Interim Report: EU Asbestos Action
Activities this week in the Flemish town of Kapelle-op-den-Bos represented a paradigm shift not only in the capacity of local people to impact on the asbestos disaster which has befallen their town but also on the political attitude of the municipal authorities.1 Kapelle asbestos victims and family members working with ABEVA, the Belgian Association of Asbestos Victims, organized a series of first-ever events on June 23 to highlight the ongoing effects of decades of asbestos-cement production at the Eternit factories in their town. On that day, the Mayor of Kapelle Edward De Wit received an international delegation at the town hall. The discussions, in Flemish and English, were wide-ranging in a session which lasted over an hour. During that time, Kapelle citizens were able to put questions directly to the Mayor. This had never happened in the almost one hundred years that Kapelle had been the center of Europes asbestos-cement industry.
From left: ABEVA President Eric Jonckheere and former Kapelle resident, translator, and Mayor De Wit.
A longer report will provide more information on the substance of the discussions which took place in due course.
After the meeting, there was the first ever demonstration outside the gates of the Eternit site. Despite the high incidence of asbestos mortality in Kapelle, Eternits political and financial power as the towns biggest employer and one of the countrys biggest industrial conglomerates had always prevented such a public display. Holding their colourful multilingual banners, the demonstrators wore face masks and white decontamination suits to highlight the residual legacy of asbestos pollution of Kapelles infrastructure, soil and air.
The significance of this public protest was recognized by members of both the French and Flemish-speaking media who filmed the activity, interviewed participants and took photographs. In an interview reported in a Flemish newspaper, Hilde Van de Vondel said that one of her brothers had died from asbestos cancer ten years ago:
Now my other brother also has the same symptoms and diagnosis. He is terminally ill. It is very painful and difficult to handle. We know many names of asbestos victims. But there are many more that we do not know. That's why we want to draw attention to this problem 2
Following the demonstration and the impromptu press conference, the Kapelle residents invited the international guests to take part in a tribute to the victims at the local cemetery. After flowers were laid by a Kapelle resident, the international guests expressed solidarity with the campaigners and laid their floral tribute.
The following day, representatives from the UK, Australia and Belgium who had been in Kapelle, participated in an EU asbestos hearing hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)3 and the Committee of the Regions (CoR).4
The material which was presented and the discussions which ensued will be reported in detail in the final report but highlights of the day included:
Panel 3: Examples of best practice for asbestos removal.
Underscoring calls made at the June 24 conference for an EU asbestos-related diseases research program were the conclusions reached in a paper published simultaneously by the British Medical Journal confirming the long-lasting effects of Belgiums asbestos use. The researchers concluded there was:
a clear excess in asbestos-related mortality in the asbestos industry [and] the chemical industry, the construction industry, the electrical generation and distribution industry, the basic metals manufacturing industry, the metal products manufacturing industry, the railroad industry, and the shipping industry.
The scientists also found that oral cancer mortality was significantly higher for asbestos workers, railroad workers, shipping workers and construction workers and suggested that there might be a possible association with occupational asbestos exposure.6
Ms. Renstrom, Co-Chair of the asbestos hearings, was in no doubt about the scale of the EUs asbestos problem and the urgency with which it should be addressed: We need to act yesterday, she told delegates in the final session of the conference. Her statement and her demand that we need to stop passing the buck were loudly applauded. There is more to follow.
June 27, 2015
1 Kazan-Allen L. Europes Asbestos Ground Zero. June 22, 2015.
2 Asbestslachtoffers bezoeken Eternit in Kapelle-op-den-Bos [Eternit asbestos victims visit Kapelle-op-den-Bos]. June 24, 2015.
3 The EESC is the consultative body of the EU representing European civil society organizations; the CoR is the voice of regions and cities in the European Union.
4 The PowerPoint presentations given on June 24, 2015 can be accessed on the website of the EESC:
5 European Committees raise alarm on Europes silent epidemic: Asbestos-related deaths predicted to double those of road. June 25, 2015.
6 Van den Borre, Deboosere P. Enduring health effects of asbestos use in Belgian industries: a record-linked cohort study of cause-specific mortality (20012009). June 24, 2015.