Report from the Asbestos Frontline 2013
Last week, one hundred and forty-three scientists and organizations from around the world vehemently condemned efforts by an asbestos lobbying group the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) to derail plans to ban asbestos in Pakistan.1 The denunciation of the ICA's attempt to undermine recommendations made by the Pakistan National Assembly's Standing Committee on Human Resource Development referenced a letter sent on January 31, 2013 by ICA's Chairman Jean-Marc Leblond, a long-time asbestos stakeholder from Canada, to Dr. Mahmood A. Khwaja in Islamabad. The five-page text of Leblond's letter was accompanied by asbestos industry-commissioned literature to support his contention that there is no basis for prohibiting its [chrysotile] use in today's high density products.2
The ICA, and its predecessor the Asbestos International Association, have been fronting for the global asbestos industry since 1976.3 This group was the nexus between commercial interests and political power; working alongside the Asbestos Institute, later renamed the Chrysotile Institute, the Asbestos Information Association/North America (AIA/NA), the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association (ACPPA) and the Association of Asbestos Cement Product Producers (AACPP)4, ICA personnel pioneered and disseminated commercial propaganda supporting the use of chrysotile asbestos despite overwhelming evidence that all types of asbestos can cause cancer and respiratory diseases.
Although the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute closed down last year, national industry associations, working in tandem with international partners such as the ICA, the AIA/NA, and the AACPP, continue to aggressively promote asbestos use in 2013, as we have seen by developments in Pakistan,5 Thailand6 and Peru.7 Attempts by civil society in Peru to end asbestos use resulted in the adoption of Law No. 29662: Asbestos law prohibiting amphiboles and regulating the use of Chrysotile asbestos under which a ban on the use of chrysotile was proposed as of October 1, 2013. The legislation, which has not yet been promulgated, has been under constant attack by vested interests from home and abroad including, amongst the former category the Peruvian Chrysotile Association and, amongst the latter, the Columbian (Asbestos) Fiber Association (Asociacion Colombiana de Fibras) and the Mexican (Asbestos) Fiber Industry Institute (Instituto Mexicano de Fibro-Industrias).8
Asbestos lobbyists have not just admitted their interference in Peru's current asbestos debate but have, some might say, been almost boastful of their achievements in forestalling progress over a sustained period. Commenting on the situation in Peru in 2006, Mexican asbestos lobbyist Luis Cejudo Alva reported:9
Peru is the country that should have followed the domino effect started in Chile, and it is a fact that ban asbestos movement has had a very active campaign. They have almost achieved their goal if it not were for quick actions endeavored through the active participation of the Chrysotile Institute (CI) and the International Chrysotile Association (ICA). I should also mention the fact that we the Mexican Fibre Industries Institute (IMFI) together with Ascolfibras from Colombia have made several trips to attend this issue in different fronts; Health Ministry and the Peruvian Congress, besides several other instances. So far, we have been able to stop in its tracks all actions started. But as we are aware that these attacks will not stop, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico have joined forces and are financing and driving actions through the recently formed Peruvian Chrysotile Association, so as to prevent whatever actions are taken.10
It has long been observed that the behavior of asbestos industry spin doctors mimics that of their toxic twins: tobacco lobbyists. That what we are observing in Pakistan and Peru in 2013 is just the latest manifestation of a commercial strategy put in motion over forty years ago is supported by the contents of a 74-page report detailing discussions which took place in 1971 at the First International Conference of Asbestos Information Bodies. A copy of this rarely seen document has been languishing in the IBAS archives for more than 15 years. In light of current revelations about attempts to block asbestos prohibitions in Asia and Latin America, it was felt that it was time to make this document more widely available.11 Statements and reports in this document are extremely informative and a thorough reading is recommended to anyone interested in understanding how a substance acknowledged to be carcinogenic continues to be sold in countries around the world.
