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11 Asbestos in Colombia 2014 (February 1, 2015)

When in the near future Colombians finally prohibit the industrial use of asbestos, we will remember 2014 as a year that marked the turning point in the perception of this dangerous mineral by industry, government and civil society stakeholders.

Activities started very early last year, when the Institute of Public Health from the Faculty of Medicine of the National University (directed by well known doctor Carlos Agudelo), the Istituto Superiore di Sanità from Italy and the University of the Andes held a meeting entitled INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENVIRONMENTAL AND OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH on February 19 and 20 in León de Greiff auditorium (2nd Floor) at the National University of Colombia, Bogotá.

Professor Jairo E. Luna (National University of Colombia) has been an indisputable ally in issues related to asbestos and worked closely with me on the research and text for the next paper presented at the symposium; our text summarized the current

asbestos situation in Colombia.

In Colombia, October is celebrated as the month of art with the Chamber of Commerce funding the art fair in Bogotá ArtBo. Parallel events have sprung up within the city’s cultural calendar to provide the space for public engagement with other issues not covered by ArtBo.

In addition to displaying pieces about the deadly impact asbestos has had on populations in the UK and the US, I was able to speak directly with Colombians on the subject of asbestos. Although nearly 50% of people that came to the stand had some knowledge of this subject, most were unaware that our country was still using asbestos and the different ways in which it was being used – i.

The possibility of combining art, science and policy in the campaign to raise asbestos awareness in Colombia was a result of the research I had done on the subject. During these investigations, I had consulted the British artist Conrad Atkinson who donated the image for the conference poster.

The artist and art critic Lucas Ospina, director of the Art Department at the University of the Andes, made a presentation about: Colombian and international

That day ended with Colombian asbestos victims telling the audience about their asbestos related diseases.

The discussion focused on scientific research in Colombia and legal requirements for asbestos-processing and using workplaces which are, according to industrial engineer Dr. Juan Pablo Ramos Bonilla from Andes University, routinely flouted; Bonilla reported the identification of asbestos-related diseases amongst people employed in workshops repairing brakes for passenger and heavy duty vehicles in Bogotá.

Just a few days prior to the conference, El Tiempo (the most popular daily newspaper in Colombia) published an interview with Dr. Jorge Enrique Estrada, President of Colombia’s asbestos trade association, in which he noted that the type of asbestos used in Colombia (chrysotile) was regulated and was safe.

The interview with the President of Ascolfibras (Colombian Association of Fibers), Mr. Jorge H. Estrada, demonstrates the efficient propaganda machine of the asbestos industry, which says “the type of asbestos in Colombia is regulated and is safe.”

Chrysotile asbestos used in Colombia (and in any other country in the world) is unsafe and causes cancer, as do all types of asbestos. It is important to note that more than 95% of the asbestos used throughout the world, is chrysotile or “white” asbestos.

Our International guests are writing to ask you to publish our letter, to properly inform readers about the dangers of asbestos for workers, consumers and Colombian society in general.

Guillermo Villamizar, Artist, Colombia

Jairo Ernesto Luna Garcia, PhD Public Health. Associate Professor National University of Colombia.

Guillermo Obando Valencia. Representative of the Confederation of Workers of Colombia.

It is important to acknowledge the role that the media has played in publicizing the asbestos problem in Colombia. In December 2014, a primetime TV program for the first time aired a program dicussing the country’s asbestos tragedy.

Another important development is a legal action brought by several citizens against state agencies and companies manufacturing asbestos products in Colombia. The litigation is calling for a ban on asbestos and is currently being considered by an administrative judge in Bogotá.

the media are beginning to record legal actions by asbestos victims against companies that have been using this mineral for more than 70 years in Colombia.

Eduardo Fernandez (Argentina), who, before a large panel of industry representatives, made the case for Colombia to end the use of asbestos. It is hoped that during 2015 more meetings will take place, so that the debate which began in Colombia in 2014 will produce results in 2015.

