International Workers’ Memorial Day 2014
Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day, an occasion observed in countries around the world. The rallying cry used by trade unions to raise awareness of the price paid by workers is “Remember the dead – Fight for the living.” Considering the death toll caused by workplace exposures to asbestos, it is unsurprising that calls for an asbestos ban figure prominently in many activities on April 28. That these calls are still needed in 2014 is testament to the aggressive and corrosive methods of the asbestos lobby.
Despite incontrovertible evidence documenting the consequences of hazardous exposures and recommendations by international agencies, independent scientists and medical doctors for asbestos to be outlawed, two million tonnes are still being used every year. The results of human exposure are the same as they have always been: debilitating illness and death. A 2013 academic paper quantified the price paid for asbestos use as follows:
“The 128,015 and 13,885 persons who died of mesothelioma and asbestos [between 1994 and 2010 in 82 and 55 countries] potentially lost a total of 2.18 million and 180,000 years of life (PYLL), or, an annual average PYLL of 201,000 years and 17,000 years, respectively. The average PYLL per decedent were 17.0 and 13.0 years for mesothelioma and asbestosis, respectively.”1
It is not, however, only workers whose lives are being endangered. A paper just published by Italian researchers confirms the incidence of asbestos-related cancer amongst family members of asbestos workers.2 Additional data from Casale Monferrato, the Italian town at the center of the Eternit asbestos scandal, reveals the high level of asbestos mortality caused by environmental exposures.
Asbestos has caused a pandemic which crosses geographical boundaries, ethnicities, genders and class divisions. On April 28 we remember our dead. In their honor we reaffirm our commitment to end the asbestos massacre facilitated by ruthless businessmen, corrupt politicians, unethical scientists and impotent governments. The struggle continues!
1 Diandini R, Takahashi K, et al. Potential Years of Life Lost (PYLL) caused by Asbestos-Related Diseases in the World. American Journal of Industrial Meidcine. 2013.
The Red Road Flats – RIP
Having just returned to London, I was forced to do a date check to verify that it was not April’s Fool Day when I read a headline on today’s front page of The Guardian: Glasgow 2014 scraps live ‘celebration’ of flats demolition.
Apparently organizers of the upcoming Commonwealth Games thought that the demolition of notorious north Glasgow tower blocks at the start of eleven days of sporting competition would get the games off to a dramatic start. To ensure that it did, the detonation of 2,755 pounds of explosives before a worldwide audience of one billion people was planned to take place during the opening ceremony.
According to David Grevemberg of Glasgow 2014: "The decision to feature the live demolition of five Red Road blocks within the opening ceremony was planned both as commemoration of a part of Glasgow’s social history as well as a statement of the city’s regeneration.”
His sentiments were not shared by thousands of people who signed a petition categorizing the demolition as a crass and tasteless stunt (see: Stop plans to blow up tower blocks as part of Commonwealth Games opening ceremony).
As well as the reasons listed in the petition there is another: the asbestos legacy for which the Red Road flats became infamous. Construction workers employed during the 1960s on the building of the multi-story blocks have died from asbestos-related diseases as have tenants who lived in the 1,356 flats made of steel and asbestos. As with shipwrecks that have become memorials to those who have been lost, the destruction of the iconic housing estate should be a moment of reflection and not an entertainment: a time to think of the Scottish people whose lives had been sacrificed for the profits of the asbestos industry.
One hundred days before the Games are due to begin, it has been announced that this ludicrous idea has been dropped. Let us hope that the end of the Red Road flats, when it comes, will be conducted with care and solemnity and with some thought of those who were so badly served by Glasgow’s city planners and architects.
Asbestos and Shipyard Workers
As if more evidence were needed of the enduring hazard posed by asbestos, news has been circulating today (March 3, 2014) regarding the high price paid for hazardous occupational exposures by shipyard workers in Italy and the UK.
