2014: A Pivotal Year for Brazilian Asbestos Campaigners
Brazil is the world’s third largest producer of asbestos. For decades, well-funded and powerful forces in Brazil have colluded to ensure that the prevailing climate was favourable to the asbestos industry. The monopoly once enjoyed by the asbestos lobby was decimated when asbestos victims formed ABREA, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed. Since 1995, ABREA has worked with other civil society stakeholders to expose the lies told by the industry and obtain justice for the injured.
September 2014 had only just begun, when news was released that the Federal Supreme Court had quashed an injunction preventing a lawsuit for asbestos victims from proceeding. The litigation, which is being mounted by the Public Attorney’s Office in the Labor Court of São Paulo, is claiming $1 billion in compensation from the former employer of 1,000 injured or dead Brazilians who were employed at the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Osasco, Brazil.
At the same time as that news was released, a decision was taken on September 2, 2014 by the Constitutional Commission of the Santa Catarina Legislative Assembly to progress bill 179/2008 which stipulates that the use of products containing asbestos must be banned. This was the fifth time that the Assembly had considered prohibiting asbestos use; four previous attempts had been defeated after pressure from asbestos lobbyists. The draft legislation will now progress to the Committee on Finance and Taxation and the Health Committee.
The current policy on asbestos in Brazil remains disjointed with the federal government allowing continued use and unilateral bans in place in six states and many municipalities. There is no question that the momentum for a ban is growing in strength and power. It is hard to see how Eternit can remain a viable corporation in the face of a $1 billion lawsuit. If Eternit falls, the asbestos sector will be left in tatters. Maybe it is time for Brazil’s asbestos stakeholders to wake up and smell the coffee? An asbestos-free future is possible.
Watershed for Global Asbestos Industry
The news that the world’s largest manufacturer of asbestos-cement roofing is embracing asbestos-free technology marks a defining moment in the global campaign to protect human beings from the deadly asbestos hazard. HIL Ltd, part of the $-1.6 billion CK Birla Group, has announced plans to shift a significant proportion of its Indian manufacturing operations away from asbestos-based products to greener substitutes such as autoclaved aerated concrete blocks and polymer products.1
Explaining the company’s strategy for the transition, Managing Director Abhaya Shankar said: “Presently, our fibre cement roofing products account for 80 per cent of our revenue, while the green products make up the rest 20 per cent. We see this ratio becoming 60:40 in the next three to four years.” There is no doubt this will have a huge impact on global asbestos sales as India is the world’s biggest importer of raw asbestos fiber consuming nearly 500,000 tonnes a year, the majority of which comes from Russia.2
Welcoming this news, Mohit Gupta, a New Dehli-based occupational health activist, said:
“The news that HIL Ltd is shifting its focus towards greener and safer building products and away from asbestos cement roofing products is encouraging and of great interest to ban asbestos campaigners in India. HIL Ltd has 14 manufacturing units in the country and is the world’s largest asbestos cement roofing company. It is a step in the right direction and it is hoped that the company will completely phase out asbestos from its product range and that more companies will take similar decisions sooner rather later to help protect the health of workers and the public.”
1 Mitra A. Asbestos cement roofing firm HIL shifts focus to greener building products. July 30, 2014.
2 According to the United States Geological Survey in 2010, 2011 and 2012 India apparently consumed 426,232 , 321,803, and 493,086 tonnes of asbestos, respectively.
Asbestos Justice in the UK: 2014
The popular press and Conservative politicians bleat on about the UK’s “Compensation Culture.” Analysts have shown, however, that when it comes to occupational illnesses, this is yet another right-wing fantasy.
When someone is diagnosed with a fatal asbestos-related disease, the last thing on their mind is how they can make profit from this misfortune. Nothing will restore their health or buy them more time with their loved ones. In order to secure the future of their families, some of the injured go to the extreme lengths of taking legal action. They do so in the knowledge that every minute spent in the offices of their solicitor or in court is a minute less of precious time with their relatives.
