Saturday in São Caetano do Sul
São Caetano do Sul, a city in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, is a cancer hotspot as a result of a long industrial history of asbestos production. Brazils first asbestos-cement manufacturing facility was built in this city in 1937; under the ownership of the French multinational Saint Gobain, the plant simultaneously produced a range of asbestos-cement building material as well as generations of asbestos victims. Although it was closed in 1990, the number of victims continues to grow.
On Saturday, July 29, 2023, a one-day workshop was held in the São Caetano do Sul City Council for members of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA); more than sixty people attended. The activity was organized by ABREA and the Sindicato Solidariedade (Solidarity Trade Union, part of the federation of the Building and Wood Workers International) and supported by the Ministério Público do Trabalho/Procuradoria Regional do Trabalho da 4ª Região (Rio Grande do Sul) [Labor Public Ministry/Office of the 4th Region (Rio Grande do Sul State)].1 The plenary sessions were chaired jointly by the Presidents of Solidarity and ABREA respectively Edison Luiz Bernardes and Eliezer João de Souza with the technical panels chaired by expert members of the panels.
The poster for the event (see above) reflected growing frustration in Brazil over the stalemate regarding the countrys asbestos policy. Even though the Supreme Court issued a 2017 verdict banning asbestos production, processing and use, asbestos is still being mined and exported. The wording on the poster says: Amianto: até quanto tempo mais teremos que esperar no Brasil with the English translation being: Asbestos: how long will we have to wait in Brazil?
July 29, 2023. Asbestos Workshop. Opening Panel being addressed by Edison Luiz Bernardes, President of the Solidarity Union (center). Photograph by Danúbia Rocha (Enlarge image).
During his remarks, President Bernardes reminded the audience of the decades-long struggle by trade unionists and grassroots campaigners against powerful asbestos stakeholders in the government as well as commercial sectors. He decried the continued delays in taking action which could have protected workers from toxic exposures. Too many people had died, and continue to die, from asbestos-related cancers and respiratory diseases, he remarked.
The first task of the day was a pleasant one. It was undertaken jointly by ABREA founding member José Carlos Manzini and ABREA Director and mesothelioma widow Gizelia Gomes Vicentin who presented the inaugural IBAS Award 2023 for Outstanding Services to Asbestos Victims to Dr. Ubiratan de Paula Santos.
Dr. Ubiratan de Paula Santos (left) receiving his award from José Carlos Manzini (center) and Gizelia Gomes Vicentin. Photograph by Danúbia Rocha.
The reaction of the audience, many of whom had been treated by Dr. Ubiratan and his colleagues, to this news was extremely positive with ABREA President Eliezer remarking:
For decades, ABREA members have been traumatized by asbestos company doctors whose primary loyalties lie with their employers. Understandably, our members had little faith in the advice provided by these medical professionals. Brazilians who worked with asbestos are aware that historic toxic exposures could be a death sentence and live with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. All around them, they see former colleagues succumb to debilitating diseases and cancers. Even those without any symptoms at all, live with fear every day of their lives. In such a situation, open access to a trusted source of medical expertise is invaluable. This is what Dr. Ubiratan has facilitated for his patients at São Paulos renowned Heart Institute of the University of São Paulo (Incor/FMUSP). ABREA members have total confidence in their treatment by Dr. Ubiratan and his team. This certainty gives them peace of mind and enables them and their families to face the future.2
The first technical session State-of-the-Art and Current Debates in Brazil was chaired by ABREA lawyer Érica Coutinho and featured a contribution from ABREA Co-Founder and Technical Expert Engineer Fernanda Giannasi. Ms Giannasi updated conference delegates on the status of litigation pending at the Supreme Court regarding the unconstitutionality of a Goiás state law allowing asbestos mining and exporting to continue despite the 2017 Supreme Court verdict outlawing the asbestos industry. How can the Brazilian democracy allow the sale of a substance to other people which we have deemed too hazardous for use by Brazilians, she asked.
During the following ninety minute-session, chaired by Labour Prosecutor Luciano Lima Leivas from the Labor Public Ministry, speakers with medical, government and healthcare expertise considered the current state of the countrys public health system: the Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS/Unified Health System). There were, unsurprisingly, a lot of interventions from members of the audience who expressed concerns over the time taken for verdicts to be reached in cases brought by asbestos victims and their families; delegates also highlighted the lack of action being taken on the hazard posed by the continued presence of asbestos within the built environment.
Kicking off the afternoon discussions was a ninety-minute session on legal developments chaired by ABREAs Co-Founder Fernanda Giannasi and featuring contributions from ABREA lawyer Érica Coutinho and Prosecutor Luciano Lima Leivas from the Labor Public Ministry. In Brazil, in addition to personal injury asbestos claims, class actions can be brought against negligent corporations by public prosecutors. If found guilty, these defendants can be ordered to pay compensation not only for physical injuries but also for collective moral damages. In the past, some of these fines have been used to pay for initiatives of benefit to the asbestos-injured such as medical research, the development and implementation of asbestos outreach projects and tools to monitor the health of high-risk populations.3
The final plenary session considered the role played by victims associations, Worker Unions and civil society groups in the fight for social and environmental justice in Brazil. Contributions from Gilberto Almazan and Carlos Aparício Clemente of the Metalworkers Union of Osasco, Edison Luiz Bernardes of the Solidarity Union and ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza informed this discussion. The formal agenda was brought to a close by ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza.
After the formal agenda was completed, delegates discussed the draft text of the Letter from São Caetano do Sul which urged the Brazilian Supreme Court to order an immediate cessation of asbestos production at the Cana Brava Mine, in Goiás State, not only to protect the health of local workers, but also the populations of importing countries. Furthermore, delegates appealed to the authorities to address the national emergency posed by asbestos material incorporated within the national infrastructure by implementing a mandatory program for the eradication of the asbestos hazard from private as well as public buildings. To prevent toxic exposures to citizens and contamination of the environment, state-of-the-art asbestos removal techniques and protocols must be adopted. Following the debate of this text, the Letter from São Caetano do Sul was unanimously adopted; it has been sent to Supreme Court Justices, politicians of both Chambers, High Federal Deputies and Senators, and multiple media outlets.
Group photo at the end of the Asbestos Workshop on July 29, 2023. Photograph by Danúbia Rocha (Enlarge image).
August 8, 2023
1 Programacao da Oficina Amianto: até quanto tempo mais teremos que esperar no Brasil? [Official Program Asbestos: how long will we have to wait in Brazil?]
2 Press Release. Inaugural Award for Outstanding Service to Asbestos Victims! July 31, 2023.
Also see: Footage of the treatment of ABREA members at the Heart Institute in July 2023 can be viewed here:
3 Kazan-Allen, L. Australia Did It, So Did Japan, Belgium and Brazil, Can Britain Do It Too? July 27, 2023.