Dangers in the Dust
An astonishing series of newspaper and website articles,1 podcasts,2 documentaries,3 radio programs, commentaries and blogs were rolled out in July under the banner: Dangers in the Dust - Inside the Global Asbestos Trade.4 Research conducted in 2009-2010 in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, Russia and China revealed a multi-million dollar conspiracy by global asbestos stakeholders designed to encourage sales of an acknowledged carcinogen, chrysotile asbestos, to developing countries. The investigations, which had been carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC, found that:
While some of the content of these pieces goes over familiar ground, much of the footage, in particular from Russia and China, is new. What is particularly impressive is that this project makes full use of the myriad information portals available to disseminate this exposé of the asbestos industry. Coverage of this investigation has appeared in the U.S., the UK, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, France, Ireland, China, Spain, and Ethiopia. While some of the pieces have been on business ethics,5 environment,6 and health and safety blogs, scores of others have appeared in mainstream media outlets such as the BBC World Service and The Independent (UK), Folha Online (Brazil), The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star (Canada). The content, tone and number of these items led Canadian Journalist Andy Blatchford to describe the reporting as a public-relations tsunami for the asbestos industry.7 With headlines such as those listed below it is hard to disagree with his assessment: The Cartel of Asbestos; Poisonings Permitted; Lobbyists Promote Asbestos Use in the Developing World; Investigation Slams Asbestos Use.
A 30-minute video broadcast on the BBC News Channel on July 24 illustrated the project's breadth with footage from Brazil, Canada, the UK, the U.S., India, South Africa, Italy and the Netherlands. Senior Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi, the leader of the virtual ban asbestos network in Latin America, is shown raiding a Sao Paulo workshop where prohibited asbestos-containing gaskets were found. Comparing the modus operandi of the Brazilian asbestos industry with that of tobacco multinationals, Ms. Giannasi explained how industry propagandists use various means to create doubt about the science and risks of using asbestos in order to continue profiting from sales of a dangerous substance. Commenting on the hazards of chrysotile asbestos, Professor Alex Burdorf discussed the ongoing reassessment on the risk of chrysotile being conducted on behalf of the Dutch Government:
On lung cancer we have demonstrated that if you take into account the quality of the exposure assessment there is no evidence for a difference in risk on lung cancer between chrysotile and crocidolite both types of asbestos are as dangerous for lung cancer
In our analysis we propose to lower the existing guidelines for evaluation of environmental air pollution to asbestos by a factor of 10 that demonstrates that in our current analysis we think that chrysotile is much more dangerous than previously thought. I don't think there is a safe way of working with asbestos not in the Netherlands but also not in other countries and especially not in emerging countries where they are now using asbestos.
Concluding this piece, Dr Vincent Cogliano from the World Health Organization said:
My personal position is that the risks from asbestos are so high and so compelling and so well known that it is imperative that we reduce and eliminate exposure wherever that's possible. That includes bringing no more asbestos out of the earth into contact with humans, it means no more exporting it to developing countries where there are not good controls. It also means making sure that everyone is aware of the hazards of this fiber.8
Just a fortnight before the pieces in this series were circulated, the July 2010 issue of Environment Health Perspectives, the most widely read peer-reviewed journal on the impact of the environment on human health, ran three features on asbestos: A Worn-Out Welcome Renewed Call for a Global Asbestos Ban, A Repeat Call for the Banning of Asbestos and The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos.9 The photograph on the cover of the periodical (see below) left readers in no doubt as to the contents of the asbestos stories. It showed two workers from Zhangye, China shoveling asbestos fibers into a hessian-type sack. There was no protective equipment, no breathing apparatus and no technology just two men, 1 shovel, 4 cotton gloves and 1 half-face cotton mask. With conditions such as these, there is no doubt that the asbestos epidemic which has decimated populations in so many developed countries is even now incubating in China, India, Russia and other asbestos-consuming countries.
July 26, 2010
2 Video: Exporting an Epidemic: The Asbestos Industry Goes Global.
3 One Planet Asbestos (BBC World Service). July 22, 2010.
Dangers In The Dust. July 25, 2010.
5 Chavkin S. Lobbyists Promote Asbestos Use in the Developing World. Business Ethics Magazine. ProPublica July 21, 2010.
6 Asbestos: Danger in the Dust. The Environment Report, July 22, 2010. http://www.environmentreport.org/article.php?article=66
7 Blatchford A. Major BBC investigation batters Canada's controversial asbestos industry. July 21, 2010.