The Future We Want is Asbestos-Free 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Rio+20, the 2012 United Nations sustainable development summit in Brazil, is history. The long-anticipated three-day event which started on June 20 had been intended to commemorate the 1992 Earth Summit, also held in Rio de Janeiro, and reignite the commitment of global leaders to achieving “The Future We Want,” the 2012 summit's slogan.1 That it fell far short of both goals has much to do with the non-attendance of heads of governments from major polluters; amongst the list of absentees were President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the face of strong pressure from corporate stakeholders, the lack of political will and the ongoing economic crisis, there was a pronounced failure to engage with agenda issues such as: curbing CO2 emissions, eliminating subsidies on fossil fuels, providing universal access to clean water and adequate food supplies, safeguarding women's reproductive rights and pushing forward the green agenda. Summing up the mood as the Summit ended on Friday (June 22), Sha Zukang, the Secretary-General of the conference, described the lack of progress as “an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job,” he noted “was to make everyone equally unhappy.” 2

Unlike the sense of disappointment which pervaded the Summit's official proceedings, the spontaneity, diversity and inclusivity of the Rio+20 People's Summit for Social and Environmental Justice, a parallel event open to all-comers, created a spirit of subdued optimism. The allocation of spaces for events organized by more than 200 non-governmental bodies from June 13 to June 22 enabled discussions on alternative solutions to the planet's environmental and social challenges to proceed. The fact that these debates took place on Flamengo Beach, just a short distance away from its more famous sibling: Copacabana, was entirely appropriate; despite the challenges presented by the unusual surroundings, organisers and participants made great use of the time and space available in the heart of the “cidade maravilhosa” (marvellous city), Rio de Janeiro.

One constructive happening held under the umbrella of the People's Summit was a day of civil action called Rio+20 Asbestos Toxic Tour. The June 15th activities mounted to draw attention to the deadly threat to humanity and the environment posed by the continuing production and use of asbestos began in the morning with a demonstration and continued in the afternoon with a bilingual dialogue on strategies for achieving the aims of the seminar “The Future We Want is Asbestos-Free” (O Futuro Que Queremos é Sem Amianto).


The Eternit factory at 122 Francisco Portela Street in the Guadalupe neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's oldest operational asbestos-cement manufacturing facility.3 Two hundred employees work here around the clock producing asbestos-containing building materials, with the early morning shift beginning at 7 a.m. Despite the fact that the State of Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of asbestos, this factory exists within an exclusion bubble in which the toxic use of a prohibited substance persists. This state of affairs is possible because of a judicial appeal made by Eternit which threatened mass unemployment should the ban be enforced. As a result, the authorities agreed to exempt the company from Rio de Janeiro State Law 3579/2001 until a Supreme Court ruling has been issued on whether the asbestos ban is constitutional.

A letter to Eternit from ABREA, the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed, was delivered on June 15 during the protest; it appealed to the company to protect its workers and obey the law. The text of this letter formed the basis of a petition circulated during the day that highlighted the social irresponsibility of Eternit's continued asbestos production at the Guadalupe plant. From outside the factory gates, the Presidents of the ABREA branches in Rio de Janeiro, Geraldo Mariano, and Osasco, Eliezer João de Souza, addressed the workforce with the use of loud hailers.


“Under our constitution workers must” they said “be provided with a healthy environment. Eternit's continued use of asbestos is deadly and must be stopped.” Colorful information leaflets entitled “Asbestos Kills! Work Yes, Disease No” (Amianto Mata! Trabalhar Sim. Adoecer Não) produced by ABREA members, some of whom worked at the Rio Eternit factory, in conjunction with researchers at Fiocruz, an institution of the Ministry of Health, were distributed to people arriving at the plant and members of the public. During the morning session, Fernanda Giannasi, the leader of Brazil's ban asbestos movement, and representatives of the CUT trade union also took the opportunity of expressing their support for a just transition from asbestos-based technology to asbestos-free production, so that jobs would be created and workers protected. Labor Inspector Giannasi asked: “How many Eternit workers have to die before the company puts health before profits?” Eternit personnel were observed taking photographs of the demonstrators with a particular focus on the activities of Ms. Giannasi.