In a country where the number of mesothelioma deaths seems to be on an inexorable upward slope, it is of some consolation to report that there have been landmark victories in recent days. While it is hard to talk about these court decisions as “victories,” the judgments discussed below validate the rights of the injured to name the guilty parties and extricate compensation from them for the harm they have done.
Sally Knauer was an administrator at Guy’s Marsh Prison in Dorset between 1997 and 2007.1 As part of her duties she carried out stock checks in dusty conditions in dilapidated prison buildings; she was also exposed to asbestos generated by technicians repairing asbestos-lagged pipes. As a result of these exposures, she contracted malignant mesothelioma; five months after the deadly diagnosis, she died – she was just 46 years old. A legal case was brought by her family against the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which initially denied liability. Although, the MoJ agreed to pay the claim at the end of December 2013, it disputed the amount. This week Mr Justice Bean awarded the Knauer family damages of £647,840.
Mesothelioma patient Chris Wallace is just 36 years old. His asbestos exposure took place when he was a Devon schoolboy.2 Between 1982 and 1993, he attended Yeo Valley Primary School, Yeo Valley Junior School, South Molton Juniors and South Molton Community College. Last week, just a few weeks before his case was due to go to court, Devon County Council offered to pay compensation of £275,000; it did not admit liability. This is the first time a Devon pupil has brought an asbestos case against the Council.
Commenting on the outcome of his lawsuit, Mr Wallace said:
“It was a very difficult case, having to prove you were there and that you were exposed to a certain level. The council has to take a large chunk of responsibility They know it's in the building and children are at risk of getting to it. It's down to them to ensure it's removed safely.”
The Knauer and Wallace families are accidental activists; neither one of them set out to pioneer a legal roadmap against the Ministry of Justice or a local authority. While their actions will make it easier for those unfortunate people who come after Sally and Chris, no amount of money is enough to fill the gaps they leave.
1 Husband of Gillingham woman killed by cancer after asbestos exposure at Guy's Marsh Prison receives £650,000. July 25, 2014.
Happy Canada Day?
Today (July 1), is Canada Day! It is celebrated with parades, barbecues and fireworks and is a national event much like July 4th is further south.
On Canada’s 147th birthday it is sad to report that it seems wisdom does not come with advancing years. Since June 14, 2014, the Globe and Mail has been featuring devastating articles about the human and environmental impact of the country’s nearly defunct but still deadly asbestos industry.1 Canadian Professor Stephan Bornstein is categorical about the future: “asbestos will continue to kill us for many decades.”2
On June 27, the latest article – Pipes with asbestos still used in new buildings – reported the use of contaminated building products in “new condominiums, hospitals and high-rises in Canada, despite widespread health concerns that have led many countries to ban its use.” According to Canadian trade data, $2.2-million worth of asbestos-containing pipes, tiles, sheets, panels and tubes were imported from 2010 to 2013. In the absence of a ban, this is, of course, legal, but is it wise, necessary or ethical?
If 55 countries with bans can function without asbestos, surely Canada can do so too? Canadian lungs are just as susceptible to the carcinogenic properties of asbestos as those of Italians, Germans and Koreans and yet as work continues to remove asbestos from some parts of the country’s infrastructure (like the buildings on capitol hill in Ottawa), the import and use of toxic products continue.
There are many reasons why Ottawa has not acted on this issue. For decades, federal and provincial governments worked hand in glove with the asbestos mining industry to progress the commercial agenda. Were Ministers now to mobilize behind a national prohibition, it would be a de facto admission that they had got it wrong.
How many more Canadians will have to die before the Ottawa government acknowledges its asbestos past and implements measures for an asbestos-free future? If and when it does so, it could indeed be a Happy Canada Day.