The road to banning asbestos in our country is still long, but we are convinced that all the actions described above will help Colombia become the next country in Latin America to end the asbestos slaughter by prohibiting future use. An asbestos-free world is possible.

12 November’s Asbestos Revolution (December 16, 2014)

Support for a global asbestos ban escalated with key events taking place in Colombia, Thailand and Vietnam, countries where the asbestos agenda had, until very recently, been dictated by vested interests. While the sizes of these markets vary, their strategic and political importance to the asbestos industry remains paramount.

Colombia is Latin America’s second biggest asbestos consumer having used an average of 20,000+ tonnes/year over the last three years. According to local experts: “Colombian industry continues to ignore the known biological and environmental risks posed by the use of asbestos.” The status quo which permits asbestos consumption to continue is supported by a government with ties to the industry lobby.

The discussions which ensued challenged the “accepted local wisdom” that the asbestos used in Colombia was safe. Eminent speakers included Brazilian Labor Inspector (retired) and veteran ban asbestos campaigner, Fernanda Giannasi who examined the global health catastrophe caused by asbestos; Dr.

More than ten thousand miles away, ban asbestos campaigners in Bangkok were finalizing arrangements for the international conference entitled “Expedite Asia to be Free from Asbestos Hazard: Global Scientific and Social Evidence” as the Colombian activities drew to a close. A coalition of Thai civil society groups including the: Social Research Institute, Health Consumer Protection Program, Chula Global Network, Thailand Ban Asbestos Network and the Asian Ban Asbestos Network and others organized the deliberations on November 24-25, 2014 to:

13 Latest Global Asbestos Data (November 5, 2014)

In 2011-2013 the proportion of global asbestos consumption for this region reached 72%; even more remarkably, around 90% of all exported asbestos ended up in Asia, with another ~9% being imported by just five countries: Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico, Cuba and Colombia.

14 Asbestos: Art, Science and Policy (October 20, 2014)

A remarkable and innovative series of events highlighting the legal, societal and environmental impact of asbestos production and use begins in Bogota on October 28, 2014 and continues over the following week.1 These activities mark a defining moment in the country which is South America’s second biggest asbestos consumer having used an average of more than 20,000 tonnes/year over the last three years. This initiative has been organized by ban asbestos campaigners in collaboration with academic institutions, scientific, medical and technical experts. (An art exhibition featuring the work of British, American, French and Colombian artists intended as part of the initiative has been rescheduled for March 2015.)

On Tuesday, November 5, a one-day session will explore Political Art and Social Activism by considering the artwork of Conrad Atkinson (UK), Bill Ravanesi (US), the Bureau D’Etudes (France) and Colombian artists. Award-winning British conceptualist artist Conrad Atkinson, whose 1978 piece “Asbestos” was purchased by The Tate in 2007, has collaborated with the conference organizers to produce a stunning series of posters for these events.

The final day (November 7) will be reserved for presentations related to the mining, processing and use of asbestos in Colombia with presentations from Italian researchers Drs. Paola Castro and Daniela Marsili who have been part of a multinational scientific and technical collaboration designed to disseminate knowledge about the asbestos public health emergency.

Providing the opportunity for authoritative figures from three continents to engage in discussions with their Colombian counterparts, civil society partners and members of the public is a watershed moment. The control of the national asbestos dialogue which has been exerted by industry forces for so many decades will be shattered by these discussions, with the truth finally emerging about the criminal enterprises which have endangered workers and the public not only in Colombia but in every country where asbestos profits have been pursued.

15 Colombia’s Asbestos Stories, from Economic to Legal (September 22, 2014)

Colombia, which is eager to take its place as an emerging economy in the new globalized order, continues to use asbestos within a scenario devised and fed by industry interests who use “hired gun experts” to deny the lethal nature of white chrysotile (the form used in Colombia), despite the vast scientific and medical evidence which shows the contrary.

Although the Colombian government ratified the inclusion of asbestosis and mesothelioma in its table of occupational diseases, by Decree 1477/14 recently issued by the Ministry of Labour, it has done nothing to investigate or identify the occurrence of these diseases. However, the industry, under the umbrella of its lobby, continues to spread false scientific reports seeking to deceive the public.

