Novembers Asbestos Revolution
Last month (November 2014), grassroots groups made manifest the disgust of societies still being exploited by the asbestos industry. From Latin America to Asia, the call went out for an end to the slaughter caused by such exploitation. Support for a global asbestos ban escalated with key events taking place in Colombia, Thailand and Vietnam, countries where the asbestos agenda had, until very recently, been dictated by vested interests. While the sizes of these markets vary, their strategic and political importance to the asbestos industry remains paramount. To forestall negative publicity, specialists employed by the Russian-led global asbestos lobby constantly monitor the activities of civil society campaigners and implement measures to denigrate critics and counter adverse publicity in these regions. Typical examples of such activities were recent pro-asbestos events in the Thai and Vietnamese capitals. These meetings were carefully timed to provide the opportunity for asbestos apologists to refute arguments made and evidence presented at ban asbestos events that took place in November.
Colombia is Latin Americas second biggest asbestos consumer having used an average of 20,000+ tonnes/year over the last three years. According to local experts: Colombian industry continues to ignore the known biological and environmental risks posed by the use of asbestos. The status quo which permits asbestos consumption to continue is supported by a government with ties to the industry lobby. It was therefore nothing less than a bombshell when experts from the Americas took part in high-level public meetings on asbestos in Bogotá on November 5-7, 2014.1 That these activities were brought to fruition by the collaboration of ban asbestos campaigners, academics, and scientific, medical, and technical experts illustrates the growing concern by civil society over the countrys asbestos policy.2
The discussions which ensued challenged the accepted local wisdom that the asbestos used in Colombia was safe. Eminent speakers included Brazilian Labor Inspector (retired) and veteran ban asbestos campaigner, Fernanda Giannasi who examined the global health catastrophe caused by asbestos; Dr. Arthur Frank (US) whose remarks focused on the medical consequences of asbestos exposures; Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, from Argentinas Ministry of Health, who spoke about his countrys asbestos legacy; and Dr. Barry Castleman (US) whose presentation examined the criminality of the asbestos industry.3
Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, Dr. Arthur Franks, mural artist Dj Lu, Guillermo Villamizar, Engineer Fernanda Giannasi, Dr. Paola De Castro (Italy), Tania Muoz Cuevas (Chile).
More than ten thousand miles away, ban asbestos campaigners in Bangkok were finalizing arrangements for the international conference entitled Expedite Asia to be Free from Asbestos Hazard: Global Scientific and Social Evidence as the Colombian activities drew to a close. A coalition of Thai civil society groups including the: Social Research Institute, Health Consumer Protection Program, Chula Global Network, Thailand Ban Asbestos Network and the Asian Ban Asbestos Network and others organized the deliberations on November 24-25, 2014 to:
Dr. Domyung Paek, Seoul National University, Korea.
The participation of leading international experts including Professor Ken Takahashi, Dr. Ignatius Yu, Dr. Lukas Lee, Dr. Jukka Takala, Dr. Takehiko Murayama, Dr Domyung Paek, Dr. Irina Safitri Zen, Dr. Barry Castleman, Alan Tanjusay, Sugio Furuya, representatives of the International Labor Organization Dr. Ingrid Christensen and the World Health Organization Dr. Yonas Tegegn and key Thai civil servants, political figures, researchers and academics ensured that conference attendees had access to up-to-date and impartial information.
Associate Prof. Dr. Vithaya Kulsomboon, Director of Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI), Chulalongkorn University.
As a result of the discussions which took place, a Declaration was adopted (see: Declaration of Bangkok International Conference) which recommended that asbestos must be banned immediately it is necessary to apply the precautionary principle to establish policy at national level to stop importation and production of all kinds of asbestos and asbestos containing material. In addition, conference delegates sent a letter to Thailands Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha which urged that he ban use of asbestos and asbestos containing materials in Thailand. Highlighting the health consequences of exposure to asbestos-containing construction materials, they wrote the resulting costs in national health care and the resulting contamination of the living environment are enormous. Within days of the Bangkok asbestos conference taking place, reports were circulating in the Thai media that the Industry Ministry had submitted a draft plan to the Thai Cabinet to outlaw asbestos use; until now, the Ministry had, with Thai commercial interests, been a stalwart opponent of prohibitions.4
On November 27, 2014, a workshop was held by campaigning bodies and non-governmental organizations to devise a ban asbestos roadmap for Vietnam.5 Taking part in the event were representatives of the Vietnam Standards and Consumer Protection Association, the Ministry of Health, the Vietnam Ban Asbestos Network and the Asian Ban Asbestos Network.
Vietnam Asbestos Workshop.
Despite the entrenched support for continued asbestos use in Vietnam from industry and government stakeholders, it was clear from the presentations made at the workshop that momentum for a ban is growing.
Although Vietnams Ministry of Health has urged the Government to prohibit asbestos, the Ministry of Construction has aligned itself with industry. Two weeks after the NGO meeting to develop a Vietnam roadmap to ban asbestos, on December 11, 2014 the Ministry of Construction (MoC) organized a workshop which featured presentations by nine asbestos industry experts including David Bernstein, a U.S.-born, Swiss-based toxicologist, and Dr. Ericson Bagatin (Brazil), both of whom have proven links to asbestos producers and defendants. According to a report in the Vietnam media and feedback from participants, in Bernsteins remarks, he maintained the industry line that chrysotile (white) asbestos can be used safely and dissolves in the lungs within three days.6 Additional support for the status quo was provided by Luong Duc Long from the MoC who told delegates that there was inconclusive evidence about the hazards of exposure to chrysotile asbestos. Dr. Jacques Dunnigan (Canada), a long-time associate of Canadas asbestos trade association the Chrysotile Institute made an aggressive presentation parroting the industry fallacy of safe use (despite the de facto asbestos ban which exists in his own country).
Even though asbestos industry representatives know that a ban is inevitable, they continue to exert their influence and wield their resources to delay the implementation of legislation ending the use of this toxic substance. Every piece of doubt science that is published and every spurious argument that is advanced are carefully crafted to protect profitable asbestos markets. Despite their best efforts, however, there is no doubt that this industry of death is itself dying. The passion and determination of civil society campaigners in Bogotá, Bangkok and Hanoi are testament to the universal resolve to bequeath future generations a world free of asbestos. The struggle continues!
December 16, 2014
1 Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos: Art, Science and Policy. October 21, 2014.
2 Asbesto, ¿fibra mortal? [Asbestos, deadly fiber?].
4 Wongsamuth N. The Battle to Ban Asbestos. November 30, 2014.
5 Ban on asbestos use in Vietnam is urgent: workshop. November 27, 2014.
6 Scientists debate asbestos safety. December 12, 2014.