAS site is attracting thousands of unique visitors every month. IBAS articles, interviews, news items, blogs, conference papers and information provide up-to-date, accessible and archived material to an ever-expanding network.
There is no doubt that 2013 will prove challenging - even now vested interests are finalizing their strategy to achieve domination of the asbestos dialogue at the upcoming meeting of the Rotterdam Convention. Russian lobbyists from industry and the government continue efforts to promote asbestos in developing countries like Thailand where the use of asbestos remains legal and politicians remain receptive to pro-asbestos rhetoric.
This year, asbestos lobbyists will continue efforts to whitewash chrysotile asbestos; they will use their political connections, financial muscle and dirty tricks to co-opt international agencies and mislead the scientific community.
The ban asbestos community is well aware of the tactics employed by asbestos stakeholders; we stand vigilant, united and determined to work with all sectors of civil society to end the unconscionable dumping of a deadly substance and discredited technology on innocent populations. An asbestos-free future is possible!