At a lung cancer conference in Italy this weekend, presentations highlighted the occupations and populations most at-risk of asbestos cancer. Unfortunately, one of the worst affected locations was Monfalcone, a shipbuilding town in Northern Italy where generations of workers were fatally exposed to asbestos.1 In this city of 28,000 people, a cohort of 2,700 people who worked with asbestos was monitored from 1979 to 2008. The data showed a 10-fold increased incidence of mesothelioma and a 4-fold and 8-fold increase in lung cancer for non-smokers and smokers respectively.
Workers from the Devonport Dockyards in Plymouth have been similarly affected. Information obtained via a Freedom of Information request revealed that between 2006 and 2013 the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which operated the dockyards, paid out nearly £20 million in compensation to 273 claimants with asbestos-related diseases.2 Between 2001 and 2006, the MoD had paid out £15.9m in asbestos compensation.
As of January 1, 2011 the new installation of asbestos-containing materials on ships was banned by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for the "safety and security of shipping and the prevention of maritime pollution by ships.” Unfortunately, shipyard workers and workers in the maritime sector remain at risk from asbestos within older ships. Recent discoveries of asbestos contamination in new locomotives exported from China to Australia and New Zealand are proof that the existence of asbestos bans is no protection against future exposures. If Chinese manufacturers are able to carelessly incorporate this illegal substance in railway vehicles, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that Chinese and other shipbuilding companies will do likewise in ships.
The only way to protect workers and the public from asbestos is for international agencies, regional authorities and national governments not only to agree to global measures to outlaw asbestos but also take effective action to enforce this ban.
1 Ziani G. Amianto-killer: i numeri sono da record [ Killer asbestos: record numbers.] March 1, 2014.
1 Greenwood A. Dockyard workers poisoned by asbestos paid £35m in compensation. March 3, 2014.
Britain’s Asbestos Waste Land
In times gone by, the asbestos cancer mesothelioma was termed a “rare” disease by UK authorities. That this is, unfortunately, no longer the case is substantiated by data released last week which shows that: “Mesothelioma is the 13th most common cause of cancer death among men in the UK (2011), accounting for 2% of all male deaths from cancer in the UK (2011).” Mesothelioma deaths in women account for 1% of all cancer deaths.1 Although the percentages seem small, when they are applied to the UK population of 63 million, they assume a much larger significance. Thousands of people continue to die even though the use of asbestos was prohibited 15 years ago.
As the situation in the UK makes clear, banning asbestos is not a final solution. It is a first step towards eradicating the catastrophe caused by the commercial exploitation of asbestos. Throughout the 20th century, 7 million tonnes of asbestos were imported to the UK. While some of it has been disposed of, there is no way to know how much of it remains hidden within the country’s infrastructure. Is it in your home, or daughter’s school or father’s workplace?
Legislation is in place which has made the identification of asbestos contamination a legal requirement and yet incidents occur on a daily basis which reveal systemic failings. Yesterday (February 27, 2014), it was reported that despite the fact that Barking and Dagenham Council knew about the presence of asbestos in a council house four years ago, this information had never been communicated to the tenant.2 Tanya McCracken from the Thames View Estate remains in a state of limbo regarding the potential hazard posed by the contamination of her home; considering the recent repairs she had carried out, there is every chance she and her three children breathed in asbestos fibers liberated by workmen.
Is it acceptable that such exposures are taking place in 2014? When Princess Margaret’s former residence at Kensington Palace was renovated prior to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge moving in, asbestos removal work was part of the refurbishment program. Do the royals deserve better treatment than the McCrackens? Does anyone deserve to die of asbestos-related disease? As has been shown by the statistics in the first paragraph of this blog, mesothelioma is no longer a rare disease in the UK. On Rare Diseases Day 2014, it is appropriate for us to reflect on the devastation asbestos has caused at home and the millions of tragedies that will occur in countries where asbestos use continues to flourish. It is well past time that effective action be taken in countries which have banned asbestos and that those which haven’t done so yet acknowledge the time bomb that awaits their citizens in years to come.
1 Mesothelioma mortality statistics. February 2014.
2 Rasiah J. ‘Council kept quiet about asbestos find for four years.’ February 27, 2014.
2014 – A Watershed Year in the Worldwide Campaign to Ban Asbestos?