1 No Safe use: The Canadian asbestos epidemic that Ottawa is ignoring.
2 Bornstein S. Asbestos exposure: We’re just at the beginning of a health crisis. June 19, 2014.
Asbestos Crime and Punishment 2014
In the bad old days, there was little asbestos news to report. Knowing what we now know that’s not surprising. Asbestos stakeholders maintained an iron grip on the flow of information and spent huge sums on spin doctors and public relations consultants who ensured that damaging research or outspoken critics were marginalized.
While industry’s monopoly on national asbestos agendas has shattered in many developed economies, asbestos pushers maintain control of national agendas in producing and using countries. One only has to look at the situation in Russia, where the party line is that not one worker has died from exposure to asbestos, to understand the difficulties faced by ban asbestos campaigners.
Nevertheless, the campaign for asbestos justice has now reached a critical mass with support for asbestos bans from international agencies, regional authorities, national governments and independent scientists. Unfortunately, some governments are too lazy, too inept or too corrupt to take the actions needed to protect their citizens from the asbestos hazard. The situation in New Zealand is an illustration of this.1
Despite banning asbestos in 1999, the UK still has serious problems regarding toxic products incorporated within our infrastructure. The debate over the response to these challenges is high-profile and high level with active engagement by a wide range of civil society sectors including: asbestos victims, health and safety specialists, trade unionists and others working together to progress the ultimate goal of making the UK asbestos-free.
I was amazed to read reports yesterday of three legal victories this week for UK asbestos victims. Each of these verdicts is significant not only for the individuals who brought the actions but for other potential claimants. Judgments against Marks and Spencer,2 Cape Asbestos3 and Scottish defendants4 acknowledged the right of occupational and environmental asbestos victims to be compensated for their injuries.
Unfortunately, the defendants in these cases did not go down without a fight. It is appalling to think that a company like Marks & Spencer, which portrays itself as a family-friendly British institution, put mesothelioma sufferer Janice Allen through the stress of a court battle when she may have only months to live. I know I will think twice before going into M&S in future.
1 Kazan-Allen L. New Zealand’s Failing Asbestos Policy! February 22, 2011.
2 Conn D. Marks & Spencer asbestos case: 'I feel so angry and betrayed'. June 25, 2014.
3 Aherne D. Widow handed payout after Barking’s Cape Asbestos factory caused husband’s death. June 26, 2014.
4 Landmark Judgment In Asbestos Case ‘To Provide Vital Support To Families’. June 27, 2014.
Margaret Anne Gallagher & Others v S C Cheadle Hume.
New Zealand: Time to Ban Asbestos!
An online petition launched this month (June 2014) by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is demanding the Government “do the right thing and act immediately and ban the importation of asbestos and develop a comprehensive plan for the removal of all existing asbestos.”
The call comes hot on the heels of the publication of a discussion paper by New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment which highlighted the inadequacies of proposed health and safety regulations. Chapter 4 of this document entitled “Regulating Work Involving Asbestos” raised many technical issues and unfavourably compared New Zealand’s asbestos health and safety regime with that of Australia. Regarding the issue of an asbestos ban it said:
“It is also not within the scope of these regulations to ban the import, export or manufacture of asbestos or asbestos-containing products or materials. Although some controls are in place in other regulatory regimes, further work is needed to align New Zealand with trading partners such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
New Zealand asbestos victims have had a long-standing engagement with Ministers and politicians over the government's reckless disregard of the asbestos hazard.1 Asbestos widow Deidre van Gerven has been battling for an acknowledgement of the country’s asbestos crisis since she lost her husband to asbestos cancer in 1997. Her quest became even more determined following the massive 2011 earthquake which turned Christchurch into a city-sized asbestos dump site.
