Brazilians United in Ban Asbestos Struggle
In over a quarter of a century of research and work on asbestos, I have never known asbestos corporations to pay for a meeting to discuss the toxic nature of the substance at the heart of their production processes. Until now! Such a phenomenon occurred in Brazil earlier this month when personnel from the Labor Public Ministry (Ministério Público do Trabalho, Campinas/ MPT) in partnership with staff from the Inter-Union Department of Studies and Health Research and Work Environments (DIESAT) and the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto/ABREA) held a medical workshop (October 5), two-day conference Asbestos: A Socio-Legal Approach (October 6-7) and the First National Meeting of Asbestos Victims and their Families (October 8) in Campinas, São Paulo. Simultaneous translations on October 5 progressed the exchange of information amongst Portuguese and English speakers, while communications during the sessions on October 6-8 were facilitated by simultaneous interpretation into Portuguese, Italian and English. In the days since these events took place, news about them has been reverberating on TV channels, throughout the media, across the blogosphere, via social media platforms and websites.1
The costs for the activities were paid for by fines recovered from Confibra and Infibra, the last two cement companies still using asbestos in São Paulo State under injunctions obtained from local courts allowing this contravention of the São Paulo State asbestos ban. The court-awarded penalties were achieved as a result of actions brought by Labor Prosecutors over the companies noncompliance with the mandatory São Paulo State asbestos ban and the labor code stipulating the provision of minimal occupational health safeguards for people working with asbestos.
On October 5, 2016 the busy schedule kicked off with a meeting chaired by Dr. Eduardo Algranti during which Brazilian and U.S. experts discussed legal and medical challenges being faced in Brazil in providing support for the asbestos-injured. Labor Prosecutor Márcia Kamei López Aliaga, the Manager of the MPTs National Program to Ban Asbestos, said the MPT had a remit to not only ensure safe working conditions but also to be proactive in defending vulnerable groups. For this reason, the MPT was collaborating with the National Cancer Institute to produce a National Mesothelioma Protocol and begin work on the creation of a National Mesothelioma Registry. Key facts presented during the medical workshop included the following:
The two-day international seminar Amianto: Uma Abordagem Sócio-Jurídica (Asbestos: A Socio-Legal Approach) began promptly on Thursday morning (October 6) with speakers highlighting the importance of both this seminar and Brazils ongoing debate on asbestos.
Despite the countrys economic situation, attempts by foreign and local capital to decimate workers rights and the judicial impasse on whether or not it is constitutional to allow the use of a carcinogenic substance, Brazilians have to lead the fight against the use of this hazardous material, even though doing so could impact on the national economy: Brazil is now the worlds third biggest supplier of asbestos fiber. The jobs that would be lost by banning asbestos were not, said one speaker, the type of employment we need. While the constitution guarantees the dignity of labour it does not guarantee the right to self-poison by willingly exposing oneself to asbestos.
Ronaldo Curado Fleury
As the Attorney General of the Labor Public Ministry, Dr. Ronaldo Curado Fleury had a prominent place on the agenda. He reminded delegates that the previous day, the countrys constitution had turned 28 years old. The first paragraph of that esteemed document guaranteed dignity of all human beings. All Brazilian law, Dr. Fleury said should ensure human dignity. This is not possible under the current policy which allows the controlled use of asbestos. Having decent and dignified work is crucial but not work that is harmful or dangerous such as that undertaken by people employed along the asbestos chain of production. We must, Dr. Fleury concluded keep our courage as we ban asbestos. The next speaker, Labor Prosecutor Márcia Kamei López Aliaga explained ways in which Labor Prosecutors have acted to minimize the asbestos hazard such as pursuing negotiated voluntary agreements with asbestos producers in São Paulo to phase out asbestos use as of next year (2017).
The role Public Prosecutors have played in the fight for asbestos justice in Italy was explained by the attorney Laura DAmico within the context of the criminal prosecutions against asbestos entrepreneur Stephen Schmidheiny, former director of the Swiss Eternit Asbestos Group. In his video presentation, Justice Augusto César Leite de Carvalho of the Superior Labor Court condemned the commercial exploitation of chrysotile (white) asbestos saying that while human rights should be universal, under the status quo economic privileges were prioritized over workers rights. Justice Carvalho expressed optimism about the importance of the seminar for raising awareness about the need for increased protections for Brazilian workers.
