Consensus on Asbestos Hazard
The global asbestos epidemic was the subject of dozens of presentations at The XVIIIth World Congress on Safety and Health at Work Global Forum for Prevention which took place in Seoul, Korea from June 29 to July 2, 2008. During plenary sessions and symposia, at Speaker's Corner sessions and in poster presentations, the damage done by exposure to the world's worst occupational killer was discussed by health and safety campaigners, scientists, civil servants, trade unionists and medical professionals.1 An analysis of the subjects addressed in the asbestos-themed presentations2 reveals five main categories:
It is of interest to note that while a geographical cross-section of speakers agreed on the urgent need to protect humanity from exposures to all types of asbestos, the sole voices of dissent were from a handful of vested interests, with Russian stakeholders leading the pack.
Representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the International Social Security Association (ISSA) were in total agreement about the need to eliminate the global use of all types of asbestos, including chrysotile. Igor Fedotov from the ILO said that Asbestos is increasingly seen as the major challenge for occasional and public health policies worldwide.
The ILO estimates that 100,000 people die every year from occupational asbestos exposures. The scale of the problem is colossal according to the WHO's Ivan Ivanov who estimated that currently about 125 million people un the world are exposed to asbestos in the workplace. In their papers, Fedotov and Ivanov pointed out that:
Describing the research conducted on asbestos by IARC, Dr. Kurt Straif stated that since 1987 all forms of asbestos had been classified as carcinogenic to humans. In 1998, the WHO confirmed this classification in its publication: Environmental Health Criteria 203 Chrysotile Asbestos. There is, Straif said, absolutely no doubt that occupational and environmental exposure to all asbestos can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis; evidence has also linked exposure to asbestos to laryngeal cancer.
Referencing the devastation asbestos has caused in industrial countries, he warned of a second, even bigger wave of the global asbestos disaster which will hit developing countries in years to come. Work on quantifying the fallout from decades of heavy asbestos use in Asia was discussed by Dr. Ken Takahashi (Japan) who presented epidemiological data that demonstrated a clear ecologic relation between mortality rates of four asbestos disease categories and historical asbestos use in 1960-1969. Takahashi stressed the need to ban asbestos in order to reduce disease levels. This step has been taken by the Government of Korea which plans to prohibit all asbestos use in 2009, decades after commercial exploitation of asbestos first began. In his presentation, Dr. Domyung Paek outlined the development of the Korean asbestos industry and its impact on workers and local people.
Speakers from India, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines detailed the hazardous conditions which workers experience not only in processing asbestos but in downstream industries such as construction where asbestos products are used. Dr. T K Joshi said that research in asbestos-cement factories and asbestos textile factories in India found levels of airborne asbestos up to 418 fibers/ml (the permissible level in India is 2f/ml). Dr. Joshi warned that asbestos related illnesses are likely to inundate the health care establishments in the future. Tests conducted in 11 asbestos-processing industries in Thailand, which were detailed in the paper by Chittima Veeradejkriengkrai from the (Thailand) National Institute for the Improvement of Working Conditions and Environment, confirmed hazardous occupational conditions:
the airborne asbestos concentrators ranged from 0.01 to 43.31 fibers/cc (average of 5.45 fibers/cc). Of these measurements, 39 samples (36.45%) exceeded the permissible exposure limit (5 fibers/cc) issued under Thai OSH laws We concluded that a significant number of Thai workers in asbestos processing industries were working in hazardous conditions with inadequate protective equipment
Dr. Somkiat Siriruttanapruk, from the Ministry of Public Health, expressed his concern:
Thailand is currently the world's 4th largest importer of asbestos. This will be one of the most important public health problems in the country in the near future.
Following ILO and WHO recommendations, the Government of Thailand is implementing a national strategy to tackle the asbestos problem by imposing strict controls in the run-up to an all out ban by 2013. A similar plan is being put into place in Vietnam according to Tran Thi Ngoc Lan from the Ministry of Health who highlighted the risk to public health posed by asbestos-contaminated consumer goods.
Construction workers are another category at high-risk of contracting asbestos-related disease. Seok Keun Baik, from the Korean Construction Workers Union, discussed the case of Lee Jae Bin, a Korean construction worker who is suffering from asbestos-related cancer; Bin received no asbestos awareness training, no protective clothing or safety equipment from his employers. After a year of protests, aggressive lobbying by the union and a media campaign, the Government still refuses to recognize Bin's cancer as an occupational disease. Other actions by construction trade unions to raise asbestos awareness were discussed in presentations by Gerard Seno, Vipul Pandya and Karnan Ramamurthy, members of the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) from the Philippines and India.
|BWI representative Karnan Ramamurthy.|
Since 1989, the BWI has advocated a global ban on the use of all types of asbestos. In her presentations Fiona Murie, BWI's Director of Health, Safety and Environment, expressed BWI support for the positions on asbestos taken by the WHO, ILO, IARC and ISSA. There was, she said, no such thing as the safe or controlled use of asbestos. To support this statement, Ms. Murie showed photographs of the chaos and bad practices typical on construction sites throughout the developing world.
Contrasting Killing the Future Asbestos Use in Asia4 and Chrysotile Asbestos Saves Lives,5 documents being distributed in Seoul, Ms. Murie said that the propaganda which was to be found in the later publication was part and parcel of industry's efforts to sow confusion and doubt where none existed: chrysotile is dangerous and should be banned.
The plight of asbestos victims was the focus of the remarks made by Laurie Kazan-Allen from the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS).
Ms. Kazan-Allen began her presentation with a personal message from Aldo Vincentin, a Brazilian mesothelioma victim currently in hospital in Sao Paulo. In his statement to the conference, Aldo wrote:
I have become an asbestos victim. Our government ignores our existence but supports the production of huge quantities of killer asbestos dust. I contracted mesothelioma working in the Eternit warehouse in Osasco. I did not know, nor did my colleagues, that that this work was hazardous. Now I am gravely ill. I want the world to know of my suffering, our suffering. So many of my friends and colleagues have been lost to asbestos diseases.
The day after this cri de coeur was read out, Aldo died.
The presentations, interventions and behavior of the industry-linked speakers in Seoul were a mere distraction to the serious efforts being made by hundreds of delegates to understand the reality of the asbestos panorama in 2008. Many of those attending the Seoul event felt that the presence of the asbestos lobby was, at best, of no benefit and, at worst, disruptive. For the same reasons that representatives of the tobacco industry are no longer welcomed at public health meetings, the future participation by members of the chrysotile industry at conferences on occupational health and safety is a subject that the organizers of the next global event might do well to consider. 6
An Analysis of Primary Subject of the Presentations made on Asbestos at the World Congress in Korea in the Summer 2008
Quantifying the Damage
Medical and Scientific Issues
Protecting Future Generations
Trade Union Action
Presentations by Asbestos Industry-Linked Speakers
August 16, 2008
3 See Appendix A.
5 Anonymous. Chrysotile Asbestos Saves Lives. International Alliance of Trade Unions Chrysotile, 2007.