The popular English expression “start as you mean to go on,” springs to mind when reviewing developments which have taken place this year in the global war against asbestos. In the first few weeks of the new year, no fewer than three international agencies have reiterated the need to ban the use of asbestos in order to safeguard human life.
At a London press conference on February 3, 2014, Dr. Bernard Stewart, co-editor of a major IARC cancer study, said “Asbestos is a discrete carcinogen; it is causing attributable, deadly and, in most cases, untreatable disease – so, yes, it should be banned.”
One week later, Dr. Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s Director of Public Health and Environment reaffirmed her agency’s position on asbestos: “The most efficient way to eliminate asbestos related diseases, the safest way, will be to stop the use of all forms of asbestos…” (see: All Asbestos Kills! which includes a video interview with Dr. Neira)
Echoing Dr. Neira’s comments, a press release issued on February 13, 2014 by the International Conference on Monitoring and Surveillance of Asbestos-Related Diseases in Espoo, Finland – held under the auspices of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health – acknowledged that “There is no safe use of asbestos… Asbestos-related deaths are preventable by banning the use of asbestos, as WHO recommends.”
Even as these high-profile calls for a global end to the asbestos scandal are being made, vested interests continue their fight to protect lucrative markets in developing countries. Fortunately, civil society campaigners are now confronting them in multiple arenas and forums with a view to exposing their propaganda. 2014 is shaping up to be a watershed year in the global struggle to ban asbestos. An asbestos-free world is possible.
World Cancer Day 2014 – Reflections of a Ban Asbestos Campaigner
In recent years, more than twice as many Britons have died from asbestos-related cancers as from road traffic accidents. Translating the data into human terms, twelve people die from asbestos cancer every day in the UK. This fact, as horrific as it is, underestimates the true scale of the humanitarian disaster as it includes mortality from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer but excludes that from other cancers linked to asbestos exposure such as cancers of the larynx and ovary. As if twelve avoidable deaths a day were not enough, the reality is even worse.
Yesterday, at a press conference in London held by the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the authorities described a tidal wave of cancer engulfing the world’s population and emphasized the need for governments to embark on preventative strategies to reduce the incidence of cancer. One example cited of a successful initiative was the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which “has been critical in reducing tobacco consumption through taxes, advertising restrictions, and other regulations and measures to control and discourage the use of tobacco.”
For years ban asbestos campaigners have been calling for a Framework Convention on Asbestos which can, using the Tobacco Control Convention as a template, encourage governments to adopt measures to encourage the use of asbestos-free materials. By prioritizing an end to asbestos use, the WHO will protect millions of people in developing countries where the unregulated use of asbestos remains a fact of life. When it comes to asbestos disease, prevention is – as we know – the only cure.
IARC/WHO Press Release February 3, 2014: Global battle against cancer won’t be won with treatment alone.
Cancer Research UK 2014. Mesothelioma Fact Sheet
Playing with Fire
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is not much shared by Regina, Saskatchewan and Perth, Western Australia. The two state capitals – 10,000 miles apart – are on different continents and in different time zones; when it is noon in Regina on January 17, it is 2 a.m. in Perth on January 18. Different weather, different food, different sports. And yet, a review of today’s news revealed that there is indeed at least one shared legacy – the deadly repercussions of widespread asbestos use.
Canada, for most of the 20th century, was the world’s biggest producer of chrysotile (white) asbestos; the mineral was such a valuable commodity that it was nicknamed “white gold.” The high value of Canadian chrysotile exports earned the industry powerful friends in high places; throughout Canada, the fibers were incorporated into thousands of products and structures.
In Western Australia, the Wittenoom mine produced crocidolite (blue) asbestos for use at home and abroad. The owners of the mine, which was insured by the State Insurance Board, were well-connected and the daughter of Lang Hancock, who pioneered the asbestos mining at Wittenoom in the 1930s, is one of the world’s richest women.