Fernanda Giannasi being interviewed by the Brazilian media.

Throughout the protest, a huge lorry remained parked in the street by the factory gate. One of the plates on this truck was an orange square on which were written the figures “90 2590,” the United Nations code for white asbestos (chrysotile), actinolite, anthophyllite, tremolite.


There is no doubt that this vehicle's cargo was raw asbestos fiber from the Minaçu chrysotile mine. Under Rio de Janeiro State Law 3579/2001 the transport of this hazardous material on the public highways is illegal but via another judicial appeal, Brazilian asbestos stakeholders also secured permission for this practice to persist.

Posters displayed on the factory gates by the protestors highlighted the:

  • outrage at the possibility that Stephen Schmidheiny, a former Eternit executive convicted by a Turin Court for his role in the asbestos deaths of thousands of Italians, might participate in the Rio+20 Summit;
  • human toll paid by Eternit's Brazilian workers for their asbestos employment;
  • demand by Eternit's Italian asbestos victims for justice: “Eternit Giustizia!”
  • call by Brazilian civil society for an asbestos-free future.


As with almost any Brazilian meeting or event that lasts more than 2 minutes, ABREA members made sure to bring with them ingredients crucial to all forms of human interaction: flasks of Brazilian coffee, packets of biscuits, sugar and bottles of water were placed on a small collapsible table for the participants.

Moving from the industrial periphery of Rio into the city center took nearly two hours in the traffic generated by the influx of Rio+20 participants. Although securing the site for that afternoon's asbestos session had been fraught by lack of information and numerous delays, the persistence of civil society activists, led by the folks from Fiocruz, ABREA, ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health and CEBES, the Brazilian Center for Health Studies, was rewarded when tent 1 on Flamengo Beach was made available on June 15th from 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. for the workshop: “The Future We Want is Asbestos-Free.”


Reflecting the broad-based support for this event was the range of associations and groups from Latin America, North America, Europe and Asia which coalesced for this session including: asbestos victims from Rio, Osasco and Bom Jesus da Serra, ban asbestos campaigners, civil servants, local politicians, medical personnel, researchers, trade unionists and concerned members of the public.


The tree located at the front of the tent provided both a fitting reminder that this was not a run-of-the-mill meeting as well as the ideal location for ABREA members to hang Ban Asbestos leaflets (below).




Fiocruz researcher Dr. Hermano Albuquerque de Castro (right).

Dr. Hermano de Castro, who has been attacked by industry stakeholders for his public health work on asbestos, framed the afternoon's discussion by detailing the epidemiological evidence documenting the links between asbestos exposure and disease in Brazil and abroad. “Brazil is,” he said “just beginning to see the effects of hazardous asbestos exposures which occurred during the asbestos boom time in the 1960s.”


Dr. Jefferson Beneditto Pires Freitas.

Dr. Freitas, a medical expert from São Paulo, agreed that there is a lack of reliable data on the incidence of asbestos disease in Brazil. Efforts to collect statistics on asbestos mortality have only been made in a handful of cities; unfortunately, the databanks which do exist provide conflicting figures on the scope of Brazil's asbestos problem.4 Dr. Freitas charged the government to institute a mesothelioma register and other protocols so that accurate information can be routinely collected.

In the information vacuum which persists, it is the victims' testimony which speaks the loudest. Geraldo Mariano, President of the Rio de Janeiro branch of ABREA, described conditions in the Eternit factory where he worked for nearly 7 years: “Asbestos was emptied into the mixer with cement to make tiles; dust covered the workers. Now, the symptoms and lumps are inside of us; we feel they are about to burst any minute.” Commenting on the categorization of pleural plaques as a “benign condition,” Mariano said “there is no such thing as a good disease.” Eliezer João de Souza, the President of ABREA's Osasco branch, has led the victims' campaign for justice since ABREA was founded in 1995. He spoke of the patchwork of progress regarding the reduction in asbestos exposures in Brazil: although some states have banned its use, commercial enterprises have succeeded in obtaining derogations in these states which permit the processing of asbestos to continue. In non-ban states, like Paraná, asbestos manufacturing remains a profitable and large-scale business which exposes the workers and the community at large to an uncertain future.5

