Who is at Risk from Toxic Exposures? 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On Saturday, December 12, 2015, Belgian demographers from The Association for the Development of Applied Research in Social Sciences presented research findings which substantiated reports by the Belgian Association of the Asbestos Victims (ABEVA) about the human impact of asbestos processing operations in the Belgian towns of Harmignies and Kapelle-op-den-Bos.1 Having studied cohorts of workers from the asbestos-cement factories in these areas, it was concluded that, on average, more than twenty years of life were lost to those who succumbed to asbestos-related diseases due to occupational exposures at the Coverit and Eternit companies.

Reflecting on this catastrophic loss of life, the ABEVA press release issued on December 12th considered the risk to members of the public and family members whose toxic exposures were non-occupational. Acknowledging that under Belgian law, these victims remain uncompensated, ABEVA urged the authorities to act on the injustices which continue to deprive the injured of their rights.

The issue of non-occupational exposures highlighted by ABEVA was discussed in a commentary published online on November 9, 2015 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, an international peer reviewed publication owned by the British Medical Journal. In the text entitled “Para-occupational exposures to asbestos: lessons learned from Casale Monferrato, Italy,” author Professor Leslie Stayner cited numerous studies which documented elevated incidences of asbestos-related disease from non-occupational exposures; he also highlighted evidence regarding the health hazard of low level asbestos exposures and the impact of cumulative exposures from multiple sources such as contamination at home and in the environment.2 The threat posed by exposures to asbestos-cement roofing and pavements containing asbestos tailings was specifically mentioned in the discussion of the “strong evidence” of an association between the occurrence of pleural mesothelioma and exposure to asbestos-containing material.

The importance of this commentary was very quickly appreciated by campaigners working on the asbestos frontline. Of particular significance were the author’s forthright statements about the imminent and persisting public health hazard caused by the presence of asbestos and the “serious implications for communities that are currently using or producing asbestos.” As a result of requests made by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, it was agreed that the journal would make the full text of this commentary freely available online for a period of six months. In addition, requests to the author, the editor of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the publisher of the British Medical Journal for permission to translate the text into Russian (see: Russian Translation), Chinese (see: Chinese Translation) and Portuguese (see: Portuguese Translation) – the languages of the world’s major asbestos producers – were granted. A further request for permission to produce a Vietnamese translation (see: Vietnamese Translation) was also accepted.3

Commenting on the critical importance of the Vietnamese translation, Dr. Tuan Tran, Co-founder of the Vietnam Ban Asbestos Network, Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Evidence-based Health Policy Development Coalition Vietnam and Director of the Research and Training Center for Community Development wrote:

“The Stayner commentary elucidates policy-oriented evidence from the 2015 paper by Ferrante et al: Pleural mesothelioma and non-occupational asbestos exposure: a case- control study with quantitative risk assessment. There is no doubt that policy makers will be struck by the ‘strong evidence of an exposure–response relationship between higher cumulative exposure to asbestos from all sources and increased risk of pleural mesothelioma.’ In addition to the author’s criticism of the continued failure to protect populations from toxic exposures, his conclusion about who will ultimately pay for the asbestos industry’s profits is categorical: ‘Ultimately it is the communities that most likely will bear the costs in terms of health and for the cleanup of their homes and environments.’

The Vietnamese version of this commentary will be distributed to people in the mountainous and poor rural areas of our country where 80% of homes are covered with asbestos-cement roofing products. We believe this paper will encourage the Government of Vietnam to keep its promise to ban chrysotile asbestos by 2020.”

In Brazil, the world’s 3rd largest producer of asbestos, the Portuguese version has relevance not only to members of the public but also to workers directly exposed to asbestos – such as those in the asbestos mine and mill and in manufacturing plants – as well as consumers and those experiencing bystander exposures at work. According to Brazilian ban asbestos campaigner, retired Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi:

“Professor Stayner’s assertion that chrysotile (white) asbestos can, like other types of asbestos, cause lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancer as well as mesothelioma (cancer) and other diseases is of utmost importance in Brazil. Despite huge public and political support for a national asbestos ban, industry lobbyists and their well-paid government supporters allege there is no proof to substantiate the need for outlawing the commercial exploitation of a valuable natural resource. Stayner’s conclusions and the evidence he cites prove otherwise. The Portuguese version of this commentary will prove an invaluable resource for our campaign to ban asbestos.”

On its own, Russia supplies more than half of all the asbestos used annually. The Russian asbestos industry enjoys close links with and support from the Putin government; its lobbyists spearhead a well-funded, multilingual and global asbestos propaganda campaign. However, despite the best endeavors of the asbestos sector, campaigners in Russia have conducted projects to quantify the hazard and disseminated up-to-date information about the dangers of human exposures. Convinced of the need for a Russian version of the Stayner commentary, one of the leading Russian groups working in this field, Eco-Accord Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development, collaborated with the translation project. According to its spokesperson Olga Speranskaya:

“Stayner’s conclusion that the populations of towns where asbestos is mined and/or processed will ‘most likely bear the costs in terms of health and for the cleanup of their homes and environments,’ certainly rings true with what we have discovered in Russia. Our research has documented a colossal lack of public, professional and medical awareness of the asbestos health hazard, high concentrations of asbestos in ambient air near processing facilities and the dumping of toxic waste into local ponds and onto public highways.”

The fact that the journal in which the original text was published granted permission for these new texts to be created and that the groups named in this article worked so quickly to produce these translations are testament to the effectiveness of the global coalition working to promote safer technologies, implement a “just transition policy” for affected workers and ensure healthy environments for future generations. An asbestos-free future is possible.

December 15, 2015


1 l’Abeva (Association Belge des Victimes de l’amiante). Les travailleurs décédés de l’amiante ont perdu en moyenne vingt années de vie! [Workers who died from asbestos lost on average 20 years of life!]

2 Stayner L. Para-occupational exposures to asbestos: lessons learned from Casale Monferrato, Italy. November 9, 2015.

3 Vietnam is one of Asia’s biggest asbestos consumers and is regarded as a strategic asbestos market by global producers.



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