Legalization of asbestos in Brazil [Judicialização do amianto no Brasil] was the subject addressed by three speakers in Panel 1. According to Dr. Luciano Lima Leivas, of the National Program to Ban Asbestos, the federal policy which allows the controlled use of asbestos is not fit for purpose; asbestos is, he said, responsible for 30% of the cancers contracted by Brazilians exposed to workplace carcinogens. Since 2012 when the Labour Public Ministry included asbestos in its action program, prosecutors have initiated civil class action lawsuits for claimants such as injured workers who contracted asbestos diseases after employment at the Eternit asbestos factory in Osasco. Ana Cláudia Bandeira Monteiro, Vice President of the National Association of Labor Prosecutors (Associação Nacional dos Procuradores do Trabalho (ANPT)), reiterated that asbestos remains a high priority for the Labor Public Ministry which continues to challenge the constitutionality of allowing the use of such a hazardous substance. There were, she said, viable, safer alternative products and substances the use of which could protect health, maintain human dignity and preserve the environment.
Campaigning lawyer Mauro Menezes called for judicial activism to address multiple failures in the legal system which left asbestos cases pending for far too long. Stressing the need to raise awareness of the asbestos catastrophe amongst judges through the dissemination of scientific, engineering and technical expertise and convincing legal arguments, he praised the proactive stance of the Labor Public Ministry and the Labor Prosecutors General Office without whom the situation and plight of victims would have been much worse.
Panel 2, Asbestos: Technical Legal Aspects (Amianto: Aspectos Técnico-legais) allowed input from a panorama of international experts including: from the US, Drs. Arthur Frank and Barry Castleman, Lawyer Andrew DuPont; Engineer Carmen Lima from Portugal; and Dr. Ubiratan de Paula Santos from Brazil. Health is not, said Dr. Frank the absence of illness. To prove the innocuous nature of asbestos, countries such as India and Russia have taken conscious decisions not to record cases of asbestos-related diseases. Despite their denials, data has emerged which showed that exposure to asbestos is causing cancers and diseases in these countries. Obtaining compensation for negligent exposures is important and requires medical evidence which courts will accept the submission of foreign language publications is problematic. All requests by defendants for biopsies of claimants should be refused as computed tomography scans can provide much more detail at less risk to patients. Engineer Limas presentation detailing work undertaken in Portugal to identify and quantify the scale of asbestos contamination was much appreciated as was the selection of photographs she exhibited showing asbestos-containing products in situ throughout Portugals infrastructure. There was, she said no epidemiological study of exposed workers [and] no accreditation [system] for asbestos removal workers in Portugal. Paying tribute to the unique accomplishment of Brazils Labor Courts and Labor Prosecutors, Barry Castleman referenced successes in getting asbestos users to agree to transition to asbestos-free processes and bringing the externalization of costs back to the producing industries and not the workers and communities suffering from the deadly effects of hazardous commercial practices.
Panel 3, the final session of the day, was entitled: The National and International Panorama of the Fight to Ban Asbestos and the Struggle for Justice for Victims (Panorama Nacional e Internacional na Luta pelo Banimento do Amianto e Justiça para as Vítimas). PH D student Agata Mazzeo explained how two towns, one in Italy (Casale Monferrato) and one in Brazil (Osasco) had become reference points in the grassroots campaign for asbestos justice. Through their efforts, individuals in these communities had made manifest the invisible and silent epidemics caused by the commercial exploitation of asbestos.
Drawing on her expertise as a teacher, Maria Assunta Prato explained the multimedia project developed for educating students about the asbestos hazard after experiencing the personal tragedy of losing her husband to mesothelioma. The death of her husband, who became ill at 49 years old, motivated her campaign to make students aware of what had happened to the air and water of their town: Casale Monferrato.2 Like Assunta, the activism of Linda Reinstein was motivated by the asbestos diagnosis of her husband. The fight to ban asbestos in the U.S. had, she said, been hampered by vested interests such as the chlor-alkali industry which was now the biggest user of chrysotile asbestos in the country. She pointed out that all of the 300 tonnes of asbestos imported to the U.S. in 2015 came from Brazil. Bruno Pesce, the well-known activist from Casale Monferrato and spokesperson for the victims association (AfeVA), called for a multinational of citizens to counter the global activities of asbestos interests and praised the activism of Brazils Labour Prosecutors; while his colleague Nicolo Pondrano, former Eternit worker and trade union activist, emphasized the importance of judicial efforts to hold negligent industries to account. Mr. Pondrano cited the blocking by asbestos stakeholders of United Nations efforts to include chrysotile asbestos on the list of hazardous substances regulated under The Rotterdam Convention. In the final presentation of the day, Laurie Kazan-Allen cited ten facts and exhibited new graphics documenting the current global panorama in the ban asbestos struggle.
