Conference: Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe
European countries, if we include the former Soviet Union, have consumed 100 million tonnes of asbestos since 1920. Let me repeat that figure: 100 million tonnes. This equates to 52% of all the asbestos used during that time.1 If Russia and Asian countries belonging to the former Soviet Union Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are excluded, usage in the remaining European countries totals 44 million tonnes, 23% of global consumption.2
Europe was awash with asbestos fibers of all types liberated during asbestos mining operations, processing, and handling. It is no wonder, therefore, that its citizens are engulfed in a tsunami of asbestos-related disease, death, hardship and heartbreak. A paper which analysed the global incidence of deaths from mesothelioma, a signature cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, found that between 1994 and 2008 more than 50% of all fatalities took place in Europe.3
If the past was bleak, the future looks equally so according to the predictions of European epidemiologists. In the paper entitled The European Mesothelioma Epidemic,4 it was forecast that between 1995 and 2029, 250,000 men in Western Europe would die from mesothelioma. When the deaths from other asbestos-related cancers and respiratory diseases are factored into the equation, along with female asbestos-related deaths and deaths in Eastern Europe, it is not unreasonable to predict that 500,000 Europeans will die from these avoidable diseases during this 30-year period. This equates to the elimination of the entire populations of cities such as Sheffield, Grenoble, Nuremburg or Bologna.
The Brussels Conference Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe: Supporting Victims, Preventing Future Tragedy, which is the subject of this report, was part of a project entitled Asbestos-Related Diseases in Europe. It was the culmination of two years of planning by a partnership of trade unions and asbestos victims' groups, in which personnel from the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers the founders of the overall project were assisted by representatives of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Belgian Asbestos Victims' Group (ABEVA); significantly, EU funding was secured for the event. The latter enabled provision of interpretation between English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian, which greatly improved communication amongst asbestos victims' representatives, trade unionists, academics, campaigners, representatives of non-governmental organizations and European Commission officials from 22 countries.
To maximize productivity in the available time, questionnaires had been circulated in English, Czech, Spanish and Polish, and responses collected prior to the meeting to delineate facts about national asbestos situations (see Appendix A). As can be seen from the responses received (Appendix B), there is a pronounced lack of governmental engagement with the human and environmental consequences of the tragic asbestos legacy in many countries.
During plenary, roundtable and discussion sessions over the two days, delegates considered a range of topical issues including national asbestos realities, occupational exposures and public health risks; they also explored measures for minimizing asbestos hazards: legislative solutions, medical protocols, decontamination technologies and public mobilization. During the meeting, work began on a European Charter for Asbestos Victims, the wording of which was finalized through post-conference discussions and emails. The culmination of the event was the attendance by delegates of an asbestos hearing convened by the European Parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs on September 18.
Asbestos meetings which had taken place in Brussels in 2001 and 2005 did so prior to the integration of several Central and East European states into the EU. As a result, the asbestos challenges faced by countries such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Slovenia had not been addressed. To remedy this oversight, particular attention was paid during the drafting of the conference agenda to the situation in these countries with an emphasis on those which already are in the European Union as well as candidate and potential candidate countries.5 For many delegates from newer EU member states, September 17 marked their first opportunity to take part in discussions on asbestos issues with international colleagues.
Presentation titles included in this report (when blue) are links to PDFs of delegate presentations
IBAS Coordinator Laurie Kazan-Allen, a co-organizer of the event, set the tone of the day's activities when she said:
Each of the delegates taking part in this meeting has been carefully chosen for his/her expertise and knowledge. Some of us are veteran asbestos campaigners; some of us are just starting out. Despite different languages and different areas of competence, we share common goals: to support the injured and decontaminate Europe.
In her presentation Confronting Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe, Ms. Kazan-Allen placed the discussion firmly within an EU framework; she asserted that asbestos-related deaths were a betrayal of the principles for which the EU stands:
The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights asserts the right to life, the right to the integrity of the person as well as workers' rights to information. The European Convention on Human Rights clearly states that 'everyone's right to life shall be protected by the law.' And even so, throughout the EU people are dying in their thousands from avoidable diseases caused by asbestos.
Within EU member states, the recognition and compensation of occupational asbestos-related diseases was inconsistent and unjust; despite various EU recommendations, people with asbestos-related lung cancer, self-employed workers and others were routinely marginalized by their diseases and ignored by the authorities. There are huge discrepancies, Kazan-Allen said, between what the injured should receive and what they do receive. Concluding her talk, the speaker outlined a platform of recommendations she would be presenting to the EU Committee the following day, calling for new measures to deal with the human and environmental repercussions of Europe's massive use of asbestos.
The next speaker, Laurent Vogel of the ETUC, had the unenviable task of trying to elucidate the current asbestos legislative regime in his talk: EU Asbestos Framework Legislation Regulating Asbestos Exposures, Victims' Rights, Occupational Conditions. As had been remarked by Ms. Kazan-Allen, the European figures for asbestos consumption had been greatly increased by the inclusion of data from countries in the former Soviet Republic. An analysis undertaken showed that when these countries were excluded from the statistics, European annual consumption peaked in the 1970s at around 1.4 million tonnes, while that in the former USSR continued to remain at over 2 million tonnes well into the 1990s.