Advice distributed last month (May 2014) by the Ministry of Health (MoH) was clearly designed to damp down public concern over the asbestos hazard in Christchurch. 2 The MoH information was both incorrect and outdated. It failed to mention the full range of diseases caused by asbestos and gave false reassurances about the threat to children saying: “There is no conclusive evidence that children are at greater risk of developing asbestos-related disease than adults.” Yes, there is. The UK’s Committee of Carcinogenicity recently examined evidence on this issue and concluded that:
“it is well recognised by this committee that, due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, there is an increased lifetime risk of mesothelioma as a result of the long latency period of the disease. Because of differences in life expectancy, for a given dose of asbestos the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma is predicted to be about 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”3
The MoH advice sought to dismiss the dangers posed by environmental exposure saying:
“The risk from exposure to asbestos in the non-occupational setting is generally considered to be low because the concentrations of airborne asbestos fibres are low and people are not exposed very often…”
Considering the scale of the Christchurch earthquake, the widespread and long-term use of asbestos-containing materials in New Zealand, the lack of asbestos audits, the government’s failure to monitor imports of asbestos-containing products and low levels of public and occupational awareness of the asbestos hazard, it is more likely than not that the health of people in Christchurch, workers and residents alike, were endangered by the inhalation of elevated levels of asbestos.
Asbestos victims, trade unions and civil society campaigners have repeatedly called on the New Zealand government to ban the import and use of asbestos-containing products and implement measures to prevent hazardous exposures. Do the members of Prime Minister John Key’s government need to wait for the next earthquake to finally “do the right thing?”
1 Kazan-Allen L. New Zealand's Failing Asbestos Policy! February 22, 2011.
2 Asbestos advice for householders: Ministry of Health responses to questions about asbestos in Christchurch. May 2014.
3 Committee on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. Statement on the Relative Vulnerability of Children to Asbestos compared to Adults.
The Asbestos Lie
The shock waves from the May 22, 2014 European elections continue to reverberate. For someone who sees much of the world’s news through an asbestos filter, the success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is very worrying. In 2013, a UKIP Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Richard Helmer denounced plans to safeguard EU citizens from the asbestos hazard stating that there is “zero risk from white asbestos.” He accused “ambulance-chasing lawyers” of underwriting the attempt by politicians, trade unions and asbestos victims’ groups to implement measures to protect public and occupational health. Unsurprisingly, he cited a paper by scientists working for asbestos defendants to substantiate his claims. There is no shadow of a doubt that with 24 UK MEPs, 31% of the total UK allocation, more attempts will be made to roll back EU asbestos directives.
It was some comfort that at the same time as the developments discussed above were unfolding, news was received that a seminal work about Europe’s asbestos catastrophe had finally been published in English. The original German version of the book – Die Asbestluge [The Asbestos Lie] – by Swiss journalist Maria Roselli had appeared in 2007; it was followed the next year by the French version: Amiante & Eternit: Fortunes et Forfaitures [Asbestos & Eternit: Fortunes & Forfeits]. The Asbestos Lie was published in hard copy and also uploaded to the web by the European Trade Union Institute this month (May 2014).1 While a leading academic has agreed to produce a detailed review of this translation for the IBAS website, it is nevertheless appropriate at this time to point out that one of the asbestos lies highlighted in this book is the attempt by industry stakeholders to “whitewash” chrysotile asbestos. Ms. Rosselli writes:
“The asbestos lobby is still using its old tricks in developing and emerging countries that they used here thirty or forty years ago to interfere in the political process to thwart a solution: there are still the in-house or subsidised studies from ‘scientific’ institutes close to the industry purporting to substantiate the harmlessness of chrysotile. At scientific symposia organised and controlled by asbestos companies pseudo-experts play down the dangers of white asbestos… In this way it’s possible for national governments to still swallow the lie of ‘controlled use’ – risk-free use of asbestos.”