Her final comments, which were directed to representatives of the asbestos industry attending the seminar, led to laughter amongst delegates when she thanked the industry for their attendance and expressed the hope that they had found the days presentations informative. Please report back to your colleagues in Brazil and elsewhere, she said that it is our intention to end the tyranny imposed on global populations in the name of asbestos profits.
Panel 1 on October 7, entitled Moral and Existential Damages in Occupational Health (Danos Morais e Existenciais em Saúde do Trabalhador) introduced a legal concept unknown to UK and U.S. delegates where there is no judicial category for existential damages. An academic paper by a Brazilian author defined this concept as follows: The existential damage is known as the injury to the complex of human relations that enable the ordinary development of the individual's personality, including the personal and social scopes; it is a modality of immaterial damage capable of reaching many different sectors of human social life. An example of existential damages provided by one of ABREAs lawyers referenced cases of political prisoners under Pinochet whose lives, careers, social relationships and personalities had irreversibly been altered by their treatment under the dictatorship. 3
During Panel 2 As Açes Penais Contra os Responsáveis pelo Desastre Socioambiental Promovido pela Indústria do Amianto (Criminal Actions Against Those Responsible for Environmental Disaster Created by the Asbestos Industry), Prosecutor Jorge Mamede Masseran questioned the ethics of public spending on medication and treatment for victims whose illnesses were due to corporate negligence, and warned that the countrys asbestos profits were smaller than the healthcare and other costs of looking after the injured. Via a video intervention, Dr. Roberto de Figueiredo Caldas, one of ABREAs lawyers and currently the President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, spoke of his commitment to obtaining justice for asbestos claimants and referenced meetings he had had with Pope Francis. Italian Public Prosecutor Laura DAmico reiterated the need for international collaboration when tackling multinational corporate crimes. In order to expose the machinations of industry-linked experts and other defence strategies, improved networks for the exchange of information would be beneficial. A statement issued on war crimes on September 9, 2016 by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, announcing new ways to act against states and/or individuals involved in land-grabbing could, she felt, pave the way for crimes such as those committed by asbestos stakeholders to be classified as a crime against humanity by an international court tasked with pursuing crimes committed by corporations.
The excitement of 250 delegates arriving at the Hotel Vila Rica for Brazils First National Meeting of Asbestos Victims (Encontro Nacional de Familiares e Vítimas do Amianto) on Saturday morning (October 8) was an almost tangible presence hours before the meeting was due to begin. As scores of ABREA members and speakers registered their attendance, collected their translation headsets and took their places in the assembly room, the buzz of anticipation and background sounds of personal interactions underscored the historic nature of the days event. After over 20 years of existence, representatives from ABREA groups from as far away as Bom Jesus da Serra/Bahia, Pernambuco and Minas Gerais were able to take part in discussions with their counterparts from Rio de Janeiro, Osasco, São Caetano do Sul, Paraná and elsewhere. While some of them were experienced travellers, others had never been on a plane before or made a 10-hour bus trip from Rio de Janeiro to Campinas, São Paulo. The room became a sea of white tee shirts, the dress code of the day commissioned for the event featuring a colourful new logo and the words Encontro Nacional de Familiares e Vítimas do Amianto (First National Meeting of Asbestos Victims and their Families). Photographic tributes to dozens of ABREA members who had been lost to asbestos-related diseases were displayed on the walls of the assembly room and acted as salient reminders of the importance of the discussions due to take place.
Fernanda Giannasi, retired Labor Inspector and a founding member of ABREA, welcomed delegates to the meeting, paying tribute to the many ABREA colleagues whose lives had been lost in the two decades the organization had existed. She announced news just published by Brasilit, formerly a major asbestos-producing manufacturer, that the company had agreed to pay for medical check-ups and tests for former workers. These examinations could be scheduled at the convenience of the workers who, Fernanda said, owned the results of all tests and interventions carried out at the companys expense. Thanking all the delegates for their attendance, ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza highlighted the momentous nature of the days event the first ever gathering of all ABREA groups, including delegates from groups which would be set up in the near future. Eliezer reminded speakers and attendees of the constraints imposed by the use of translators; the availability of interpretation into Portuguese, England and Italian would finish at 17:30. As buses for transporting ABREA members were also scheduled to arrive at that time, the length of presentations and interventions were, by necessity, strictly limited.
Márcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga with ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza on the right
The mornings first speakers were a veritable whos who in the Brazilian fight for asbestos justice.4 They included: Márcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga, manager of the Labor Public Ministrys National Program to Ban Asbestos, State Deputy Marcos Martins, who had sponsored São Paulo legislation to ban asbestos, Former State Deputy Zilton Rocha from Bahia, Federal Deputy Vicentinho, former Senator and now São Paulo City Councillor Eduardo Matarazzo Suplicy, who had promoted federal legislation at the Senate to ban asbestos, Mayor and councillors of cities around Campinas. Amongst the key facts highlighted during their presentations were:
The input from such illustrious political and legal champions was widely appreciated and the buzz caused when Eduardo Suplicy entered the room and donned his tee shirt gave international delegates a hint as to the great esteem with which he was held. In his comments, City Councillor Suplicy spoke about his 2011 ban asbestos bill and promised his personal assistance with having this proposal retabled by Rio Grande do Sul Senator Paulo Paim. Finishing his speech he promised ABREA members You can always count on me. A photograph Suplicy had taken outside the hall with his hands tied and reiterating the call for federal ban asbestos action has been widely circulated throughout social media. The caption Brasil Sem Amianto, means Brazil Without Asbestos.
During the next panel, representatives of trade unions from Brazil and Italy spoke of their commitment to the ban asbestos struggle with some fiery presentations and a call for imprisonment of asbestos profiteers. The representative from the Central única dos Trabalhadores (Unified Workers' Central/ CUT) reminded delegates that CUT had adopted its ban asbestos policy in 1996. In the same year, Nicolo Pondrano from Italys CGIL (the Italian General Confederation of Labour) said, a quantum leap had been made by asbestos activists when they understood the need to interact with doctors, scientists and others to provide hard evidence of the deadly impact that asbestos exposures had had on workers. Representing the steelworkers Union of Osasco and the region, Carlos Aparício Clemente detailed the struggle for working class justice necessitated by one auto parts company in Osasco. Since the plant closed in 1994, efforts have been progressed by the union to ensure the granting of compensation and the provision of healthcare for former workers.
The victims panel provided the opportunity for input from ABREA leaders. Amongst those taking part were representatives of the following groups: ABREA Rio de Janeiro, ABEA Simes Filho, ABEA Bom Jesus da Serra, ABREA Osasco, Londrina and São Caetano do Sul, APREA Paraná, APEA Pernambuco, and from Italy AfeVA. For some of them, this was their first public speech; each presenter was warmly applauded. The stories they told were familiar; they spoke of dirty and dangerous working conditions, injured workers, government disinterest, environmental contamination and damaged lives.
Despite all the injustice they had suffered, Nestor de Souza from São Caetano do Sul said the workers had referred to their former employer Brasilit (part of the French Saint-Gobain multinational) as our mother company. From Bom Jesus da Serra, Esmeraldo Teixeira detailed the part the asbestos mining company had played in the life of ordinary people. In the decades after the mine was opened in 1937, work had been plentiful, money had been good and the company had built soccer fields and a basketball court. The town had an airport, movie theatre, doctors, dentists and teachers. The downside was child labor, pollution of the built environment, contamination of the canyon and lake. The cemetery in the village next to the asbestos processing plant was called Snow White a reference to the dust which had led to the deaths of so many local people.
Elineide Cruz from Pernambuco spoke of her fathers death; he had worked for Brasilit for 37 years and brought asbestos waste home to use in constructing the family home. Elineides house has an asbestos roof and her neighbourhood is full of broken asbestos pipes and other toxic waste. Marcia Gamba from Londrina spoke emotionally about her fathers death from asbestosis. He had been employed by Infibra, a manufacturer of asbestos-cement building materials, and died only seven months after he had been diagnosed. The plant closed in 2003 but 1,500 former workers none of whom were compensated by the company remain at high risk of contracting deadly diseases. She is working with partnering groups to ensure that victims receive prompt medical treatment and access to scans and other tests as required. This session ended with a video presentation by Marc Hindry from the Association Nationale de Défense des Victimes de l'Amiante (ANDEVA) a French umbrella group representing many local asbestos groups. He expressed the frustration of fellow campaigners that despite all that has been achieved in France, no criminal trial of asbestos entrepreneurs has taken place yet!
A surprise session before the lunchtime break presented the opportunity to pay tribute to the family of Yura Zoudine, a former Eternit engineer who died of mesothelioma on December 8, 2005. Through their perseverance, the family had won a titanic legal battle for compensation for wrongful death which had entailed motions in the lower, appellate and supreme, upper and superior labour courts. Thanking ABREA for all its tireless efforts on behalf of the family, Yuras widow Renata said it had been a fight for justice. Presenting Renata with a plaque and bouquet of flowers, Fernanda highlighted the significance of this victory which was, she said, the first individual claim to be resolved in Brazil with substantial damages being paid to the widow and family.