Recent newspaper reports detail the aftermath of fires in Regina and in Perth (see: Asbestos cleanup delays explosion probe at Regina refinery and Warnings to Perth Hill residents as fire exposes deadly asbestos fibres). Pictures of the affected sites document the devastation caused and commentaries about the disasters include asbestos warnings to cleanup crews and residents. The fact that the asbestos contamination identified in both fires was, in all probability, home-grown adds a certain poignancy to these tragedies.
Had these structures been built with safer materials, the cleanup and recovery would have been more straightforward, less hazardous and far cheaper. The fact that asbestos had been used was due to aggressive marketing techniques exploited by ruthless industry stakeholders working on a global scale to promote sales of a known toxin.
As asbestos consumption continues to increase in some parts of the world, governments of nations where asbestos has not been banned would do well to reconsider the continuation of policies which endanger the lives not only of current citizens but also of generations to come. An asbestos-free future is possible!
Reflecting on 2013
As 2013 draws to a close, there seems to be no let-up in news being received from ban asbestos colleagues around the world. In December, a seminal publication – two years in the making – was released documenting the long-lasting effects of asbestos use in new Member States and candidate countries: Asbestos-related occupational disease in Central and East European Countries (see: Landmark Report on Europe's Asbestos Crisis).
As this report was being launched, news was released of a 109-page Memorandum from the Finnish Occupational Cancer Working Group which categorically states that there is an "indisputable" relationship between exposure to asbestos and cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and laryngeal cancer (see: Cancer Working Group Memorandum) The authors noted that: “Today, lung cancer and mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos are definitely the most important types of diagnosed occupational cancers.”
Looking back over 2013 we can see evidence of a substantial upsurge of ban asbestos activism around the world. The year began with news that citizens in rural Indian villages were mounting a determined and focused campaign to prevent the construction of asbestos factories in their towns (Indian Citizens Reject Asbestos!); it ended with reconfirmation by civil society that Indian citizens do not support the expansion of the asbestos industrial sector (India Says No To Asbestos!).
In difficult and often frustrating circumstances, colleagues progressed educational outreach projects, investigations and legal actions in asbestos-using and producing countries including: Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia, Bangladesh, Laos and even Russia as evidenced in the articles listed below:
There were many landmark developments during the year including:
As the year came to a close, news was received from Japan of a landmark ruling by a court in Osaka which held the Japanese government liable for its negligence over asbestos (see: Government Liable for Exposures. This ruling marked a landmark in asbestos litigation in Japan and will, hopefully, pave the way for many other victims to receive compensation.
With the leadership of the global asbestos lobby firmly in the hands of the Russian industry, there has been a resurgence of propaganda pro-chrysotile asbestos initiatives such as conferences in Manila and New Delhi, the publication of “academic” papers and attempts to undermine the ban asbestos positions of international agencies (see: A Scientist, A Professor and a Businessman).
The industry’s efforts are, however, being closely monitored by ban asbestos analysts, with online and print articles from Hazards, IBAS and RightonCanada detailing the devious ways in which asbestos lobbyists are working to create a climate in which the sale of a known carcinogen can continue to flourish.
Although the coming year will be challenging, there is no doubt that efforts of ban asbestos campaigners in 2014 will hasten the day when the deadly asbestos industry is outlawed the world over. The struggle continues!
Great Britain’s Deadly Asbestos Legacy
November 24, 2013 marked the 14th anniversary of the UK ban on asbestos. Since Parliament finally ended the use of this deadly poison, tens of thousands of people have died from asbestos-related diseases throughout Great Britain; Simon Pickvance was one of them. Simon lost his battle against the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma on November 23, 2012.1 He and all the others who have suffered at the hands of the asbestos industry are mourned and much missed.
Instead of engaging with the nationwide community of asbestos sufferers and campaigners, the coalition government remains determined to support UK PLC at whatever the cost to the injured. This attitude is made abundantly clear by the slant of the Mesothelioma Bill, due for its second reading at the House of Commons on December 2, 2013. While sufferers of mesothelioma remain in mortal danger, the insurers’ plea for leniency has persuaded the government to curtail compensation payouts. Many sufferers will receive nothing; some will receive a percentage of what they are entitled to.
The Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and other campaigning groups have highlighted the appalling lack of probity in the proposed legislation which, many feel, is being fast-tracked through parliament. Can anything less than 100% compensation be acceptable to those who have paid with their lives for industry’s greed.
For those who argue that industry has only recently known about the risks posed by asbestos, I would suggest an afternoon trawling through the annual reports of London Boroughs’ Health Officers from 1848-1972 which are now online. Amongst these documents, you will find medical professionals documenting the deadly repercussions of daily asbestos exposures. Individuals like Dr Williams, the Medical Officer of Health for Barking, who was in the 1930s accused of being “obsessed” by the conditions at the notorious Cape Asbestos factory in East London.
The Government and the asbestos profiteers were happy to reap the benefits while generations of people died prematurely from occupational and environmental exposures. It is time for the guilty to do the honorable thing.2 All British asbestos victims deserve our compassion and support; Parliament must provide the justice they deserve and disregard the crocodile tears of a corrupt and ruthless industry. The Mesothelioma Bill must award 100% compensation, no less will do.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Tribute to Simon Pickvance. November 28, 2012.
Asbestos: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
This week Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, informed Parliament that 60,000 more mesothelioma deaths are expected between 2012 and 2041.”1 The same day (November 19, 2013), a primary school teacher with mesothelioma told the Minister of State for Schools David Laws that the government’s policies for keeping schoolchildren and staff safe from asbestos had failed. The teacher, her son and her MP urged the Minister to make fundamental changes; his muted response was indicative of this Government’s catastrophic disregard of the risks posed by asbestos contamination of the educational infrastructure.
Throughout the 20th century, over 6 million tonnes of asbestos were used in the UK. After decades of protests by asbestos victims groups, trade unions, medical and scientific experts Parliament finally banned asbestos in 1999. Elsewhere, consumption continues. Last year, over 2 million tonnes of asbestos were used globally; the majority was incorporated into construction and automotive products for Asian markets.
During the 21st century, asbestos consumption in the Philippines has remained stable at around 3,000 tonnes/year.”2 There is no doubt that much of the debris left in the wake of Typhoon Hayian contained asbestos. As people scramble to provide shelter for their families, broken pieces of asbestos-cement roofing will be handled, cut and reused. As there is no asbestos ban in the Philippines, it is likely that asbestos-containing building products will be used in the reconstruction.
It is significant to note that a fortnight before Hayian devastated much of the country, the asbestos lobby held a conference in Manila to promote the use of asbestos. The industry’s event on October 25 was sponsored by the International Chrysotile Association, the Association of Chrysotile Industries of the Philippines and the Chrysotile Information Center of Thailand.”3 There can be no doubt about the intentions of the industry to create a climate in which the use of their products continues to flourish regardless of the risks to workers, consumers or members of the public.
As thousands of UK asbestos sufferers know full well, hazardous exposures in the distant past have deadly implications for the future. The cost of the asbestos industry’s profits will be paid for by millions of people who contract avoidable but fatal diseases in the future. As mesothelioma widow and New Zealand ban asbestos campaigner Deidre van Gerven says: “They cheated because they wanted to, they lied because they could.” How much longer can society tolerate this situation?
1 Lords Hansards Text, 19 November 2013. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldhansrd/text/131119w0001.htm#13111952000423
2 According to data from the United States Geological Survey, the use of asbestos in the Philippines from 2001 until 2012, totalled 35,858 tonnes.
3 Abad, R.L, Expert pushes for controlled use ban on asbestos. November 19, 2013. http://businessmirror.com.ph/index.php/en/features/properties/23036-expert-pushes-for-controlled-use-ban-on-asbestos Ruff K. Global asbestos lobby organizes events in the Philippines and India to promote continued use of asbestos in Asia. October 31, 2013. http://www.rightoncanada.ca/?p=2241