Asbestos Meetings in Brazil
The public debate on asbestos issues in Brazil has been forced onto the national agenda by the perseverance and hard work of asbestos victims’ groups and individuals determined to improve the situation of thousands of injured people. (see article: Asbestos Developments in Brazil). By focusing on events in June, 2002, we can highlight some key points in the on-going debate.
The Second Conference on Occupational and Environmental Health - Integrating the Americas took place in the Brazilian town of Salvador from June 17-20, 2002. The conference was organized by academic institutions and Brazilian agencies working in the fields of public and occupational health in cooperation with the Department of Work Environment, University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Discussions were wide-ranging, covering topics such as economic blocks and workers’ health in the Americas, globalization and its effects on health, rural work, agriculture and pesticides, the environment, epidemiology, organization of work, the surveillance of workers’ health, hazardous waste, child labor, working conditions of specific occupational groups and musculoskeletal disorders. Workshops addressed subjects as diverse as asbestos, mental health, bullying, benzene, ergonomics and the health of adolescent workers.
For members of the "virtual asbestos network," the timing of this event was opportune, coming some nine months after the Latin American Asbestos Meeting in Buenos Aires. The asbestos discussion groups and workshops were well-attended throughout the three days and included participation from asbestos victims’ groups, medical personnel, scientists, civil servants and campaigners from Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. Dr Hermano Castro, the Chairperson of the asbestos group, ensured that the sessions proceeded smoothly and supervised a stimulating mix of formal presentations and roundtable discussions. Because of the commitment of the delegates, there was always more to say; for this reason, Hermano has committed his department to holding regular online meetings of the global "virtual" network.
Dr. Hermano Castro chairing the asbestos workshop.
Some points of interest are discussed below:
Dr Eduardo Rodriguez, from the Ministry of Health in Buenos Aires, gave an informative presentation on developments in Argentina, nearly one year after his country banned asbestos. Showing slide after slide of non-asbestos containing products such as roofing tiles, boards, insulation material, pipes and water tanks, he exposed asbestos industry propaganda claiming that "life without asbestos is impossible." Even after the ban was in place, supermarkets continued selling asbestos disks (used for cooking). The Ministry wrote two letters and succeeded, after 6 months, in getting these products withdrawn from supermarket shelves.
Despite the progress being made, asbestos continues to be a serious threat to public and occupational health as shown by the examples of second-hand asbestos roofing materials still being used and asbestos waste casually discarded in residential areas. In Buenos Aires, demolition of asbestos-containing buildings is commonplace. The Ministry of Health has stopped the demolition of the Caseros jail, located in downtown Buenos Aires. It is heavily contaminated with asbestos; investigations are proceeding on how this building can be made safe for demolition.
Eduardo made several proposals:
set up a Latin American asbestos net which will be linked to international asbestos networks;
implement a system to locate and draw attention to asbestos problems in Latin America;
organize groups which can support asbestos victims;
generate interest and support amongst national governments;
raise the public profile of asbestos issues throughout Latin America.
Eduardo expressing his views during the workshop.
A new system to map the use of asbestos and the incidence of asbestos-related disease has been implemented in São Paulo. One unique feature of the program is the active participation of city, state and regional officials such as Golda Schwartzman and Dr. Jefferson Freitas, both of whom discussed procedures for inspecting workplaces and organizing information about asbestos. Fernanda Giannasi spoke about the construction and future applications of the database which lies at the heart of the new protocol suggesting that it could be the basis for a Latin American asbestos database which would reveal the repercussions for workers of the operations of transnational asbestos corporations such as Richard Klinger, Eternit and others.
In a presentation entitled: Challenging the Global Market in Asbestos Products: An example of International Action, Fernanda Giannasi demonstrated that international cooperation amongst asbestos campaigners can have tangible results. She described how information provided by the Ministry of Health in Argentina to a UK contact, resulted in exposing the illegal importation of asbestos-containing gaskets from Brazil into the UK. Acting on information forwarded from the UK, Fernanda located factory premises in the São Paulo region in which unlicensed asbestos processes were being performed.