The difficulties experienced by Brazil's asbestos victims were put into sharp relief by the presentation about the abandoned asbestos mine in São Félix, Bahia made by ABREA's Esmeraldo dos Santos Teixeira (known to everyone as Nego) and his colleagues from the Social Forum of Bom Jesus Da Serra: Professor Jânio Oliveira Rocha and Mayor Edinaldo Meira Silva. From 1939 until 1967 mining operations by the SAMA company exposed workers as well as members of the public to hazardous levels of asbestos. When SAMA shut its operations in Bahia, it walked away from 700 hectares of contaminated land and abandoned 100 former workers to their fate. With no support or compensation provided by SAMA, the families of asbestos-killed workers are reliant on hand-outs from the municipality to bury their dead.


It is ironic, Nego pointed out, that the name of the local cemetery commemorates the town's asbestos past; it is called Snow White. An Open Letter to Rio+20 by the Bom Jesus Da Serra Social Forum was distributed at the workshop.

Detailing the nexus of vested interests which have assiduously fought to retain the asbestos status quo in Brazil, Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi quoted a report from the French Senate which said that the asbestos lobby had for years “anaesthetised” the French Government and by so doing had allowed the continued use of a deadly substance; the Senate called asbestos the “greatest health catastrophe of the 20th century.”


Data presented by Ms. Giannasi showed the growing importance to the global asbestos market of Brazilian companies. Brazil, which was formerly ranked the 4th or 5th most prolific global supplier, now occupies 3rd place; between 1996 and 2011, Brazilian asbestos output increased from 8.8% to 14% (300,000 tonnes) of total global production. According to the most recent available data, the majority (55%) of Brazilian asbestos is sent to Asia: 45.8% to India, 17.6% to Indonesia, 6.8% to Mexico, 6.4% to the United Arab Emirates and 5.4% to Thailand. With the profits which flow from this trade, the industry is able to buy political support, manipulate the judicial system and block vital research into the incidence of asbestos-related disease. A typical example of these efforts is the judicial privilege secured by asbestos producers to withhold details of 4,000 cases of asbestos-related disease from government officials on the grounds that these individuals had received from Eternit and Saint Gobain extra-judicial settlements, the details of which are confidential. Seventeen other companies have received authorization from the Superior Court of Justice to withhold information on asbestos-related disease incidence pending a 2012 Supreme Court decision. In the light of these and other ploys, the true impact of asbestos on the lives of ordinary Brazilians has not and cannot emerge, concluded Ms. Giannasi.

And yet, the right to “Dignidade da pessoa humana” (dignity of the human person) and the social value of work, which cannot co-exist with the “controlled use of asbestos,” are upheld by the Brazilian constitution, Lawyer Mauro Menezes told workshop participants.


It is for this reason that hearings will be held in August 2012 before eleven Supreme Court Ministers (judges) to establish the constitutionality of the law which bans the use of asbestos in São Paulo State. Should the Court uphold the São Paulo law, ban laws pending in the States of Mato Grosso do Sul, Espírito Santo and Pará are likely to be adopted by the end of the year with other state bans to follow. ABREA, which Mr. Menezes represents, is an amicus curiae in the Supreme Court action along with other civil society groups determined to secure the right to a future that is asbestos-free in Brazil. Speaking on behalf of the National Association of Labor Prosecutors (Associaço Nacional Dos Procuradores Do Trabaho/ ANPT), Dr. Fabio Goulart Villela detailed the part his association is playing in the Supreme Court action; ANPT has brought a lawsuit against the President of Brazil over the law which supports the country's controlled use policy.

Expressing the outrage of Brazilian civil society, occupational and environmental health specialist Professor Rene Mendes confirmed the immorality of the Brazilian government's “controlled use” policy on asbestos:

“In 2012, this subject should not still be debated; the tragic history of asbestos has been known since 1907. There is no excuse for the interminable delay which puts even more people's lives at risk. The world we want is one which is free of asbestos.”

Dr. Mendes' sentiments were echoed by Gilberto Salviano da Silva, the representative of the Central única dos Trabalhadores (the Central Union of Workers/ CUT) who presented a document signed in May 2012 by CUT and other trade unions supporting a Brazilian ban on asbestos. He announced that the call to ban asbestos had been listed as an agenda item for the July 2012 CUT conference in São Paulo and confirmed that CUT will, at that time, publish the Portuguese translation of the IBAS monograph : Eternit & The Great Asbestos Trial.