European Union action on the asbestos hazard had been seriously delayed by pressure from vested interests. Eventually, however, mobilization by asbestos victims, trade unionists and Members of the European Parliament achieved a modicum of protection for at-risk workers. Unfortunately, this process took longer than it should have done, with the first directive only being adopted in 1983 under a regime based on the controlled use of asbestos.6 Had action been taken when the scientific and medical evidence on the asbestos hazard first became available, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved. When asbestos directives were finally adopted the process was protracted and fragmented, which led to problems regarding consistency of application and implementation.
The EU history regarding asbestos had, the speaker said, been one of missed opportunities. Even when Directive 2003/18/EC was enacted setting a 5-year phase-out for an EU-wide ban on the use of all types of asbestos, a derogation was allowed which persists to this day. This exemption was exploited by factories in Germany, Poland and Sweden that continued to use chrysotile asbestos in the production of chlorine. Although the amounts used were small, there was a symbolic value to this loophole which sends out the wrong signal.
In the case of Germany, Mr. Vogel said, there is evidence that the country is violating the EU law, which allows the placing on the market of diaphragms containing asbestos but forbids the import of raw asbestos fibers. However, up until now, the European Commission has not challenged this infringement of the law. How can EU leaders lobby for a global asbestos ban when the use of asbestos continues within our countries, the speaker asked.
The title of the presentation by Jorge Costa-David, of the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG), was The European Commission's Asbestos Policy. Commenting on what he said was understandable criticism of the Commission's underperformance regarding asbestos by the first two speakers, Mr. Costa-David explained the current situation as one characterized by clearly insufficient resources, including an expected freeze on staffing numbers. By the end of 2012, several members of the department responsible for occupational health and safety policy issues will have retired and no new appointments have been guaranteed. Against this backdrop the Commission continues, as far as it can, to develop tools to deal with the occupational risks posed by asbestos. Initiatives have included the production of guidelines and information resources such as an asbestos flyer for DIY stores.7
Building on work undertaken previously, including the research and production of the asbestos report by the Senior Labor Inspectors Committee, the DG was working on additional resources to raise asbestos awareness.8 This material, which was initially only to be available online (the most effective way of reaching the relevant target audiences), would examine occupational asbestos hazards and outline examples of best practice from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK.9 Mr. Costa-David clarified the distinction between the European Commission as a political institution and the civil servants working for it. Whilst high-level lobbying is essential, efforts must, he said, be carefully targeted.
Throughout the 20th century, Belgium was at the center of Europe's asbestos industry. Indeed there was some justification for saying that, with the help of their Swiss partners, Belgian asbestos stakeholders had been the glue which enabled competing national asbestos interests to work together for mutual gain and protection. In 1906, almost as soon as the patent for producing asbestos-cement had been issued to the Austrian inventor Ludwig Hatschek, a Belgian entrepreneur named Alphonse Emsens set up an Eternit factory in Brussels.
In 1929 Eternit Belgium and Eternit Switzerland formed a cartel with other European asbestos-cement producers to control global markets, fix prices and spearhead new corporate ventures. In 1970, the Benelux Asbestos Information Committee was set up at the Eternit Belgium headquarters with members from Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Asbestos International Association was also established in Belgium.
As can be evinced from the activity described above, Eternit-Belgium was determined to create a climate in which the production and sale of their products would flourish. It was not a coincidence that in the 1960s and 1970s, Belgium and Luxembourg had the world's highest rates for per capita asbestos consumption.
Courtesy of Sugio Furuya, Asian Ban Asbestos Network. (Enlarge Picture)
It was, therefore, entirely appropriate that a presentation from ABEVA, the Belgian asbestos victims' group, entitled Belgium At the Heart of Europe's Asbestos Trade took center stage during the morning's discussions. ABEVA's President Eric Jonckheere knows better than most people the human cost of Europe's asbestos profits, having lost his father, mother and two brothers to asbestos cancer. Within 400 meters on the street where he grew up, seven asbestos victims had died (two former factory workers and five members of the public). Despite the ubiquity of asbestos death in Kapelle-op-den-Bos, local people refused to cast aspersions on Eternit, the town's biggest employer. There was a kind of Omerta, which surrounded the company.
When loyalty was insufficient to control adverse news leaking out, the company made cash payments to bury bad news. Eric Jonckheere's mother, Françoise, turned down the €42,000 Eternit offered to buy her silence and instead embarked on a tortuous legal process to obtain justice. It took 11 years but finally, on November 28, 2011, the Brussels District Court found Eternit guilty. In his judgment Judge Thiery noted that Eternit preferred the pursuit of profit above public health [and] made every possible effort to continue the production of the extremely poisonous substance, without giving a hoot about the people who worked with it.10 The Jonckheere asbestos lawsuit was the first such victory against Eternit to be won in a Belgian court.
Lars Vedsmand, from the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW), has amassed a fund of knowledge on the asbestos hazard over three decades as a trade union activist. His presentation The EFBWW Asbestos Project detailed ongoing efforts to develop new training programs, extend collaborative networks and lobby European bodies regarding the asbestos hazard. Despite the EU ban on asbestos, asbestos products remain within the infrastructure: in ships, vehicles and buildings. The risk posed to construction workers was particularly high; workers, who had come into the industry since asbestos was banned, had a low degree of awareness of the hazard they could encounter while undertaking maintenance or refurbishment work in contaminated buildings.
