Marking the 20th Anniversary of Landmark Asbestos Congress
Re-release of Congress Annals
The 20th anniversary of the Global Asbestos Congress 2000: Past Present and Future (GAC 2000) last month was a time of mixed emotions. Plans to mark this eventful occasion at the original venue in Osasco, Brazil were derailed by unforeseen developments: Covid-19. The global pandemic which has been the backdrop to this anniversary has, to date, killed 1.1 million people, crushed national economies and thrown into disarray virtually every aspect of human life. The citizens of Brazil have been amongst those most affected by the virus and our thoughts are with them at this perilous time. 2 Even though Brazils Supreme Court declared asbestos use unconstitutional in 2017, many Brazilians remain in mortal danger from the asbestos fibers inhaled at work, at home and in the community; people whose lungs have been scarred by asbestos are more vulnerable to the virus than others.3
GAC 2000 was the first truly global gathering of asbestos victims, victims groups, medical specialists, technical experts, civil servants, politicians and grassroots campaigners. On September 17-20, 2000, more than 400 delegates from 32 countries convened in Osasco the center of Brazils asbestos-cement industry to discuss experiences, share knowledge and plan strategies for the eradication of the asbestos hazard.4 The networks which were formed in Osasco have thrived over the intervening years and the fact that asbestos is now banned in 68 countries when it was only banned in 18 in 2000 and that global production has plummeted from 2,035,150 tonnes (t) in 2000 to 1,100,000t in 2019 is not coincidental.5
GAC 2000 Legacy
At the emotional heart of the GAC 2000 was a five-year old asbestos victims group: the Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto [Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA)].6 The efforts of ABREA officials and members were crucial not only in establishing the events legitimacy but also in accomplishing the thousands of organizational tasks required by such a huge undertaking. According to ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza the impact of GAC 2000 in Brazil was seismic:
GAC 2000 was the fuse for the ban asbestos movement in Brazil. The Congress created the opportunity for the Mayor of Osasco City Silas Bortolosso to declare that his municipality would be the first asbestos-free territory in Brazil. That action promoted a domino effect with other towns, cities and states joining the movement to ban asbestos.7
Agreeing with her colleague, ABREA co-founder Fernanda Giannasi said:
GAC 2000 marked a watershed moment for the global ban asbestos social movement. While there had been local social movements before GAC 2000, after this incredible event there was a worldwide coalition of movements which has grown in vibrancy and effectiveness year by year, becoming ever more collaborative and supportive.8
The participation in GAC 2000 of a delegation from Japan proved crucial in mobilizing support for the ban asbestos campaign throughout Asia, the worlds highest asbestos-consuming region. In Osasco were Sugio Furuya, Secretary General of the Ban Asbestos Network of Japan (BANJAN), Fuyushi Nagakura, BANJANs Vice Secretary and Chair of Japan Citizens Network for Wiping Out Asbestos (ASNET), Dr. Yuji Natori, Physician and BANJAN board member, and Shigeharu Nakachi, NGO researcher and a leading member of Hanshin ASNET.
Asked about his memories of GAC 2000, Sugio Furuya wrote:
I am very proud to have been part of the global struggle against asbestos with my GAC 2000 colleagues and more recent members of the network which first coalesced in Osasco. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of GAC 2000, I have taken stock of some of the key developments which have occurred since then:
South African medical expert Dr. Sophia Kisting paid a touching tribute to the hospitality and generosity of the Brazilian hosts, describing the significance of the trip by the South African delegation to GAC 2000 as follows:
What an amazing opportunity the people of Brazil and the international caring community presented to South Africa, just emerging from the ravages imposed by the heinous system of apartheid The visit to Osasco in 2000 provided an opportunity for South Africans to not only exhibit photographs revealing an epidemic of asbestos diseases amongst people exploited by foreign and local companies but also for them to share real life stories of workers and families who worked at asbestos mines in South Africa... Amongst the most poignant moments of the Osasco Conference was when Brazilian and South African asbestos mine workers shared their experiences and the pain of having lost loved ones.9
Reflecting over the last 20 years, Dr. Barry Castleman a leading asbestos expert, author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects and a key supporter of GAC 2000 said:
The Osasco gathering in 2000 was the first global gathering of asbestos activists. The Brazil conference was soon followed by bans in Chile and Argentina. The Osasco event would be followed by others in Athens (2002), Ottawa (2003), Tokyo (2004), Bangkok (2006), Seoul (2008), and Hong Kong (2009), among others.10 The linkages we formed at these conferences were vital in sharing expertise and resources and in spreading knowledge about public health measures to minimize asbestos hazards, obtain compensation for asbestos victims, and ban the continuing use of asbestos and asbestos products.
By 2010, the outstanding activists from Japan and Korea, in particular, were especially well positioned to provide ongoing international support to campaigns in Asia, the last major battleground for continuing asbestos use. The extraordinary social movement led by ABREA and Fernanda ultimately succeeded in raising public awareness and ending asbestos use in Brazil in 2017. This was paralleled by a successful campaign, particularly involving Quebec government scientists, supported by others from around the world, to get asbestos banned in Canada in 2018. Lessons learned in Brazil were applied in getting asbestos banned in Colombia in 2019.