During plenary sessions and meetings of the asbestos workshops, Dr Annie Thebaud-Mony discussed the current situation of French asbestos victims. At the request of some of the delegates from the newer asbestos victims’ groups, she explained how, over the space of a few years, the French association of asbestos victims (ANDEVA) became a national force capable of making effective representations to the Government, insurers and trade unions. ANDEVA is not a controlling central body; rather it is a source of information and support for groups throughout France which are members of the national network. ANDEVA changed the legal climate in France and now compensation claims can and are being brought for asbestos-related injuries.
On February 28, 2002 there was a landmark judgment by the French Supreme Court which concluded that rulings by lower courts favoring twenty-nine asbestos victims were valid. The defendants in these cases included: companies linked to asbestos multinationals such as Eternit (part of the Belgian-owned Etex Group), Everite (Saint Gobain), S. A. Valeo (the company which took over Ferodo Ltd., previously a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UK Turner & Newall Group) and companies utilising asbestos like Ascométal. There is no doubt that this ruling will encourage future asbestos plaintiffs. It has been estimated that the Supreme Court ruling could cost French insurers $6.68 billion over twenty years.
Research on the consequences of occupational exposure to asbestos in Mexico has been on-going for the last two years. The status of this project was reported by Guadalupe Aguilar Madrid who said epidemiologists predict that the incidence of pleural mesothelioma in Mexico will continue to rise for another 30 years; between 1979-2000, 801 deaths from pleural mesothelioma were recorded.
Guadalupe making her presentation to the asbestos workshop.
The first asbestos-cement factory in Mexico started production in 1930. In 1985, there were 45 asbestos-consuming companies in the Valle de Mexico. Between 1992-2000, statistics show that 1,881 companies imported asbestos; over this period, the annual import of asbestos rose by 36% from 3,209 tons (1992) to 4,350 tons (2000). During this period, the export of asbestos-containing material from Mexico more then trebled. It is quite revealing to note the discrepancy between exports of raw asbestos from Canada to Mexico and imports to Canada of asbestos-containing products from Mexico. Canada is the largest supplier of asbestos to Mexico, accounting for 68% of imports. While the United States absorbed 58% of Mexican asbestos exports, El Salvador 22.6%, Honduras 5.9%, Guatemala 3.3%, Canada accounted for barely 1.65%. These facts reinforce the popularly held notion that the Canadian concept of "controlled use" of asbestos is firmly based on the premise that asbestos use is "controlled" as long as it takes place elsewhere.
Blanca Garcia, Secretary of the victims’ group in Managua, gave a formal presentation about the health effects of occupational exposure to asbestos in Nicaragua focusing on the operations of the asbestos manufacturer: Nicalit S.A. This firm began manufacturing asbestos cement products in 1967. Sixty per cent of the company’s capital was Swiss; the remaining 40% of the company was owned by a local firm: Amiantus S.A. Many of the engineers overseeing production were Swiss.
Blanca discussing the situation in Nicaragua.
Mobilization of asbestos victims in Nicaragua is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1998, a group of 120 former workers from Nicalit got together to discuss the asbestos deaths of co-workers. They decided to form an association: Asociacion De Extrabajadores De La Nicalit (AEXNIC).
Eva Delgado Rosas from Lima said that an overwhelming lack of information continues to exacerbate a situation in which asbestos victims remain invisible and marginalized in her country (see presentation notes). Although cases of asbestos-related diseases had been diagnosed from the mid-1980s onward, little has been done to help the victims, many of whom worked for Eternit, an asbestos multinational. AFA-PEART, an asbestos victims’ group supported by workers, academics and occupational health professionals, is trying to raise awareness of these problems and promote a national ban on asbestos.
Statistics presented by Eva are shocking; in 2000, medical examinations of 197 asbestos and former asbestos workers found that 60% of them had asbestosis, the health of a further 39% provided cause for concern. The General Hospital in Lima has diagnosed 133 cases of mesothelioma.
Recommendations by AFA-PEART include:
lobbying Parliament to adopt legislation prohibiting asbestos;
proposals to set up an epidemiological program to monitor the incidence of asbestosis, mesothelioma and pulmonary cancer in those exposed to asbestos;
monitoring the health of populations living near asbestos factories;
ensuring that action is taken to assist asbestos victims gain compensation;
working with international movements such as the virtual Ban Asbestos network for a global ban on asbestos.
Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of IBAS, updated delegates on the progress of the global anti-asbestos movement; this year Australia, Spain, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic plan to ban asbestos. In Eastern Europe, many countries are planning to ban asbestos within the next couple of years. While the Government of Vietnam has announced plans to ban asbestos in 2004, high-level discussions about bans are also proceeding in Japan and Malaysia. In the United States, a bill to ban asbestos will be discussed by the Senate.
Laurie discussing the global situation.
Within the discussion, Laurie highlighted the role played by IBAS and the significance of The Global Asbestos Congress, a conference held in Osasco, Brazil in September, 2000.
Following the discussions on asbestos which took place between June 17-20, Fernanda Giannasi and Eva Delgado Rosas summarized the asbestos workshop’s conclusions at the final plenary session. The Portuguese version has been made available by Fernanda; the Spanish translation has been provided by Eduardo Rodriguez.
It was agreed that the struggle to improve the situation of asbestos victims benefits from:
exchange of information;
respect of cultural and social diversities;
an integration of regional information;
empowering of local groups;
autonomy of action: think locally, act globally!
Our principal objectives include:
campaigning for a global ban on asbestos;
achieving fair compensation for victims;
defending health as a fundamental human right;
ensuring that the environmental and public health impact of asbestos is considered.
To improve the effectiveness of the "virtual asbestos network," the following steps should be taken:
build an information system which can be used throughout Latin America;
set up a Latin American asbestos website with global links. This could be linked to the website of ABREA, the Brazilian asbestos victims’ group, which already has some information in Spanish;
encourage trade union participation in this struggle throughout the Americas;
define specific strategies to expose: negligent behaviour of asbestos companies and industry’s role in funding suspect "scientific" research;
push for an urgent review of ILO Convention 162 urging that the concept of "controlled use" be replaced by a global ban.
The platform party during the opening session.
Fernanda Giannasi translating the presentation of Laurie Kazan-Allen.
The First Seminar on Asbestos Exposure in Bahia was planned to coincide with the presence in Salvador of international experts attending the three-day conference. It was held at the Public Ministry of State on June 20, 2002, despite objections from local employers. Hundreds of workers attended; many said that threats of dismissal had prevented others from coming.
General view of seminar audience.
Members of Brazilian asbestos groups (ABREA) in seminar audience.
As many of the delegates were retired, they were immune to these threats. Some asbestos workers came having received invitations from Dr Hortensia Gomes Pinho, a prosecutor from the Public Ministry of the State of Bahia; others attended after seeing the event mentioned on a popular lunchtime TV news program. On June 19, Mr Raimundo Varela, an ebullient and charismatic news presenter, interviewed Fernanda Giannasi (Brazil), Annie Thebaud-Mony (France) and Laurie Kazan-Allen (England) about asbestos problems in their countries. He explained that the experts were in Salvador for the June 20 asbestos seminar. In his unique style, Raimundo loudly thumped his desk and signalled his approval of the June 20 seminar by awarding it a green card.
Laurie Kazan-Allen, Fernanda Giannasi, Raimundo Varela and Annie Thebaud-Monet after the TV broadcast.
As will be seen from the report by Marco Antônio Rêgo, the conference was a huge success generating plans to set-up a new association representing asbestos victims in Bahia. Unfortunately, the cost of this success was high; one of the key organisers was inexplicably fired shortly after the seminar. Ms. Leticia Coelho da Costa Nobre, the Supervisor of the Occupational Health Centre (CESAT), a dedicated civil servant with a long-standing interest in workers’ health, had been involved with the conference arrangements since the beginning. Local observers suspect that Leticia’s attempts to mobilise asbestos victims was not popular within certain sectors of the community.
Rio de Janeiro:
On June 24, 2002, Fernanda Giannasi and Laurie Kazan-Allen gave a three hour tutorial to law students, civil servants, asbestos victims and occupational health professionals at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. Laurie’s paper: Recent Developments Affecting European Asbestos Claims was the starting point for a discussion comparing asbestos litigation in the developed and developing world. Shortly, after the session ended, the two speakers and Ruth Nascimento, the President of ABREA-Rio, met with Federal Deputy Fernando Gabeiro, author of the federal bill to ban asbestos throughout Brazi, to discuss the current status of this bill.
Ruth Nascimento, the President of ABREA-Rio, meets with Federal Deputy Fernando Gabeiro.
Aug 1, 2002