Throughout EU member states, there was a pronounced lack of leadership and resources for dealing with the asbestos challenge. For this reason, the EFBWW, in consultation with organizations representing labor inspectors, asbestos victims, researchers, training providers and others, devised an Asbestos Action Plan (the Plan). Specific components of the Plan set out proposals to ensure that all EU citizens, whether they were workers, members of the public or consumers, would be protected from the asbestos hazard.
Strategies have been delineated for: making asbestos audits of all buildings, public and private, mandatory; establishing asbestos training protocols for at-risk professionals and tradesmen; prioritizing asbestos removal work at European, national and regional levels; and implementing EU criteria for the recognition and compensation of asbestos-related diseases. Initiatives being mounted under The Plan include: vocational modules on asbestos awareness training; the development of training programs with the European Construction Industry Federation; the production of a series of information modules and fact-sheets in ten languages oriented to specific at-risk communities, such as construction workers, home owners, home renovators; and continued political pressure on the European Commission with a focus on the Health Programme for 2014-2020.
Under the EFBWW Asbestos Own Initiative for the European Parliament, of which the Brussels event on September 17 & 18 was a part, a Review of Asbestos-Related Occupational Diseases in Central and East European Countries will be conducted that will consider the situation in Bulgaria Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey.
As the previous speaker mentioned, an investigation had begun into the recognition and compensation of asbestos-related diseases in EU member states and candidate countries in Central and East Europe. The September 17 presentation by Ms. Raluca Stepa and Izabela Banduch from Kooperationsstelle Hamburg IFE, the institute undertaking this project, was entitled: Recognition and Compensation of Asbestos-related Disease in Western Europe.11
In a 2006 survey funded by the European Commission, large discrepancies were found in the operations of regulatory regimes and insurance systems regarding similar issues in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Spain, France, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.12 Whereas mesothelioma was recognized as an occupationally-caused disease in Denmark in 1959, this step was not taken in Spain and Belgium until 1978 and 1982, respectively. The acceptance of asbestos-related lung cancer as an occupational disease was achieved in 1942 in Germany but in six other countries it took until the 1980s; although France, Italy and Belgium did not fall into line until 1985, 1994 and 1999, respectively, they had already recognized asbestos-related lung cancer as an occupational disease when associated with asbestosis in the 1970s. The recognition of other asbestos-related cancers proved even more problematic. An example of this was the lack of consensus regarding the right of an asbestos-exposed worker with cancer of the larynx to be recognized as suffering from an occupational disease. In Germany, Denmark and France hundreds of such claims have been acknowledged; this has not been the case elsewhere.
Across-the-board there was, the speaker said, an underreporting of asbestos-related diseases. Some organizations in countries like Finland, Norway, Germany and Austria have been pro-active in seeking out those suffering from these diseases. Despite provisions regarding post-exposure health monitoring and medical check-ups stipulated in Council Directive 83/477/EEC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work, however, the Directive's transposition into national laws has been inconsistent.13 Monitoring schemes for workers previously exposed to asbestos are operational in Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Finland and France with pilot programs underway in Italy and Spain.
The final session of the morning provided the opportunity for a discussion to take place which was wide ranging and covered subjects such as:
Reflecting the agenda's focus on the situation in Central and East European countries, presentations and discussions regarding asbestos issues in these countries, with one exception, occupied the remainder of the day. The first presentation of the afternoon was given by Associate Professor Dr. Romeo Hanxhari, President of the Albanian Association of New Environmental Policies (ANEP). The title of his talk was: Case Study Asbestos Situation in Albania. Although the 188,000 tonnes of asbestos consumed in Albania from 1930 until 1990 went into a variety of products, most went into the manufacture of asbestos-cement building products, which contained 10-25% of asbestos. From the 1960s until 1992, an asbestos-cement factory was operational in Albania.
A 2009 study undertaken by ANEP found asbestos products in schools, hospitals, markets, factories and bus stations; of 27 samples collected, 23 contained asbestos. As there were no specific Albanian laws regulating the use, sale, management or disposal of asbestos, the estimated 90,000 tonnes of asbestos still contaminating the national infrastructure was an ongoing hazard; categories of at-risk personnel included construction and maintenance workers as well as members of the public.14
Officially there were said to be 60 cases of mesothelioma per year, but experts believed that the real total was likely to be double that with most patients dying within a year of diagnosis. It was likely that asbestos would be completely banned in Albania by 2014, but in the meantime ANEP would focus its efforts to raise asbestos awareness, conduct screening for asbestos-related diseases and remediate contaminated sites in key asbestos hotspots identified through the ANEP survey as including: Tirana, Vlora, Korça, Bajram Curri, Lushnja, etc.
Speakers Sylwia Oziembo-Brzykczy and Romeo Hanxhari.
The next speaker, Ms. Sylwia Oziembo-Brzykczy from the Polish Labor Inspectorate, discussed The Programme for Asbestos Abatement in Poland Asbestos-Free Poland by 2032. In 2009, government ministries and agencies, led by the Ministry of Finance, began work on a project designed to:
The Programming Committee is informed by the participation of personnel from government departments, Ministries (such as the Ministries of Finance, Environment, Infrastructure, and Agriculture), federal and regional inspectorates, non-governmental organizations, administrative units and municipal authorities. The Committee has quarterly meetings to monitor progress and plan initiatives; its advice is solicited by the authorities on regulatory and legal issues.