Looking back, Osasco marked a turning point in the global asbestos struggle and undoubtedly hastened the progress we have made, saving many lives. We will continue to work for a world without an asbestos industry, even facing corruption and spying from criminal asbestos interests allied with state power wielding trade pressures. Though much remains to be done, it is gratifying to look back and see what we have been able to achieve since those days in Osasco.11
Changing the Asbestos Narrative
There is no doubt that a paradigm shift occurred post-GAC 2000 which revolutionized the global asbestos discourse from one accepting that asbestos use was safe under controlled conditions to one categorizing all asbestos exposures as potentially lethal.12 The solidarity which underpinned the 21st century ban asbestos movement is a direct result of discussions which took place and relationships which were forged at GAC 2000. Since GAC 2000, the asbestos health risk has gone from an obscure academic topic subsumed under the heading of industrial health to a mainstream concern in the 21st century campaign for human rights, sustainable development and environmental justice.
The battle to redefine the terms of engagement with asbestos stakeholders and expose the asbestos industrys lies was fought out in public meetings, online forums, academic journals, courts of law, parliamentary committees and congressional hearings. With the active engagement of bodies representing civil society at the highest level including the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and global labor federations and trade unions asbestos victims voices were amplified and their messages heard.13 The invisible epidemic, believed to be claiming as many as 300,000 lives every year, was made manifest by the testimony of sufferers and family members which exposed the inconvenient truth: asbestos profits can only be achieved at an enormous cost in human life and environmental damage.14
GAC 2000 Fallen Heroes
Unfortunately, over the years since GAC 2000, many members of the ABREA family have been lost to asbestos-related diseases. Amongst the GAC 2000 pioneers whose lives were sacrificed by asbestos profiteers were:
Dulcelina da Costa Alegrete
João dos Santos
José Jesus Pessoa (known by one and all as Zé da Capa)
Rosa Amélia Alves de Araújo
Ruth Maria do Nascimento
Sebastião Alves da Silva (nicknamed Chorão)
The mesothelioma death in 2018 of Australian historian and GAC 2000 participant Jock McCulloch came as a brutal reminder that no one is immune to asbestos exposures.15
The GAC 2000 Collective: Then and Now
One of the key achievements of GAC 2000 was the bridge building which took place amongst diverse groups of individuals, experts representing multiple disciplines and members of the community. Inclusion was fostered through art competitions for school children, the holding of an outdoor pop concert and interaction of GAC 2000 delegates with local groups. The sponsors of the Congress included ABREA, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), the Ban Asbestos Network and the Society of Occupational and Environmental Health. Institutions, trade unions, government agencies and commercial organizations from Osasco, São Paulo and elsewhere provided logistical support and positive input.16
New Upload of Congress Annals
Early in 2001, IBAS undertook to compile the Annals of the Congress to be released on CD. Subsequently, copies were widely distributed to GAC 2000 participants and others unable to attend the event. With IBAS having relatively low storage and bandwidth provision on its own website at the time, we were happy to accept, some years later, an offer to present materials from the annals on a third-party website. That satisfactory state of affairs continued for many years but some time ago the site was closed and the annals became inaccessible. It took the pandemic and the disappointment of the cancellation of the anniversary event in Brazil to spur us into resurrecting this resource. It wasn't quite as easy as we anticipated for technical reasons a number of large files had to be transposed from PDF to HTML format, for example, and most links had to be reconfigured so we have missed the anniversary by a considerable margin. However, the annals are now once more available online, looking much the same as they appeared on the CD one personal indulgence was to keep the rather colorful Table of Contents, evocative of the early days of IBAS output.
We hope this newly available online resource with Congress presentations, extra-Congress submissions, documentation, photographic exhibitions and photos of the GAC 2000 activities will stand as a fitting memento of our time together four days during which hundreds of delegates from thirty-two countries stood together in Osasco and said: Bastamianto (No more asbestos)!
1 The author was one of the co-organizers of the Global Asbestos Congress 2000; in fact, GAC 2000 was the idea of Ms. Fernanda Giannasi, a factory inspector based in Osasco. Bringing this idea to fruition involved the efforts, sponsorship and commitment of individuals and groups in Brazil and abroad. For more on the solidarity which was crucial for the huge impact of GAC, please see: Osasco Conference Report. November 10, 2000.
3 NHS. Who's at higher risk from coronavirus. 2020.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Osasco Conference Report. November 10, 2000.
Report on Global Asbestos Conference by John Flanagan. January 23, 2001.
5 Current Asbestos Bans. Accessed October 15, 2020.
United States Geological Survey. Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 through 2003. 2006.
United States Geological Survey. 2016 Minerals Yearbook: Asbestos [Table 7].
United States Geological Survey. ASBESTOS. January, 2020.
6 Kazan-Allen, L. Osasco: Birthplace of the 21st Century Ban Asbestos Movement. April, 2006.
7 Email received from Eliezer João de Souza. August 15, 2020.
Declaração de Osasco.
8 Email received from Fernanda Giannasi. August 10, 2020.
9 Kisting, S. Beauty, the Wonder and the Solidarity of Osasco 15 years on! September 21, 2015.
Also see: Kazan-Allen, L. An Anniversary to Remember. September 22, 2015.
10 For more information on the conferences and meetings held by global ban asbestos activists please see this paper: Kazan-Allen, L. Global Asbestos Panorama 2019. 2019.
11 Castleman, B. Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects. 2005.
12 Kazan-Allen, L. Ban Asbestos Phenomenon The Winds of Change. 2011.
13 Amaral, AP. Denial of the Occurrence of Occupational Asbestos Diseases in the Brazilian Mining Town of Minaçu. August 19, 2019.
14 Kazan-Allen, L. Osasco: Birthplace of the 21st Century Ban Asbestos Movement. April, 2006.
Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. June 2017.
15 Kazan-Allen, L. In Memory of Jock McCulloch. January 21, 2018.