Chrysotile Cowards Shun Spotlight
Recent information disseminated by Malaysian ban asbestos activists mentioned the involvement in government negotiations on banning asbestos of representatives of APCO Worldwide. In a statement issued in June 2011 about this subject, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) wrote:
In a recent consultation with the Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) on 28 March 2011, a consensus was reached on the banning of asbestos, including chrysotile. Representatives of APCO Worldwide who were also at the meeting, objected to the inclusion of chrysotile in the ban on the basis that Malaysia would face economic losses by doing so. It was emphasized by those present and by DOSH that the use of chrysotile, is in any case being phased out by the industry.
We understand that APCO has made representation to DOSH to defer the ban and that it also intends to meet the Minister of Human Resources to stop the ban.1
Discussions regarding banning asbestos in Malaysia have been ongoing for several years. During that time, asbestos has continued to be used with annual imports over the last five years averaging 10,683 tonnes.2 A document currently on the DOSH website highlights the need to reduce the effect of long term exposure to asbestos on workers and implement legislation to prohibit the use of all kinds of asbestos in workplaces With support for a national ban from government departments, consumer groups and trade unions, it is logical to ask what remit the APCO has for its interference with the national debate.
APCO is a public relations (PR) firm with offices all over the world. Research by George Monbiot for his book: Heat,3 detailed work undertaken by the PR firm for the tobacco industry. APCO personnel had warned a beleaguered executive from Philip Morris, the world's biggest tobacco firm, that: "No matter how strong the arguments, industry spokespeople are, in and of themselves, not always credible or appropriate messengers." It seems this advice has been taken to heart by the asbestos industry, sometimes referred to as the evil twin of big tobacco, which prefers to field some supposedly neutral body in Malaysia to argue its case.
According to the UK body which regulates PR consultants,4 from June 1, 2006 to November 31, 2007, APCO staff from the UK represented Russian Chrysotile.5 Although this name appears incomplete, there is sufficient detail for one to presume that the client being represented was a pro-chrysotile asbestos group from Russia. While there is no indication to suggest that the APCO London office is still acting on the behalf of the Russian asbestos industry, it is possible that staff from other APCO offices, such as those in Russia, China, Hong Kong or Indonesia, might be doing so. It is of interest to note that during some of the time that APCO UK staff were retained by the Russian industry, APCO staff were also acting on behalf of the Malaysian Government.6 While we cannot be certain on whose behalf the APCO is acting in the current Malaysian negotiations, there can be little doubt that the PR firm is voicing the arguments of those who stand to benefit from the continuation of asbestos use in Malaysia and not those whose lives will be put at risk from hazardous exposures to a substance known to cause cancer and respiratory diseases.
July 18, 2011
1 Asbestos: Malaysia should make sure ban stays in place. June 24, 2011.
2 According to the United States Geological Survey recent annual asbestos imports were: 10,349 t (2006), 9,387 t (2007), 13,557 t (2008), 8,634 t (2009) and 11,491 t (2010).
6 The list of APCO clients for the UK office includes the Malaysian Government for the period from June 1, 2007 to November 30, 2007.