In 2009, it was estimated that there were 14.5 million tonnes of asbestos-containing products in Poland. Under the programme, by the end of this year (2012) 28% (4 million tonnes) of it will have been removed. The plan is for a further 35% to be removed between 2013 and 2022 (5.1 tonnes) and the remaining 37% to be removed by 2032. Research efforts have succeeded in mapping the consumption of asbestos throughout the country and identified areas where usage was particularly high, most of which were in Eastern Poland. The high density of asbestos consumption in that part of the country was due to the presence of large industrial sites and mining operations.
In order to maximize input from target country delegates, the ninety minutes allocated for this panel was apportioned to three topics.
Assistant Professor Dr. Alenka Franko described the proactive and up-to-date medical program for the identification of at-risk workers and the diagnosis and treatment of those affected by asbestos-related diseases which operates in Slovenia. As well as the diseases usually accepted to be recognized as asbestos-related, cancer of the larynx and ovary are also acknowledged as being linked to asbestos exposure. It was, Franko said, important to note that even low dose exposures can lead to disease.
There was a permanent ongoing campaign to educate Slovenians about the asbestos hazard which included modules on the dangers of DIY asbestos removal. Compensation for asbestos-related diseases was administered by a Ministry of Labor scheme with the government paying 60% of compensation awards and negligent employers paying 40%. In cases where an employer was no longer in business, the State would pay the entire amount.
Ms. Natasa Pavselj spoke on behalf of her husband who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in November 2011 when he was 35-years old. Neither he nor his parents had ever worked with asbestos. Ms. Pavselj called for an EU-wide campaign to raise asbestos awareness modelled on anti-smoking programs. She also urged support for establishing EU centers of excellence for the treatment of mesothelioma.
Dr. Spiros Drivas, an occupational physician, said that until 2000 Greece was the 7th biggest asbestos producer; asbestos had been considered a national resource. Production stopped at the last mine in Northern Greece in 2000 for economic reasons. From 1969, asbestos products had been manufactured at sites throughout the country, some of which belonged to the Eternit Group. A huge number of workers were exposed to asbestos during mining and manufacturing operations. The Greek infrastructure remains contaminated with asbestos.
In Greece, it was rare for occupational diseases, including asbestos-related diseases, to be recognized or compensated. In 1993 and 1996, four and three cases of asbestosis were acknowledged respectively and in 2001 one case of asbestosis was recognized. In Greece, mesothelioma was only recognized as an occupational disease in 2004 with the first mesothelioma case being accepted as occupationally-related in 2005. The individual concerned had been exposed to asbestos whilst employed at a power station. Despite an undoubted asbestos problem, the current economic crisis had meant that consideration of the asbestos issue had been delayed in Greece.
Dr. Beata Swiatkowska, an epidemiologist employed at the Institute for Labor Medicine, spoke of the work pioneered in Poland since the 1980s to provide reliable scientific evidence on the dangers of asbestos. The asbestos tragedy in the Polish town of Szczucin illustrates the risks of occupational and environmental asbestos exposure. Workers at Szczucin's asbestos-cement factory had access to free gifts of asbestos-containing waste which they used at their homes. Recently, a 36-year old was diagnosed with mesothelioma; due to the latency period of this disease, it was clear that his exposure took place at an early age.
In Poland, asbestos removal can only be performed by specialized companies; all employees have to attend regulated training sessions and produce a certificate attesting to their competence. These documents are checked by the authorities. In the past, asbestos waste was often dumped in the forests. Nowadays, if someone removes asbestos, they must have a certificate proving that the work was done by an authorized company; failure to produce such documentation can result in fines being issued.
Reinforcing the comments made by the other speakers, Mr. Carmel Agius raised the issue of how asbestos victims and their families can be compensated for their suffering. The greedy companies which poisoned workers should, he said, be held to account.
Engineer Laszlo Bekefi, a specialist in health and safety issues, confirmed that asbestos-related problems are growing in Hungary. Even though Hungary banned the use of asbestos years ago, workers in many sectors, including the construction industry, remain at risk. Since 1993, legislative and regulatory regimes in Hungary have been in place to control occupational exposures to carcinogens; these protocols were updated in 2006. All European Union Directives regarding occupational health and safety have been transposed into Hungarian law. There were inspections to ensure compliance at industrial, construction and demolition sites; supervision of small and medium sized companies was more problematic.
Ms. Raluca Stepa from Romania said that although asbestos was banned in 2007, action had been taken since the 1990s to control industrial exposures. Unfortunately, for many years the regulations in place included centralized guidance (norms) that did not reflect specific situations so their effectiveness was limited. To protect workers, the speaker said, guidance needs to be responsive to diverse conditions. Lack of knowledge about levels of workplace asbestos exposures in Romania persisted because of the lack of funds to acquire monitoring equipment. Furthermore, workers were disinclined to wear protective equipment, even when it was provided; because salaries were so low, it was not possible to fine them for infringing regulations. Asbestos products could still be purchased at Romanian markets. There were higher levels of asbestos pollution in bigger cities; the speaker postulated that this might be because Romanians still drove very old cars despite government programs to encourage owners to update their vehicles.
Professor Igor Nedelkovski from St. Kliment Ohridski University, Bitola and President of the Foundation for New Technologies, Innovations and Knowledge Transfer at Gauss Institute, Bitola, categorized the asbestos situation in Macedonia as confusing. Although the EU directive banning asbestos has not been transposed into law in Macedonia or other West Balkan countries, consumption was very low. The last asbestos mine in Macedonia closed 30 years ago and the last asbestos-cement factory closed in 2000. In 2011, 200 kilograms of asbestos were imported to Macedonia, mainly for use in the production of automotive friction materials. Ironically, he pointed out, the fiber was mainly imported from EU countries.