Some months before she died, UK mesothelioma sufferer Debbie Brewer reached out to Richard Helmer to tell him about her deadly battle with asbestos cancer. In his dismissive response, the MEP informed Ms. Brewer that: “the fact that you suffer from this disease is not evidence that it was caused by white asbestos. There is clear government research showing that white asbestos (as distinct from blue/brown asbestos) poses no measurable health risk.” Helmer is categorical that his priority is:
“the huge and unnecessary costs that would be inflicted on the British economy generally (and in particular on farmers, who often have large corrugated asbestos cement buildings) if they were required to replace this material. I am particularly incensed that this whole attempt to vilify white asbestos is driven by commercial interests seeking to profit from the wholly unnecessary and egregious economic damage they propose to inflict on thousands of businesses, and the economy generally.”2
It seems that in the world according to UKIP, the thousands of lives sacrificed to asbestos count for nothing just so long as UK plc can off-load its liabilities and increase its profits.
1 Rosselli M. [Translated by Milbouer P.] The Asbestos Lie. European Trade Union Institute, 2014.
2 Helmer R. March 2013 Update.
Yalegate, No Happy Ending – Yet!
I had expected better of Yale University. With hundreds of years of tradition and a library that contains fifteen million volumes (yes, 15,000,000!), I would have hoped that either wisdom or common sense would have prevailed by now. It seems not.
Last year, a group of Italian asbestos victims wrote to Yale asking the college to reassess an honorary award given to Swiss billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny in light of a criminal conviction by an Italian court which sentenced him to 18 years in prison.1 Dan Berman explained the situation as follows:
“As a Yale graduate I was shocked to find out in 2000 that asbestos-cement billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny – owner of the Eternit Corporation – had been awarded a ‘Doctorate of Humane Letters’ by Yale University in 1996. In its message accompanying the award, Yale praised Mr. Schmidheiny for ‘making company decisions based on the health of the planet’ and for doing business in ‘environmentally friendly’ ways, without ever mentioning the fact that part of his vast fortune came from Eternit’s deadly asbestos operations.”
Commenting on Schmidheiny’s supposed philanthropy, Berman said that having divested himself of most of his asbestos investments, Schmidheiny “created a large foundation as well as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. In essence he tried to morph himself into a green business philanthropist by green-washing himself in the eyes of the world.”
Yale has remained steadfast in its position despite communications from asbestos victims, trade unionists and experts in the U.S. and abroad. In an April 14th letter to Terry Lynch of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulation and Allied Workers, Yale’s Vice President and Secretary Kimberly M. Goff-Crews reaffirmed that “in regard to Mr. Schmidheiney’s degree … the University’s position has not changed.” The fact that this document contained just over one hundred words seems to reflect the lack of importance with which the university regards this matter.
While the college authorities might be dismissive of this issue, Yale alumni are not. Last Tuesday (May 13, 2014), a letter was sent to Yale’s President and Vice President/Secretary which accompanied an “Alumni Petition to the Yale Corporation to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny's Doctorate of Humane Letters.” Criticizing Yale’s refusal to revoke the honor on the grounds that “there is no record of Yale ever having revoked an honorary degree,” the petition concluded as follows: “we believe that revoking that high honor will reinforce Yale’s commitment to its motto Lux et Veritas while the whole world is watching.” For those readers who are, like myself, not native Latin “speakers,” Yale’s motto means “light and truth.”
Until the University admits its mistake and takes appropriate action, it would seem that Yale has not only betrayed its heritage but compromised its reputation. If Yale wishes to honor its traditional values, it should consult some of those 15,000,000 books in its library; subjects of interest might be human rights, social justice, environmental sustainability and corporate murder.
1 Kazan-Allen L. Awards to Schmidheiny and Candidacy of Paolo Boffetta Attacked by Victims' Groups. January 20, 2014.
Newsham J. A Toxic Legacy. September 8, 2013.
