Defending the Indefensible
The title of this article is taken from a book published this Summer (2008) by Oxford University Press. The authors of this stunning exposé of the global asbestos industry consider many paradoxes including how, even after the causal link between asbestos exposure and two types of cancer was proven, annual production continued to increase.1 That the industry continued to flourish is testament to the effectiveness of the steps taken to protect the mineral, at that time termed asbestos, and now called chrysotile:
Central to this strategy was a policy of concealment and, at times, misinformation that often amounted to a conspiracy to continue selling asbestos fibre irrespective of the health risks the industry censored scientific research; used reputable scientists to elide the health hazards and nurture scientific uncertainty; denied basic compensation (and sometimes human rights) to victims; and colluded with governments and scientific bodies.2
For over 20 years, the global asbestos lobby was led by Canadian stakeholders; their mouthpiece was the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute, now called the Chrysotile Institute. Bankruptcies of Canadian chrysotile mines3 and the concomitant decrease in financial resources have forced the Institute to cede control to East Europeans. The changeover was apparent at the XVIIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work4 when not one representative from the Chrysotile Institute made an appearance.5 The first high-profile international outing of the Russian-based International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations 'Chrysotile' (Alliance), the group which has supplanted the Chrysotile Institute, was a disaster. The ill-advised diatribes, biased presentations and loutish behavior of Alliance representatives betrayed their lack of credibility and underlined the vacuousness of their arguments.
In the paper he submitted to the conference: Prospects of the Global Chrysotile Ban, Alliance representative Dmitry Selyanin, wrote: Chrysotile asbestos is the most valuable resource of the Earth.6 Ignoring the presentations made in Seoul by speakers from the World Health Organization, The International Labor Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the International Social Security Association (ISSA) about the dangers posed by chrysotile, Selyanin stuck unflinchingly to the party-line. He told delegates to the ISSA Asbestos Symposium (June 30), that there is no compelling scientific evidence that ambient exposure to chrysotile asbestos poses a significant health risk. Slide 4 in his Powerpoint presentation repeated the main points of the industry's mantra:
ASBESTOS EXPOSURE: HOW RISKY IS IT?
Progress has led to general scientific consensus on the following:
Chrysotile asbestos was, Selyanin said, a boon to populations in developing countries who would, almost certainly, die from thirst without the blessing of asbestos-cement water pipes. Accusing ban asbestos campaigners of intentionally creating environmental panic, he said that asbestos was one of more than 100 cancerogenes (sic/ did he mean carcinogens?) identified by IARC. Having shown pages from websites belonging to ban asbestos supporters and NGOs in a failed attempt to discredit them, his comments descended into personal attacks on well-respected professionals, campaigners and trade unionists. Selyanin concluded his performance by accusing the Building and Woodworkers International, a global federation representing millions of workers, of being in the pocket of the ban asbestos movement.
Reprising many of Selyanin's points Andrey Kholzakov, another Alliance representative, told delegates to the Speakers' Corner session: Chemical Safety (July 1) of the validity of the controlled use of chrysotile: The position of trade unions is based on a wide spectrum of the international and Russian scientific studies, confirming the possibility of the controlled use of chrysotile.7 Later that afternoon at the ILO and WHO Action towards the Elimination of Asbestos-related Disease Symposium, Evgeny Kovalevsky, from the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences,8 advanced the need for a differentiated approach to regulating various forms of asbestos, another much-loved plank of industry propaganda.
That the Alliance came to Seoul spoiling for a fight was evident from the disruption its representatives caused during the symposium Asbestos: International Trade Union Campaign on Eliminating Asbestos Use and Preventing Asbestos Disease. Having had several opportunities in Seoul to present their arguments, they were clearly unwilling to allow others the same freedom.9 They came to the session organized by the Building and Woodworkers International armed with a banner saying: Trade Unions Stand for the Controlled Use of Chrysotile, in English and Korean, even though most global labor federations support a worldwide asbestos ban.
Towards the end of the symposium, Alliance member Dmitry Selyanin stood up at the front of the room and held this sign aloft as he turned to face delegates sitting in the rows behind him. The impropriety of this behaviour, the subsequent disruption of the meeting and the presence of so many members of the Alliance delegation in the room motivated the session moderator to put out a call for security guards to come to Room 402. In the end, reason prevailed and the session ended without violence.
Although it is not known precisely how many Alliance delegates were in Seoul, the number appeared to be in double figures. As well as Alliance speakers, interpreters and personnel were needed to distribute asbestos propaganda from Stand 100 in the exhibition hall belonging to the Chrysotile Association. When the cost of the booth, approximately $2,800 according to the conference website, is added to the production costs of the glossy multilingual propaganda and the transport, hotel and conference expenses of the Alliance delegation, it is clear that money is no object for the chrysotile proponents from former Soviet-bloc countries, a region which currently produces more than 50% of the world's annual output of chrysotile.10
August 16, 2008
1 Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival, by Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale. Until September 30, 2008, the book can be purchased from Oxford University Press with a 20% discount [to get the discount quote SSPROM20 when ordering direct from OUP]; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 Ibid. page 15.
4 The Congress took place in Seoul, Korea from June 29-July 2, 2008.
6 Selyanin D. Prospects of the Global Chrysotile Ban. XVIII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work Global Forum of Prevention. Book of Abstracts. Page 27.
7 Kholzakov A. The Role of Trade Union(s) in the Elimination of Asbestos-related Diseases. XVIII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work Global Forum of Prevention. Book of Abstracts. Pages 171-172.
8 Confusion arises because the Russian Academy of Sciences is a prestigious institution whereas the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences has established links with the Russian chrysotile industry.
9 In the paper he submitted to the Congress, Selyanin wrote: Down with opposition!
10 According to the United States Geological Survey, in 2006 Russia and Kazakhstan mined 925,000 and 355,000 tonnes of chrysotile respectively, collectively amounting to 57% of the world's total asbestos consumption (1,280,000 tonnes).