Despite the lack of a ban, Parliament Directive 2009/148/EC15 protecting workers from the asbestos hazard had been transposed into Macedonian law, with the exception of article 21 that mandated that an asbestos-disease register be set up. There were no provisions for the recording of cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma in Macedonia. Enforcement of bylaws protecting workers from hazardous asbestos exposures was also lacking. Personnel from the Labor Inspectorate had received no training on asbestos hazards; the material produced by the Senior Labor Inspectorate Committee in 2006 on asbestos had never been translated into Macedonian.16 In addition, the EU Directive pertaining to the disposal of asbestos had not been transposed into Macedonian law; there were no licensed facilities for the disposal of asbestos-containing waste in Macedonia, so even if a contractor requested official advice regarding the proper disposal of asbestos-contaminated rubble, there was no regime within which this activity could legitimately take place.
In 2009, work began on an EU-funded collaborative initiative on asbestos; the KAPAZ Project was pivotal in kick-starting national dialogues on asbestos in Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite the fact that the Macedonian Government has made use of the material generated by this project, government funds for this work have proved elusive. KAPAZ material, including leaflets, training material, a web portal, a Facebook page and a TV spot, has been disseminated through old and new technologies including distribution at public events, agricultural shows, TV interviews etc. With the lack of government engagement, serious financial constraints, widespread ignorance about the asbestos risk, absence of protocols for demolition and disposal of asbestos debris, non-existence of accredited laboratories to undertake asbestos analyses in the West Balkans, there are many asbestos challenges to be faced in the years to come.
Ms. Sylwia Oziembo-Brzykczy, from the Polish Labor Inspectorate, reported that the construction of a national legislative asbestos framework had been complex, as it necessitated transposing 12 EU regulations into Polish law, amending labor codes and introducing monitoring procedures to ensure compliance.17 Various bodies took part in this process including the Labor Inspectorate and other agencies, such as those involved with the environment and health. The Labor Inspectorate provided training to its employees which was updated periodically. National guidelines were produced and checklists were drawn up so that inspectors could verify that the procedures for dealing with the asbestos hazard were followed. Annual updates are made which reflect new requirements and/or research findings.
The Labor Inspectorate has provided material documenting asbestos hazards and measures for dealing with them in brochures, leaflets and via online resources. Outreach information campaigns are run to raise awareness; employing, for example, stands at agricultural shows and visits to farms.
In Poland, the asbestos removal industry operated within a certification scheme supervised by the Labor Inspectorate; the training of workers in this industry was supervised by Health Inspectors who ensured that the names of all exposed workers were registered. Health Inspectors were also charged with protecting members of the public from environmental exposures which could occur during asbestos removal operations or demolition work. If there was an infringement of regulations, employers were required to provide explanations; many of those received relate to the cost of compliance. In the Polish experience, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) found it difficult to keep up with legislative requirements and often claimed that asbestos exposure did not affect their employees as the hazardous work had been farmed out to sub-contractors. This excuse was unacceptable, however, as employers were obliged to make sure that sub-contractors also complied with regulations.
Commenting on the management of asbestos waste in Serbia, Environmental Engineer Vladica Cudic said that if you import asbestos into Serbia or manufacture asbestos products, there is a per kilogram tariff to pay. The asbestos mines in Serbia are closed but the surrounding areas are polluted. It has been estimated that to decontaminate the country's infrastructure would cost €30 million. There was no management system for asbestos waste and it was not known how much waste would be produced by total remediation of buildings, households, cars etc. There was no budgeting proposal for this work, no funds to pay for it and no legal instruments to assign responsibility for those responsible to pay for the work. Two landfill sites were able to accept asbestos waste.
According to Aleksandra Lozanovska, most public buildings contain asbestos, as do most homes built prior to 2000. Although asbestos was never mined in Macedonia, it was widely used. There are an estimated 450,000 cubic meters of asbestos-containing material in place; 90% in asbestos-cement products and 10% in asbestos-containing brakes. There are no asbestos removal specialists in Macedonia. Public and medical awareness of asbestos-related diseases is low and no attempts are being made to collect data on the incidence of these diseases.
Most of Hungary's asbestos consumption took place, said Ferenc Gyulai, between 1950 and 1990. Asbestos-containing products were used in the construction of council houses and public buildings. Although asbestos has been banned in Hungary, there are a lot of residual problems which the government has not engaged with. Only 20% of the country's asbestos-contaminated infrastructure has been remediated and the true size of the environmental problem and human disaster remains unknown. People living in two villages near a former asbestos factory have suffered health impairment.
Experience in the implementation of medical examinations for the former workers of asbestos-processing plants in Poland 2000-2011 Amiantus Programme by Dr. Beata Swiatkowska of the Nofer Institute, Poland detailed the workings of a health monitoring program for at-risk workers. Under provisions of the Asbestos Ban Act, former workers from 28 Polish asbestos-processing factories were entitled to free check-ups conducted by one of 13 regional occupational medicine units. The provision of this service was formalized in 2000 when the Ministry of Health launched the Amiantus Programme, under the supervision of the Nofer Institute of Occupational Medicine. Priorities of this project include:
Between 2000 and 2011, 7,026 patients underwent 20,596 examinations. Twenty per cent of those eligible under the Amiantus Programme were seen; the majority (53.2%) were from the asbestos-cement industry.
