Russia's Asbestos Challenge
A groundbreaking project is being conducted in the heartland of the world's foremost producer of asbestos: Russia. Since 1975, when asbestos production in the former Soviet Union first outstripped annual Canadian output, Russian vested interests have taken an increasingly hard line on developments which might impact on domestic or foreign sales.1 With the formation of counterfeit labor groups and industry bodies, they have implemented a range of pro-industry measures including the support of hired gun scientists, the launch of smear campaigns aimed at asbestos critics, the dissemination of asbestos propaganda and the bombardment of WHO and ILO officials with literature defending industry's safe use philosophy. At international meetings, asbestos industry-linked spokesmen have consistently maintained that asbestos-related disease in Russia is a rare occurrence and that chrysotile asbestos is safer than a toothpick.2
Given the wealth of the massive Russian industry which produces a million tonnes of asbestos per year and the high-level political support its financial largesse has engendered, there are no queues of home-grown critics prepared to challenge the status quo. However, earlier this year work began in three Russian asbestos hotspots to investigate current asbestos consumption patterns, assess the impact on local populations, quantify the environmental repercussions of asbestos pollution and consider measures to eliminate the asbestos hazard. This work, under the project title Analyzing the Situation of Asbestos Use and its Health Impact in Russia was spearheaded by The Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development Eco-Accord, a non-governmental, not-for-profit citizens' organization, which had previously tackled environmental challenges such as the elimination of obsolete pesticides and toxic chemicals in the former Soviet Union.3
A team consisting of personnel from Eco-Accord, Volgograd-Ecopress, Eco-SPES NGO, and a Novorossik children and youth organization Centre of Environmental Education conducted research in three regions of Russia. The findings from questionnaires, surveys and interviews have been collated into a series of reports on the prevailing situation in Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Krasnodar regions. The contents of these documents are disturbing; some particular concerns are summarized below.
1. The lack of credible information on the incidence of asbestos-related diseases:
2. The lack of government transparency on asbestos issues:
3. The lack of knowledge about legislation mandating the use of protective measures for industrial workers:
4. A failure to protect construction and demolition workers from occupational asbestos exposures:
5. The disconnect between levels of asbestos awareness amongst medical and technical experts and the public.
6. The horrific situation regarding the collection and disposal of asbestos-containing waste:
Asbestos litter on path, Volgograd.
Casual dumping of asbestos waste, Volgograd.
7. The reuse of asbestos waste:
Reuse of discarded asbestos materials, Krasnodar.
8. The failure of consumers to implement even minimal precautions when using asbestos products at home:
Broken asbestos sheet and toys, Nizny Novgorod.
9. The failure to label asbestos products as containing asbestos or as having a health risk to consumers.
10. A complete lack of knowledge about and availability of safer alternatives:
Commenting on the interim findings of this project, Elena Vasilieva, Director of Volgograd-Ecopress, noted:
While working on the project we were shocked with the low level of awareness about the asbestos hazard among people representing governmental institutions and medical clinics, people who are supposed to be a primary source of information on environmental and health threats. Not to mention ordinary citizens who revealed very low or even zero level of awareness on asbestos health risks though about half (40-60%) of respondents have asbestos products in their houses.
Putting this innovative project into context, Dr. Olga Speranskaya, Eco-Accord's, Director of Chemical Safety Program, said:
For decades, the asbestos industry has maintained an almost total control of the national asbestos agenda. The preliminary findings of our research have revealed a desperate situation which endangers the lives of workers and members of the public. Working with our civil society partners, we plan to continue this initiative in order to raise awareness of the asbestos hazard amongst the public, the medical community, labor federations, civil servants, local government officers and politicians.
August 15, 2011
2 Reports from medical specialists who attended recent international conferences in Italy and South Africa detailed the lies and misleading information provided by industry-associated researchers and doctors about the links between asbestos exposure and disease. One of industry's most favored front-men, Dr. David Bernstein, was questioned by delegates attending the 2009 World Congress on Occupational Health in Cape Town about the source of his funding and the lack of support for his assertions from independent scientists. According to one observer, the lack of a credible response by Bernstein was categorized as pathetic.