Chile Bans Asbestos! 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Chile Decides to Ban Asbestos

Early in 2001, the Republic of Chile gave notice that the import and use of asbestos would be banned; a deadline of July, 2001 was proposed. Decree 656 was wide-ranging, prohibiting the production, import, distribution, sale and use of crocidolite, chrysotile, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, tremolite and other types of asbestos and materials containing them. Article 2 specifically stated that asbestos must not be used in any building materials. This landmark event in occupational health and safety in Latin America was brought about by the efforts of a coalition of campaigners which included politicians, civil servants in three government Ministries (Housing, Transport and Health), asbestos victims, exposed workers, trade unionists, environmental NGOs and concerned individuals.

The debate and consultative process which resulted in the decision to ban asbestos has taken place over five years; during that time the issues were studied and debated. This was not a rash decision lightly taken. How then did Chilean proponents of the ban react when they received news that on June 29, 2001, the Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chretien, personally telephoned the Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in an attempt to persuade him to abandon the prohibition on chrysotile (white asbestos)? [Note: Canada is currently the world’s second biggest exporter of chrysotile; in Canada, Federal and Regional governments have been vociferous and proactive in their support of the country’s asbestos industry.]

Local Reaction to Canadian Interference

In an official statement, Chretien admitted that he "spoke with President Lagos and forcefully made the Canadian case -- based on clear scientific evidence -- that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely." Sergio Troncoso, President of Chile’s National Confederation of Construction Workers, said: "It is inappropriate and immoral that a foreign government intervene in our nation’s affairs on behalf of its multinational corporations." Andrei Tchernitchin, a toxicologist at the University of Chile and head of the Chilean Medical Association’s Environmental Commission contradicted Chretien: "There are some types of asbestos that are more toxic than others, but every type of asbestos has been proved to cause cancer… Studies in Chile clearly show that exposure to asbestos increases the risk of getting cancer many times over." The President of the Institute of Political Ecology, the group which spear-headed the anti-asbestos campaign, was highly critical of the Canadian politician’s behaviour: "The Canadians are operating with a double standard in their trade relations which Chile. They claim to be worried about the environment -- but when their exports are threatened they try to overturn Chile’s laws for their self-interested advantage."

Media Coverage of Anti-Asbestos Activities

The run-up to the July 12 deadline was fraught. In Chile, defenders of the ban got organised: they put advertisements in a leading newspaper denouncing Canadian interference, initiated a national letter-writing campaign to President Lagos, advised international colleagues of developments and organised a public demonstration in Santiago. The Canadian media picked up the story and, for once, asbestos became a topical issue widely debated in the country’s media. On July 12, Bill Schiller’s article: "Chilean ban to boost asbestos woes" was published in the Toronto Star. Schiller detailed "documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws (which) show Ottawa - working with the industry’s lobbying arm, the Asbestos Institute (AI) - is waging an all-out diplomatic offensive that has been turning personal when foreign officials won’t be persuaded." The journalist quotes from a January letter sent by Clement Godbout, a director of the AI, to Pierre Pettigrew, Canada’s International Trade Minister, which "launched a general attack against the Chilean government and a personal attack on Chilean Health Minister Michelle Bachelet. The AI letter accuses Chile of having a ‘cavalier’ attitude toward Canadian officials and urges Pettigrew not to tolerate it."

The next day’s editorial in the Toronto Star stated: "Not only is it embarrassing to see Chretien shilling for the asbestos industry, it raises troubling questions about Canada’s respect for the health and safety concerns of other countries." The Globe and Star editorial, taking the traditional stance, claimed: "Chretien had every right to call Mr. Lagos and make Canada’s case for asbestos." "From Coast to Coast," a programme on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, interviewed Bernardo Reyes from the Institute of Political Ecology. Reyes described the anti-asbestos campaign including the July 12 demonstration in front of the Presidential Palace and the presentation to Hughes Rousseau, Canada’s interim Ambassador to Chile, of a letter to Prime Minister Chretien. The letter, signed by Sergio Chapa, the President of the Committee of Asbestos Victims, Manuel Baquedano, the President of the Institute of Political Ecology, Presidents of Chile’s four main trade unions and the Secretary General of CUT, Jose Ortiz, asked why "is it necessary to place pressure on developing countries and on poor nations to accept a mineral that has been scientifically proven to pose a great threat to those who handle it? Risky and toxic products for Canadians will have an even greater impact in developing nations with poorly developed health and safety regulations an enforcement mechanisms."

Background to the Ban

In 1999, the Ministry of Health began an investigation into the occupational health risks of asbestos. They considered the ILO Asbestos Convention (No. 162), the concern of exposed workers and conclusions of a Ministry of Housing Committee which recommended banning the use of asbestos in public housing. The seriousness of the country’s asbestos problem was recognised and a Commission was set-up by the Occupational Health Department to undertake further research. Members of the Commission met with exposed workers, participated in technical discussions with asbestos producers and analysed the technical feasibility of asbestos substitutes. During these discussions, it became known that one of Chile’s major producers of asbestos-containing construction materials was planning to adopt non-asbestos technology. Trade unionist Sergio Troncoso took an active part in briefing the authorities on the on-going risks of asbestos exposure to construction workers. According to Troncoso, much of the construction work in Chile is undertaken by sub-contractors who do not consider health and safety issues at all. The Commission concluded that a ban on asbestos in construction materials was necessary and that its use in other products should be severely curtailed. The resulting draft legislation was proposed to the Ministry of Health and President. It was approved and published in the Official Diary of Chile on January 13, 2001.

Exemptions allowed under Article 5 exclude building materials; other products could be exempt if the health authority is persuaded that "there is no technically or economically viable alternative... the manufacturer must submit technical reports which describe the characteristics of the product or element to be manufactured, the type of asbestos that will be used, the measures adopted to control the risks to workers’ health, the ways in which waste generated in the industrial process will be disposed of and the dust control systems and the technical justification as to why it is not possible to substitute asbestos by some other fibre." Members of ACHVA, the Chilean Association of Asbestos Victims, are troubled by Article 5 which they feel could be exploited by asbestos industry representatives to permit the continued production of asbestos products and by the failure to impose an immediate labelling regime for all asbestos-containing products.

Other Asbestos Developments in Latin American

Despite Chretien’s best efforts, the Presidential declaration was signed on July 12 and the use of asbestos was declared illegal in Chile. While campaigners are jubilant at this victory, the powerful asbestos lobby has not yet thrown in the towel. "Asbestos Health Experts," sent by Canadian asbestos interests, have promised/threatened to continue their efforts to "educate" officials at the Health Ministry with a view to having the new law rescinded. The good news is that the transport and construction sectors in Chile are already replacing asbestos components in brake linings with alternatives. The Environmental Health Authority for the Santiago Metropolitan Area is discussing enforcement and controls with environmental campaigners.

The Chilean ban has been greeted enthusiastically by health and safety activists who believe that it will most definitely increase the momentum for asbestos bans throughout Latin America. After El Salvador banned asbestos in the mid-1980s, there was little action taken on this problem until recent bans by Argentina and the Brazilian towns of Osasco, Sao Caetano do Sul, Mogi Mirim and the states of Mato Grasso, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Although a national ban has not yet been passed in Brazil, the bans listed above cover 70% of the Brazilian asbestos market. Chile joins many other countries which have decided to protect the health of their citizens by banning asbestos; they include thirteen out of the fifteen EU Member States (on July 3, Spain became the latest EU nation to ban asbestos), other non-EU European countries, Australia, Saudi Arabia and countries as detailed on the attached list.

February 17, 2001



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