From the data collected, it is clear that the health of many of the patients was adversely affected by their exposure to asbestos. In the 11-year period, Dr. Swiatkowska said, radiographic changes were observed in 3,209 (46%) patients and pulmonary parenchymal opacity in 4,293 (61%) patients deterioration was detected in 1,817 (26%) people in total, including radiological findings in 861 (12.3%) people. Based on the Polish experience several recommendations were made, including the implementation of legal obligations that asbestos producers maintain a database of workers, with information on their asbestos exposures and workplace conditions and the setting up of monitoring programs with standardized record collection and basic criteria for the diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases for affected workers.
The question asked in the title of the next presentation, Managing or Removing Asbestos, by Heinz Kropiunik was highly relevant. With such high levels of asbestos consumption in Europe, what actions can be taken to ensure the safety of its citizens. Pollution specialist Heinz Kropiunik from Aetas Ziviltechniker GmbH, Austria explained that the aim of asbestos management is the sustainable prevention of any emission of asbestos fibres into the indoor air. To accomplish this requires a methodical plan, meticulous implementation, continuous monitoring and feedback. Key elements of this process are: (1) investigation and planning, (2) operational tasks, (3) supervision, and (4) management.
Examples shown by the speaker from one of Europe's biggest asbestos removal sites the Vienna International Center (pictured above)18 illustrated the need for a high level of professional expertise, up-to-date equipment and highly trained personnel for the carrying out of all tasks. This project, he said, can be regarded as a prototype of how to deal with the problem of asbestos-containing materials in big, complex and sensitive premises without causing any risks to the users.
The Case Study Asbestos in UK Schools by campaigner Michael Lees summed up many of the key themes which had been explored during the day. Seeking to explain the increasing incidence of asbestos cancer amongst school teachers and support staff, Lees presented data showing the use of products containing crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile asbestos in the construction of British educational institutions during the 20th century. A range of highly toxic asbestos products, including insulation board (amosite), sprayed coatings (amphiboles), Asbestolux ceiling panels and asbestos-cement partitioning were incorporated within the 13,000 schools built between 1945 and 1974.
It has been estimated that more than 75% of British schools remain contaminated with asbestos. According to the Health and Safety Executive, children are at greater risk of suffering from asbestos related disease than adults, and will live long enough for any [asbestos-related] disease to develop. Despite this and despite the fact that the UK has the world's highest incidence of mesothelioma, 37.8 per million per annum and rising, the coalition government has refused to engage in any meaningful way with what a Parliamentary body has dubbed a national scandal.
Campaigners from the Asbestos in Schools Group were calling for immediate action to be taken, which would include a national audit of asbestos in schools, phased removal of asbestos from schools, mandatory training of staff, specific guidance programs for schools, the reinstatement of pro-active inspections, an extensive program of air sampling and a policy of openness for dealing with the challenge posed by the extensive asbestos contamination of UK schools.
During the final segment of the afternoon, questions asked about the presentations, related to the most up-to-date techniques for asbestos monitoring, the limitations of the Amiantus Programme,19 and national realities regarding asbestos contamination of schools.
The focal point of the deliberations on Tuesday morning was a consideration of what actions and collaborations might flow from the Brussels conference. The morning agenda was divided into three sections comprised of two panels and one discussion segment.
The proceedings on Tuesday began with comments from the Chair of Panel 2, Lars Vedsmand, who said that EU countries are now in a post-ban era. Cessation of asbestos use did not, however, eliminate the hazard. In fact, the passage of time exacerbated the risk; as asbestos-containing material deteriorates it is more likely to release fibers into the air and as new people enter the workforce they are less likely to be asbestos aware. Retired construction workers could, Mr. Vedsmand suggested, constitute an untapped resource; many of them know where asbestos material was used and could become asbestos detectives.
In her intervention, Dr. Annie Thebaud-Mony from Ban Asbestos France and the Henri Pezerat Foundation, called for a new European Directive on asbestos management and post-exposure follow-up which would introduce mandatory measures for dealing with: prevention, surveillance of at-risk workers, the fiscal liability for asbestos remedial work and attempts to transfer the asbestos risk to developing countries by watering down international regulations on the movement of redundant ships.
Ms. Delphine Reuter, from the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, discussed the current attempt by the European Commission to exempt ships from the EU legislation implementing the Basel Convention and the Ban amendment, so that the export of asbestos-contaminated vessels from EU ports to developing countries would no longer be banned. Even if the Commission claims EU ships will only be sent to certified ship recycling facilities, beaching would not be banned, and proper downstream waste management would be the sole responsibility of importing countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Echoing Ms. Reuter's condemnation of the attempt to recommence exporting Europe's toxic waste, ANDEVA's20 Dr. Marc Hindry emphasized the need for the EU to take a leadership role in the global debate on asbestos. He also highlighted the need for a harmonization of EU compensation schemes.
The issue of asbestos training was mentioned on several occasions with Marc Molitor, a Belgian researcher, detailing attempts by employers to off-load their asbestos responsibilities onto sub-contractors who, on many occasions, had been known to use immigrant labor. Mr. Molitor recommended that a free phone service be set up to inform callers about asbestos issues and resources.