Asbestos Truth or Consequences
This morning I read a new academic paper – Asbestos in Belgium: an underestimated health risk. The evolution of mesothelioma mortality rates (1969–2009).1 While I was relieved to see epidemiological data confirming what Belgian asbestos campaigners have been saying for years, it seems hard to believe that it has taken so long for the scientists to conclude that:
The key to Belgium’s hidden mesothelioma epidemic is contained within the text of the last bullet point. Eternit S.A., a global conglomerate that bestrode the asbestos industrial sector for generations, was a Belgian-owned company. For decades, Eternit executives, spin-doctors and lawyers used every available method to create a climate in which the use of asbestos flourished. Even when asbestos was finally banned in Belgium, they exerted the corporate, political and social capital at their disposal to prevent victims from claiming compensation or speaking out about their personal tragedies.2 The public awareness and recognition given to asbestos victims in many neighboring countries have long been denied to Belgians.
By happenstance, the same issue of the journal which contained the paper cited above, featured an article which shed light on industry’s tactics to deny the asbestos hazard and defend companies from asbestos liabilities:
“Asbestos product companies [like Eternit!] would like the public to believe that there was a legitimate debate surrounding the dangers of asbestos during the twentieth century, particularly regarding the link to cancer, which delayed adequate regulations. The asbestos–cancer link was not a legitimate contestation of science; rather the companies directly manipulated the scientific literature. There is evidence that industry manipulation of scientific literature remains a continuing problem today, resulting in inadequate regulation and compensation and perpetuating otherwise preventable worker and consumer injuries and deaths.”3
Throughout the industrializing world, two million tonnes of asbestos is used every year. The Belgian scientists conclude their paper with a call for international prohibitions (“a global ban is imperative to prevent further occupational and environmental exposure worldwide”); the American authors conclude theirs with a call for total transparency about the corporate machinations regarding the asbestos hazard. Both steps are needed, now more than ever!
1 Van den Borre L, Deboosere P. Asbestos in Belgium: an underestimated health risk. The evolution of mesothelioma mortality rates (1969–2009).
2 Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. IBAS 2012.
3 Egilman D, Bird T, Lee C. Dust diseases and the legacy of corporate manipulation of science and law.
Two articles I read today caused me to reflect on the toxic legacy in asbestos-producing and consuming countries. As Canada, for decades the world’s most prolific asbestos producer, and Belgium, the home country of Eternit, one of the biggest industrial asbestos groups, were mentioned in these texts let us focus our attention on them.
From 1880 until 2011, Canada produced a whopping 63+ million tonnes of asbestos; for decades, the export of what was affectionately referred to as “white gold” brought in billions of dollars of export earnings. Canadian vested interests – including commercial as well as political, academic and other stakeholders – played a pivotal role in creating a climate in which global sales of asbestos could flourish. Following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco lobbyists, asbestos spin doctors adopted strategies to intimidate opponents, co-opt decision makers, neutralize scientific criticism and influence journalists, trade unionists and civil servants.
The Canadian asbestos lobby was as active at home as it was abroad and the low level of public awareness of the asbestos hazard in mining regions is a direct result of the industry’s propaganda campaigns. Two years after asbestos production ended in Quebec, demands are being made for a more open and transparent approach to asbestos contamination of the built environment.1 Toxicologist Daniel Green has called on the housing authorities in Gatineau, the fourth biggest city in Quebec, to advise tenants about the presence of asbestos in their properties; up to 40% of the municipal housing stock is believed to contain asbestos. “An informed population is,” Dr. Green says “a population better able to protect themselves.”
Thousands of miles from Quebec, Belgian authorities were also involved in a crisis last week when asbestos-containing roofing was discovered at the European Parliament.2 Even as the authorities were attempting to play down the risk to building users, it was announced that immediate action would be taken to contain the hazard and remediate the building.
If asbestos is too hazardous for Quebec tenants and European Union politicians, how can it be safe for Indian factory workers, Chinese miners or Indonesian car mechanics? Are Canadian and Belgian lives more valuable? If we accept that all human beings have an equal right to life, then the use of asbestos anywhere in the world is immoral, inexcusable and unacceptable.
1 Une population avertie est apte à se protéger. [An informed population is able to protect themselves].
2 De l’amiante sur le toit du parlement! [Asbestos on the roof of the parliament!]