Renata with flowers
Convening after lunch, the first afternoon panel considered the global fight against asbestos, with input of speakers from Italy, the U.S., Portugal and the UK. Maria Assunta Prato described how her husbands asbestos cancer diagnosis has shocked the family. While he had not had any occupational exposure to asbestos, he had lived in Casale Monferrato, the Italian town which had been at the center of several court cases against asbestos entrepreneurs Stephan Schmidheiny (Switzerland) and Baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne (Belgium). Italian PhD student Agata Mazzeo explained her field work in Brazil with ABREA members and the importance of victims actions to raise awareness of the lethal repercussions of the commercial exploitation of asbestos on individuals, communities and the environment. Barry Castleman (U.S.) said that a ban on asbestos in Brazil, a country which is still producing asbestos would be a revolutionary development and one which would set off a domino effect around the world amongst other countries, which would question why their countries, with no asbestos mines, had not banned asbestos. The subject of the presentation by Linda Reinstein (U.S.) was the use of social media platforms to connect individuals and groups working towards national bans and global actions on asbestos.
Engineer Carmen Lima explained the work undertaken in Portugal and Cape Verde to identify and quantify the asbestos risk and emphasized the widespread lack of awareness in Portugal about the danger posed by asbestos-contain products within the built environment. Laurie Kazan-Allen, who had worked with ABREA on the Global Asbestos Congress: Past, Present and Future 2000 (GAC 2000), paid tribute to her late ABREA friends: Aldo Vicentin, Zé da Capa and Ruth Maria Nascimento and in her presentation A Debt of Honor updated delegates on the work her organization had undertaken since GAC 2000.
Speakers in the next panel focused on legal avenues for achieving justice for the injured and the role played by expert witnesses, such as medical professionals, in lawsuits. Specific industry tactics were discussed including the use of injunctions to continue producing asbestos in ban states, false experts and mass media campaigns to spread pro-asbestos propaganda.
After a lively question and answer session, The Letter from Campinas5 was discussed. After several interventions and amendments, the text, which was categorical in its determination to fight for the banishment of asbestos in our cities, states and throughout the Brazilian territory was unanimously approved by the delegates, who also supported a declaration in support of the State of Santa Catarinas proposal to ban asbestos as well as motions pending in the States of Bahia and Paraná. A letter urging the USAs EPA to prioritize asbestos on the Toxic Substances Control Acts top 10 high-risk chemicals list 2016 was also approved.
The events which took place in Campinas earlier this month continue to reverberate in the Brazilian print and social media,6 in TV programs and in commentaries being published. The energy and voices brought to the national dialogue on asbestos have rekindled interest in this subject which will, one hopes, encourage jurists at the Supreme Court to issue the long-awaited ruling on the unconstitutionality of Brazils controlled use policy. After the meeting of representatives from all the victims groups in Brazil, a WhatsApp list was constituted which was deluged with messages of appreciation and solidarity. As Fernanda pointed out, in Brazil not everyone has a computer but everyone has a phone, and WhatsApp is the most popular and cost effective way of communicating in such a large country as Brazil. This new facility will be of enormous importance in the future. The formal Letter from Campinas and the communications conveyed to the legislatures of Santa Catarina, Bahia and Paraná are examples of tangible outcomes of the meeting as are the new and revitalized links between Brazilians and international colleagues. The struggle continues (A luta continua)!
October 31, 2016
1 Em encontro sobre amianto, entidades pensam medidas para banir produção do material no Brasil [At asbestos meetings, authorities propose measures to ban production of the material in Brazil]. October 13, 2016.
Seminário Internacional discute o banimento do amianto no Brasil [International Seminar discusses the ban on asbestos in Brazil].
Produção do amianto será proibida no estado de São Paulo - G1 Campinas e Região - Jornal da EPTV 1 Edição [Asbestos production will be prohibited in the state of São Paulo - G1 Campinas Area - Journal of the EPTV 1st Edition.] October 11, 2016. Em http://g1.globo.com/sp/campinas-regiao/jornal-da-eptv/videos/v/producao-do-amianto-sera-proibida-no-estado-de-sao-paulo/5368526/
Fernanda Giannasi, a voz dos expostos ao amianto no Brasil [Fernanda Giannasi, the voice of the asbestos-exposed in Brazil]. October 9, 2016.
3 The existential damage and the public politics of health, labour environment and work safety. 2016. http://www.bv.fapesp.br/en/bolsas/165684/the-existential-damage-and-the-public-politicies-of-health-labour-environment-and-work-safety/
5 ABREA. Letter from Campinas. October 18, 2016
6 Contracs participa de evento contra exposição de trabalhadores/as ao Amianto.October 14, 2016.