Jason Addy, a doctoral researcher from the Manchester Metropolitan University School of Law, made a well-received presentation on his research into networks. His study of occupational and environmental asbestos disease, activism, corporate lobbying and policy issues relating to science, medicine and law has identified novel communication pathways, clusters and hubs. A number of myths and misconceptions were discussed about the convergence of digital technology: although social media outlets may not be the campaigning panacea some might claim, they did, however, have their uses. The importance of creating new, peer-to-peer, communication links with those outside of a group's comfort zone was emphasised.
Smartphones with cameras, video, voice recording, word processing and editing facilities could create opportunities to communicate ideas in ways only available to a few 20 years ago. There would soon be more smartphone use in Africa than the whole of the European Union. There was an opportunity for those who once had no voice in policy circles to be heard. Technology could also be used to combat language barriers. Illustrating the importance of clarity in communicating scientific detail, Addy described how the mathematical concept of 0.1% hazardous waste in soil was successfully demonstrated to a group of politicians: a bucket of soil containing one spoon of sugar sprinkled on top illustrated the difficulties in visually identifying asbestos contaminated soil. Addy also expressed the importance of communicating asbestos fiber levels in terms relevant to real-life human exposure.
The 2012 landmark Italian trial of two asbestos executives had a huge but unfortunately short-lived impact on public asbestos awareness according to trade unionist Claudio Sottile. The prevalence of asbestos contamination in Italy was a real problem for the entire population, he said. The presence of asbestos-containing products in his daughter's primary school was a concern for parents who paid to have this situation remediated. Some initiatives have been taken by the Government to deal with the country's asbestos legacy. In November, a high-profile asbestos conference will be held in Venice to examine progress and delineate future strategies.
An introduction to this topic was given by Professor Hans-Joachim Woitowitz, the Chair of the panel. In a thorough examination of The Asbestos Experience of Occupational Health, the speaker drew on decades of first-hand experience with asbestos issues in Germany. Slides shown of working conditions in German factories in the 1960s illustrated the almost total absence of controls to minimize hazardous exposures: workers surrounded by mounds of asbestos fiber deposited on the factory floor, men dumping asbestos fiber out of a paper sack into a hopper and workers sweeping up asbestos dust with brooms.
Pictures from the 1970s and 1980s documented the release of colossal levels of asbestos into the atmosphere on construction sites and in garages. Having described the types of disease caused by asbestos with graphic images, Professor Woitowitz contextualized the discussion within a more intimate framework as he spoke about a family which had been decimated by asbestos:
Assistant Professor Dr. Alenka Franko began her comments by reading out a statement from Radivoj Veluscek, a Slovenian worker who was exposed to asbestos whilst employed at the Salonit Anhovo asbestos-cement factory.
My name is Radivoj Veluscek and I am the President of the Association of Patients with Asbestos-Related Diseases. I am not able to be with you today but I thank the organizers for their kind invitation to come to Brussels and I wish you all a very successful meeting. I have been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma but fortunately my diagnosis was early and so I received medical treatment at an early stage. My doctors tell me that my disease is in remission.
In my opinion, the recognition and treatment of asbestos-related diseases in Slovenia is well organized and promptly delivered thanks to the work of the personnel at the Clinical Institute of Occupational Medicine in Ljubljana and the support of the Ministry of Labor, which is working hard to eliminate the consequences of asbestos exposure. Despite this, I believe we still need to develop a specialist medical screening program for workers and inhabitants exposed to asbestos.
In Slovenia efforts are made to diagnosis asbestos conditions as soon as possible so as to increase treatment options available for patients. To this end, biomarkers are being investigated for use in screening programs.
Belgium and UK:
Belgian nurse Christine Van Noorbeeck and British doctor Helen Clayson raised issues to do with the palliative care of patients suffering from asbestos-related diseases. It is important, said Dr. Clayson to see medicine in its social context. The experience of mesothelioma patients in Northern England,21 the subject of her doctoral dissertation, was one characterized by terrible suffering and distressing symptoms; 97% of the patients experience breathlessness. Palliative care can go a long way towards improving the quality of life of these patients; even in mesothelioma, physical symptoms can be relieved.
Juan Carlos Paul, President of the Federation of Asbestos Victims Association (AVIDA), said that in Spain the medical treatment of victims was delivered by regional authorities. There was, unfortunately, a patchy implementation of the provision of health care and the specific units which existed only treated former workers; victims of para-occupational exposure (breathing asbestos brought into the home by a factory worker) or environmental exposure must seek treatment in public hospitals. Two out of ten of AVIDA's members have died from non-occupational exposures to asbestos. There was no Spanish compensation fund for asbestos victims, something which the speaker said his group would very much like to see.
It was clear from the presentations in this panel that there were wide divergences not only between the treatment of asbestos sufferers throughout EU Member States but also the treatment individuals receive in different parts of their countries.
The final plenary session was chaired by Eric Jonckheere, President of the Belgian Asbestos Victims' Group (ABEVA) and Pierre Pluta, President of the French Asbestos Victims' Umbrella Group (ANDEVA). Mr. Pluta is an asbestos victim, having been exposed to asbestos as a mechanic in a French shipyard. He remembers the asbestos falling like snow over the men at work. ANDEVA, which was founded in 1996, represents 60 affiliated associations with a total membership of 25,000. France was the only EU country in which pleural plaques as well as asbestosis, mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer were compensable diseases. Compensation, the speaker pointed out, had an important social function; as well as providing financial recompense to the injured it was an acknowledgement of the wrong done. The operations of the French Compensation Scheme for Asbestos-Related Diseases (FIVA) were described. Mr. Pluta urged colleagues to expand the victims' platform to progress efforts for an international ban and the condemnation of the poisoners.