Opening the 1971 conference, the Deputy Chairman of the Asbestos Information Committee told delegates from the U.S. and Europe that this was a very critical time in the history of the asbestos industry. He said:
In America, in Great Britain and in other European countries, severe attacks on asbestos and its uses continue to be made in the press, on television and on radio. In these and many other countries, Government Departments are showing growing interest in Factory and other Regulations related to asbestos. Interest in the subject of environmental pollution is perhaps only now in its infancy. These are the subjects which we shall be discussing during our Conference.12
Papers circulated at the London meeting on November 24-25, 1971 provide a fascinating insight into the predominant issues being considered by the industry at that time. One of the main themes was Attacks on Asbestos and Our Defenses; ways of manipulating national governments and influencing public opinion were outlined. In Holland, death by committee was an effective way of bogging down proposed restrictions. When a French delegate asked A. R. Kolff van Oosterwijk: Is there a general public consciousness of the 'risk' [of asbestos] in Holland; he answered: I think NOT. In the UK regular informal discussions between various members of the Factory Inspectorate and civil servants in the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Health and Social Security, the Customs and Excise Department and the Department of Employment ensured that industry's proposals were incorporated into official doctrine.
The measures recommended by the speakers at the London conference for protecting asbestos industry interests were as detailed as they were prescient:
we must project the same positive message in each of our respective countries. This is because the problem is becoming more and more an international one. Science knows no frontiers nor do modern media or communications We saw yesterday how our American friends defeated a ban on asbestos in brake linings. The stand made by one's (sic) country's asbestos industry must be supported by the other.
Today's asbestos lobbyists remain faithful to the vision so clearly set out four decades ago: do what has to be done, at whatever cost, to protect the industry and discredit its critics. The ICA's 2013 letter to the Pakistan authorities is the tip of the iceberg; there can be no doubt that other activities are being conducted to convince politicians, civil servants and decision makers that there is no need to ban chrysotile asbestos in Pakistan. In Thailand, asbestos vested interests are mounting a relentless battle to prevent the Government from fulfilling its two-year old commitment to ban asbestos. In Peru, although the October 2013 deadline is rapidly approaching, government apathy combined with aggressive lobbying by commercial interests could adversely impact on progress. Fortunately for humankind, in the 21st century, industry forces no longer have a stranglehold on national asbestos debates. In Pakistan, Thailand and Peru asbestos victims, public health campaigners and non-governmental organizations are calling for an end to asbestos use. An asbestos-free future is possible!
February 26, 2013
4 In answer to the question What is the organization's primary exempt purpose, the AACPP states on its 2011 U.S. tax returns that it is: to provide information to members about the relationship between asbestos and human health.
5 The overlap of personnel amongst international and national asbestos lobbying groups is a manifestation of the close links which are fostered amongst global asbestos propagandists. One example of this is the affiliations of Sikander Dada from Pakistan's leading asbestos company: Dadex Eternit. Dada is listed as one of six directors of the Association of Asbestos Cement Product Producers on the 2009, 2010 and 2011 tax returns. On the June 30, 2012 tax returns of Dadex Eternit, Sikander Dada is listed as CEO and director.
6 Kazan-Allen L. Thailand's Asbestos Status Quo: 2013. January 8, 2013.
8 Proyecto de Reglamento de Ley No. 29662, Ley que Prohibe el Asbestos Anfiboles y Regula el Uso del Asbestos Crisotilo [ Draft Rules of Law No. 29662, Asbestos law prohibiting amphiboles and regulating (and banning) the use of Chrysotile asbestos.
9 Alva testified at the Congressional asbestos hearings in Washington D.C. on July 17, 1986.
He founded the Mexican Fibre Industries Institute and has been the President of the Chrysotile Latin American Association, a member of the Executive Committee and a Director of the International Chrysotile Association. http://www.chrysotile.com/data/conferences/CV_Luis_Cejudo_Alva.pdf
10 Alva, LC, Chrysotile in Latin America Perceptions and Facts. Presentation at International Conference on Chrysotile, May 23-24, 2006.
11 This meeting was just one of a long line of asbestos industry initiatives. For a wider discussion see:
Kazan-Allen L. The Asbestos War. Int J Occup Environ Health 2003;9:173-193.
12 Countries represented in London at this conference were: the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Belgium and the U.S.