International speakers from Europe, North America and Asia contributed to the dialogue regarding “The Future We Want is Asbestos-Free,” via presentations, distribution of literature, sharing of online resources and participation in discussions.


The Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) Laurie Kazan-Allen highlighted the role played by Brazilian ban asbestos activists in the global asbestos struggle, referencing the landmark conference held in Osasco in 2000 – The Global Asbestos Congress: Past, Present and Future – and identified the huge achievements made since that event took place.


In the last twelve years, there has been a 3-fold increase in the number of countries banning the use of asbestos and a 46% decrease in the number of countries consuming more than 500 tonnes/year. Whereas, formerly, civil society accepted the industry propaganda of “controlled use of asbestos,” in the 21st century the only acceptable policy on asbestos is no use.

In the next presentation, “Harnessing the Power of Social Media Advocacy,” Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Diseases Awareness Organization (ADAO) concentrated on the effectiveness of social media platforms for spreading awareness of the asbestos hazard and facilitating the collaborative efforts of ban asbestos activists in countries around the world.


The huge growth of mobile phone technology and use, the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, and other new platforms of online communication have created a situation which empowers civil society to confront the asbestos challenge even in countries where asbestos vested interests enjoy all the political privilege and government support that their asbestos dollars can buy.

Speaker Alexandra Caterbow of Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF) described the genesis of the WECF's asbestos awareness campaign in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) countries6 and the challenges faced, including the lack of asbestos awareness, the financial and political clout of asbestos vested interests, the ubiquity of hazardous exposures caused by asbestos industrial production and the haphazard dumping of contaminated waste. In the Ukraine, she said, 95% of all homes were covered with asbestos-cement sheets. An innovative and eco-friendly project being developed by the WECF is the use of non-asbestos straw bale technology for building homes in Georgia and the EECCA.7 Describing the experiences of an NGO in Kazakhstan, Kaisha Atakanova reiterated the size of the challenge to civil society in EECCA countries when taking on powerful industrial forces such as the asbestos industry.

Concluding Thoughts

From the discussion during the afternoon, there could be little doubt about the anger generated by the 21st century mining, sale and consumption of asbestos. The impunity which asbestos entrepreneurs have enjoyed for decades has to and will be brought to an end. Calls made by participants in the June 15th events are being conveyed to the United Nations, including demands for an international instrument, along the lines of the Stockholm Convention, to eliminate asbestos use and hold individuals guilty of asbestos crimes to account. It is inexcusable that at such a high-profile international meeting on the environment held in a country which is the world's 3rd biggest producer of asbestos, there was no room on the agenda for a discussion of the asbestos hazard. This was not an error of omission but rather a successful and deliberate attempt by Brazilian asbestos stakeholders to silence civil society opposition. That this blatant censorship did not succeed is evinced by the success of the Asbestos Toxic Tour. The future we want is asbestos-free!


1 Black R. Rio summit ends with warning on corporate power. June 23, 2012.

2 Brooks B. Rio+20, the unhappy environmental summit. June 23, 2012.

3 Two older asbestos-cement factories, one of which started production in 1937 and was owned by Brasilit/Saint Gobain closed in 1990; the other, which opened in in Osasco in 1939 and was owned by the Swiss Eternit Group, closed in 1993.

4 Brazilian asbestos mortality data from the health insurance benefits system do not agree with municipal mortality data or statistics from the cancer registries which exist in 13 cities. Research conducted in São Paulo by Dr. Eduardo Algranti confirms there is a “clear underreporting of mesotheliomas” in the Osasco cohort of former Eternit asbestos-cement workers whose diseases have been followed by São Paulo specialists for 10 years.

5 Legislation to ban the use of asbestos in Paraná State, Brazil's biggest producer of asbestos-cement, was derailed in February 2012 by political and commercial vested interests. The ban bill is currently in a state of limbo pending a Supreme Court ruling expected by the end of 2012.

6 The EECCA countries are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

7 Straw bale building - a viable alternative for Georgia and the EECCA region!



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