Landmark Asbestos Meeting in Russia
On August 1, 2008, the first impartial discussions on asbestos took place in Russia at a roundtable organized by Eco-Accord, a Moscow-based NGO,1 and Volgograd-Ecopress Information Center. The title of the event was: Chrysotile Asbestos: Problems of Its Production and Application in Russia and Elsewhere.2 The roundtable was the culmination of months of research and discussions by Eco-Accord whose representatives had grown increasingly concerned about the impact asbestos was having in Russia. Whilst plans for the meeting were being made, the organizers received a request that the (Russian) Chrysotile Association and other pro-chrysotile organizations be permitted to participate in the proceedings. Hoping to engender a frank and open exchange of views, these requests were granted.
Thirty delegates attended the 7 hour roundtable; half of those present were asbestos lobbyists,3 trade unionists from asbestos-cement factories and industry-sponsored researchers and doctors. Other attendants included representatives from Russian NGOs and the media. The framework for the discussions focused on several key points:
Although exposure to chrysotile asbestos has been linked to a range of diseases by international researchers, data on the incidence of these diseases in Russia are lacking; few epidemiological studies of mesothelioma incidence have been conducted. 4 It is absolutely clear, said one speaker, that Russian studies of the health impact of asbestos exposure should be carried out nationwide. Furthermore, he added, there is an urgent need to set up a national mesothelioma register.
NGO representatives at the meeting expressed concern over exposures experienced by people employed in asbestos-cement factories and tradesmen, such as roofers, who work with asbestos-cement products. While a representative from the Blokhim Institute of Carcinogenesis of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences stated that there may be a risk to workers or citizens who drill or break asbestos-cement sheets, representatives of the Chrysotile Association insisted that asbestos-cement handling operations are absolutely safe as bonded asbestos, so they said, loses it carcinogenic properties. According to Sergei Koshansky from Ekaterinburg there are adequate data to prove that under controled conditions the use of chrysotile asbestos is completely safe; he also maintained that some of the so-called safer alternatives are more dangerous than chrysotile. While one asbestos company director said that in the last 30 years there had never been a case of asbestos-related disease in his factory, a medical director from another asbestos company in the same region said that the incidence of disease amongst at-risk workers at his factory was not inconsequential. Speakers stressed the appallingly low level of public awareness which exists in Russia about the health hazards relating to asbestos exposure. The pollution caused by the liberation of airborne fibers from the industrial processing of asbestos has also been widely ignored5 as has the reuse of asbestos debris and asbestos-containing construction waste by individuals and businesses.
Although there had appeared to be an initial consensus that diseases linked to exposure to chrysotile asbestos included asbestosis, bronchial carcinoma (lung cancer) and malignant mesothelioma (asbestos cancer of the pleura or peritoneum), as the day proceeded the representatives of the Chrysotile Association became increasingly agitated about the possibility of a conference declaration highlighting the cancer risk posed by chrysotile. Industry spokesmen claimed that there was sufficient statistical data to prove that chrysotile was safe; any evidence to the contrary was, they shouted, part of a global conspiracy to ruin the chrysotile industry. Bringing the meeting to an abrupt end, the industry lobbyists refused to continue the talks and threatened legal action should a consensus document be publicized mentioning the cancer risk. Accusing the conference organizers of being ill-informed, industry lobbyists repeatedly insisted that chrysotile could be used safely under strict controls.
Throughout the day, the behavior of the industry delegates was ill-tempered, their body language combatative and their views rigid. By the end of the day, it was obvious that the organizers' hopes for an open dialogue had been dashed; the meeting was clearly at an end when the industry representatives began shouting and throwing accusations of foreign-bias at the NGO participants who were, so they said, hirelings of the West.
Ms. Elena Vasilieva from Volgograd-Ecopress, a co-organizer of the August 1 event, was dismayed at the outcome of the day's events:
Since last year, our group has been studying the global asbestos issue and educating ourselves on the various facets. We were very much looking forward to sitting down with other stakeholders in order to establish how we could protect our fellow citizens from what is an acknowledged hazard. Instead of participating in a constructive debate, we were subjected to insults and baseless accusations. We will not be bullied into submission by individuals more concerned with commercial interests then with the health and safety of Russian citizens. We will continue to work with like-minded colleagues in Russia and abroad to eradicate the tragedy of asbestos-related disease.
August 18, 2008
2 In September 2007, within the context of the World Social Security Forum (Moscow), a session entitled Asbestos: Preserving the Future and Coping with the Past was held. That this session was put on the agenda for a meeting in Russia, the heartland of global asbestos production, was a testament to the integrity and bravery of the organizers from the International Social Security Association, a Swiss-based body. Participants at the asbestos workshop were shocked by the aggressive and obstructive behaviour of the asbestos lobby. The August 1, 2008 session was the first Russian-initiated event on asbestos and, as such, did not have the backing of a major international agency or come under the protection of the (Russian) Ministry of Health and Social Development.
3 The Chrysotile Association was represented on August 1 by: Victor Ivanov, Executive Director, Vladimir Galitsin, Deputy Executive Director and Denis Nikitin, Public Relations Manager.
4 Epidemiological studies of the incidence of mesothelioma have only been conducted in: Asbest, Ekaterinburg, the Republic of Karelia and Sverdlovsk Oblast.
5 The Vovzhskiy Technical Asbestos Products Plant emits 6.5 tonnes of asbestos-containing dust every year.