The majority of this session was allocated for discussion on joint initiatives amongst which were the following:
Thanking delegates for their participation, the Co-Chairs brought this session to a close.
Having accepted the task of chairing the final working group, ABEVA's Eric Jonckheere read out an initial draft of a European Charter for Asbestos Victims. This provided an excellent starting point for the afternoon's discussion. The ideas and points raised were noted down by Rapporteur Laurie Kazan-Allen who agreed to facilitate the drafting of this document. This task was accomplished over the succeeding days with English and French language versions (see Appendix D) finalized in time for the International Day of Asbestos Victims, which was held in Paris on October 12 and 13, 2012.23
The final activity of the two-day mobilization on Europe's asbestos catastrophe was a hearing on "Asbestos related occupational health threats and prospects for abolishing all existing asbestos at the European Parliament. The evidence submitted to the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs at 5:00-6:30 p.m. was provided by Members of the European Parliament Stephen Hughes and Alejandro Cercas and experts who were invited to comment, in ten minutes, on the following issues:
The fact that the four witnesses represented different sectors of civil society and professional backgrounds ensured that the speakers focused on diverse aspects of the situation. Taken as a whole, the information provided to the EU Committee constituted a coherent and substantive body of evidence. The PowerPoint presentations of the witnesses (as PDFs) can be accessed by clicking on the names below:
The asbestos hearing was streamed live and can be viewed online with interpretation in 20 languages on the European Parliament website. The 77-minute asbestos segment of the Committee's meeting on September 18th began at 17:10 with a statement by MEP Stephen Hughes.24 His statement and the contributions of the witnesses named above can also be seen in an edited (17 minute, English) version of the asbestos segment video that appears below.
It is hard to assess, in the short-term, the value of the activities which took place in Brussels on September 17 & 18, 2012. Indeed, the effectiveness of such an event can best be measured by the initiatives which are born as a result of the discussions which took place and the relationships which were formed. Judging by the presentations made by delegates from Slovenia, Romania, Poland, Macedonia, Hungary, Albania, Serbia and Greece, there is a huge discrepancy in the approach of EU Member States to the asbestos hazard. While a 2030 deadline has been set for the asbestos decontamination of Poland, Greece seems to be in complete denial about the challenge posed by asbestos-related diseases. Slovenia has implemented a proactive and up-to-date medical program for the identification of at-risk workers and the diagnosis and treatment of those affected by asbestos-related diseases while the Albanian Government does not consider that asbestos poses either an occupational or environmental threat. It seems that European governments cover the entire spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous when it comes to their engagement with asbestos. The drafting of the European Charter for Asbestos Victims, the commissioning of the Review of Asbestos-Related Occupational Diseases in Central and East European Countries and the Parliamentary asbestos hearing are positive outcomes of the mobilization on asbestos. Based on the concerns expressed by the delegates and their enthusiasm to undertake the formidable challenges ahead, I believe that what took place in Brussels will be a stepping stone to an asbestos-free future not only in Poland but throughout Europe.
November 9, 2012
1 Global asbestos consumption from 1920 to 2011 has been estimated by the United States Geological Survey at 194 million tonnes.
2 After 1998, Ukraine accounted for 50-90% of European asbestos consumption annually.
3 Delgermaa V, Takahashi K, et al. Global mesothelioma deaths reported to the World Health Organization between 1994 and 2008. World Health Organization Bulletin 2011;89:716-724C. doi:10.2471/BLT.11.086678
8 Senior Labor Inspectors Committee: Report on Asbestos. 2006.
9 Practical Guidelines for the Information and Training of Workers Involved with Asbestos Removal or Maintenance Work. 2012. http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=716&langId=en
10 Translation of Belgian verdict by Yvonne Waterman. Eternit & The Great Asbestos Trial. Page 82.
11 Asbestos-related occupational diseases in Europe. Recognition, statistics, specific systems. 2006.
12 Please note the exclusion of the United Kingdom from the countries examined within the 2006 study.
14 Dr. Hanxhari explained that there are various directives and laws which mention asbestos in Albania. In 1994, a decision was taken by the Council of Ministers to prohibit the import of thermal insulation material containing asbestos; this was a decision but not a law. Subsequently, others decisions were taken prohibiting the import of asbestos-containing construction materials and asbestos-containing waste. It is also illegal to produce hazardous waste, including waste containing asbestos, in Albania. The hodgepodge of decisions mentioning asbestos is not effective in protecting Albanians from the asbestos hazard.
17 Asbestos consumption was prohibited in Poland on June 19, 1997 by legislation entitled: The Ban of the Use of Asbestos-Containing Products.
18 The Vienna International Center is one of three global headquarters of the United Nations. It has seven buildings with a total floor area of approximately 340,000 m2; the 1970s complex is owned by the Republic of Austria and has been leased to the UN for 99 years. The ten-year project to decontaminate the VIC is nearly completed.
19 Unfortunately, the services provided in this programme are only available to former asbestos factory workers from specified plants; asbestos-exposed workers from other industries, such as the construction sector, are not included.
20 ANDEVA is the umbrella group representing scores of local asbestos victims associations in France.
23 For more on this event, see: Kazan-Allen L. Storming the Asbestos Barricades. October 18, 2012.
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