In Memory of Henri Pezerat
The father of the French ban asbestos movement
|Dr. Henri Pezerat accepting the June Hancock Award.|
The death of toxicologist Henri Pezerat came unexpectedly on February 16, 2009. For over 35 years Henri had sought to make the French government, trade unions and public aware of the horrific legacy asbestos had left in his country. His work was ignored, ridiculed and sometimes dismissed as the ravings of a leftist troublemaker. The massive propaganda campaign waged by vested interests in France, orchestrated by the Permanent Asbestos Committee (CPA), neither dissuaded nor deterred him from his course. The scientific papers he published were the lifeblood of the ban asbestos movement; they contained the data and facts to combat the lies being told by industry.
As a scientist, Henri realized that he had to respond to social needs and issues of public health. Consequently, he changed the emphasis of his work and started to research the toxicity of asbestos and other fibers. This new direction went against the scientific climate of the time. French scientists were encouraged by the infamous CPA to favor the asbestos industry position; many well-known names were employed as consultants by the asbestos lobbyists. In the end, however, Henri's international reputation and the solid scientific arguments he advanced obliged others to engage with the ban asbestos debate. It is ironic that a paper he wrote, Chrysotile Biopersistance The Misuse of Biased Studies, was published only last month. This concise and cogent analysis which focused on the work of Dr. David Bernstein, a Switzerland-based toxicologist often commissioned by the asbestos industry, is a credit not only to Henri's intellectual capabilities, which never diminished, but also to his determination to expose the lack (of) scientific rigor and credibility which characterizes the work of industry-linked experts.
In 1975, Henri coordinated the first asbestos actions at Jussieu University (Campus Universitaire de Jussieu); these included strikes, assemblies and negotiations on the huge campus in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. He was the first one to realize the colossal scale of the problem at the site, where asbestos sprayed insulation had been used extensively. As a scientist, he understood that like the insulators who applied the fireproofing to the steel structure during its construction, the Jussieu students would pay a price for their hazardous exposures to this toxic substance. Knowing that on their own the student protests were unlikely to succeed, Henri built alliances with trade unions and workers at the Ferodo and Amisol asbestos factories. Their joint protests resulted in the first French legislation against asbestos.
Henri studied many aspects of the French asbestos catastrophe and was deeply concerned about rising mesothelioma mortality and the lack of compensation for victims. He continuously criticized the industry fallacy of the controlled use of asbestos, which many well known French scientists hid behind and was scathing about the government's selective blindness when it came to asbestos issues. Frequent contact with former asbestos factory workers from Amisol and other asbestos-exposed workers gave rise to the idea of forming a local association against asbestos. This was to eventually grow into ANDEVA, the social movement which represents French asbestos victims. The coalition of grass-roots activists, workers, trade unions, students and others who campaigned about asbestos brought immense pressure on the French government. As a result, the government was forced to acknowledge its responsibilities, the CPA was disbanded and a unilateral ban on asbestos was introduced in France. The French asbestos ban was of immense importance as it eventually lead to the European Union asbestos ban implemented by Commission Directive 1999/77/EC adopted in July 1999.
Henri's involvement was pivotal in the efforts to build the international ban asbestos movement; he attended the conferences in Milan (1993) and Sao Paulo (1994) which laid the groundwork for this global movement. His ability and willingness to review supposedly independent academic papers written under the influence of the industry were invaluable. He was generous with his time and would always respond to requests from individuals or the relatives of individuals who had been injured by asbestos exposures. When a gap was identified in the social landscape which required the establishment of a new campaigning group Ban Asbestos France Henri, once again, become a founding member. Making a friend of the media, asbestos issues found their way onto the pages of Le Monde and other leading publications.
On August 30, 2000, Henri Pezerat's work was recognized at a ceremony held at the Paris headquarters of ANDEVA where, amongst family and friends, I was thrilled to present him with the June Hancock Award, named after a courageous Englishwoman who died from mesothelioma. After the ceremony, we adjourned to the garden of Annie Thebaud-Mony, Henri's devoted companion, where with much laughter, some delicious food and even more delicious wine we reveled in the pleasure of the day's events and enjoyed Henri's company and friendship.
Henri Pezerat was an open-hearted and generous man with keen intellectual capabilities. A toxicologist who accepted his civic responsibility, he was uncompromising in his condemnation of those scientists who put their services on offer to the highest bidder. Although the campaigns Henri helped establish will persist, he will be sorely missed.
Laurie Kazan-Allen: February 18, 2009