Asbestos Developments in Brazil
No one knows how many asbestos victims there are in Brazil. No epidemiological data is available because no research has been carried out; none is planned. Despite or perhaps because of this information vacuum, asbestos groups are springing up throughout the country. The first branch of ABREA, the Association of Brazilians Exposed to Asbestos, was set up in Osasco, an industrial suburb of São Paulo in 1995. Osasco was, for over half a century, the center of the country’s asbestos-cement industry. Through public demonstrations, political meetings, international conferences and other means members of ABREA-Osasco have ensured that the awareness of asbestos issues has increased both locally and nationally. In 1999, ABREA-São Caetano do Sul was begun by individuals who had worked in the local asbestos-cement factory; from 1937, Brasilit, a subsidiary of the French multinational Saint Gobain, had used amphiboles in the production of pipes at this location. Membership of ABREA-São Caetano do Sul has grown to 200 over the last three years. Medical examinations of these workers reveal that 60% of them have asbestos-related symptoms. ABREA-RIO was started last year and now has about 50 members most of whom are former employees of Teadit (formerly known as Asberit), a subsidiary of the U.S. company Johns-Manville. The Asberit factory began production of a wide range of asbestos-containing material including textiles, gaskets and yarns fifty years ago. Of the 41 ABREA-Rio members who have been examined, 36% have asbestosis, 63% have respiratory problems such as breathlessness.
On June 20, 2002, a capacity audience of over 500 people attended the first asbestos conference to be held in the northern town of Salvador, Bahia. This meeting was organised by the local prosecutor who had personally issued invitations to former asbestos workers1 many of whom had worked at the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Simões Filho, an industrial suburb of Salvador. Although there are 200 people employed at this facility now, it has been estimated that since the 1960s, 2000 employees could have been occupationally exposed to asbestos at this site. Another souvenir of Bahia’s asbestos past is the derelict asbestos mine in Poções, 500 kilometres from Salvador. Chrysotile was mined here from 1937-67; no effort has been made to decontaminate the site and people living nearby continue to be exposed to asbestos on a daily basis. Although overdue, the June 20th conference was an official recognition of Bahia’s asbestos problem. A resolution was adopted that a meeting would be held on July 20 to launch a new group: ABREA-Bahia.
In another northern town, Recife, Pernambuco State, health professionals are making plans to conduct medical examinations of asbestos victims; it is hoped that a new group, ABREA-Recife, will be started before the end of the year.
Although cities and states throughout Brazil have banned the use of asbestos, no action has been taken on a national level. In October, 2001, the asbestos ban adopted by the state of Mato Grosso do Sul was suspended by the Supreme Court; on April 29, 2002, a regional tribunal suspended the asbestos ban adopted by the state of São Paulo. The international asbestos industry has been lobbying politicians to support the status quo of "controlled use." Teams of industry spokespeople, headed by Canadian representatives, have imported asbestos supporters from countries such as Colombia and Mexico to exert pressure on Brazilian deputies. Many of the larger asbestos-consuming industries have, however, accepted the fall in consumer demand for asbestos products and committed themselves to a phase-out of asbestos technology. If they needed any more convincing, a good reason to eliminate the use of asbestos was the judgment won in mid-June, 2002 by the family of Mr. Élvio Gomes Caramuru. The former truck driver for Eternit, Rio de Janeiro died of mesothelioma in 1994. The landmark judgment awarded his family $400,000 for physical and moral damages. There remains only one technical procedure until this ruling is final; it is widely believed this judgment will be upheld and that an order to pay the full sum will be made within six months.
June 28, 2002
1 A report on this meeting is being prepared by Dr Marcos Rego, from the University of Bahia, for the IBAS website.