During 2012, Colombia imported 25,164 tons, whose FOB average value was US$32,000 million; but in 2013 imports dropped to 15,961 tons, and for the first four months of 2014 are of the order of 2,563 tons. If the latter rate continues until the end of the year we are likely to reach 10,000 tons of imports. This decrease is explained by the fact that Bricolsa, the operator of the asbestos mine in the countryside near Yarumal (Antioquia), is supplying the needs of the Colombian asbestos industry.

When looking at a Colombian city from the air, roofing tiles and water tanks made of asbestos-cement proliferate everywhere; however, the industry declares that there is no problem with this, due to the fact that the asbestos fibers are encapsulated into a cement matrix and cannot therefore be liberated and inhaled.

We must be mindful that the asbestos which has been used in Colombia for more than half a century has been and continues to be handled without due care and attention. For years studies have shown the deadly consequences of weathering on asbestos-cement roofing and building products; over time, these materials deteriorate and release carcinogenic fibers which can be inhaled by the human population.

Unfortunately, research in Colombia into this type of environmental risk is almost nonexistent. The government must address this situation not only to protect public health but also to reduce the financial burden on our health system which has the obligation to care for the asbestos-injured.

16 LKA Blog (April 28, 2014)

In difficult and often frustrating circumstances, colleagues progressed educational outreach projects, investigations and legal actions in asbestos-using and producing countries including: Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia, Bangladesh, Laos and even Russia as evidenced in the articles listed below:

Asbestos Issues in Colombia

17 Interpretation of "The Female Face of Britain's Asbestos Catastrophe" (July 2, 2013)

That is what we're hoping to achieve."1 These words remained with me as I watched from the sidelines as a digital piece of art by Colombian artist Guillermo Villamizar (GV) has evolved. Over the last 18 months, Villamizar has been researching the tragic and far-reaching impact asbestos has had in countries all over the world.

Guillermo Villamizar in his studio in Colombia.

18 Asbestos Issues in Colombia (July 24, 2013)

by Concerned Colombian Citizens1

Geological Survey, known in English by its acronym U.S.G.S., Colombia's consumption of asbestos increased by 26% in 2012. In other words, our usage of asbestos which was 20,048 tons in 2011 rose to 25,164 tons in 2012. This disturbing fact suggests that Colombian industry continues to ignore the known biological and environmental risks posed by the use of asbestos, an acknowledged carcinogenic substance.

The data in the table below, which has been obtained from official Colombian sources, is consistent with U.S.G.S. statistics. In 2012, seven companies imported a total of 24,622.05 tons from Brazil, Russia, India and Ukraine; 60% of all the asbestos imported was for three Eternit companies.

Table 1: Asbestos Fiber Imports to Colombia 2012

In Colombia, the idea persists that the safe use of chrysotile asbestos is possible under controlled conditions; this position is contrary to scientific evidence and the official position of international agencies including the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Unfortunately, the “safe use” position, which was used by Russia and its six allies to block progress on listing chrysotile seemed, by default, to have been accepted by the Colombian delegation which did not voice its objection to the industry rhetoric.

Although chrysotile asbestos has been banned in over 50 countries, Colombia persists in allowing it to be commercially exploited thereby, endangering human health through exposures at work and at home. As is clear from the above list of seven asbestos importing companies, there are vested interests which benefit from the current information vacuum on asbestos. As long as the economic health of industry is placed above the health of citizens, this situation is likely to continue. Furthermore, plans for Colombia to recommence chrysotile asbestos mining operations will provide another reason for the status quo to remain unaltered. There is no doubt that the revenue derived from Colombia's mining boom is much-needed but these profits cannot be bought at the risk to human life.

Another example of the use of asbestos, under the guise of modernization, can be found in Palenque de San Basilio, a community founded in the 16th century in the palisades of the North Coast of Colombia, near Cartagena, by escaping black slaves. Palenque de San Basilio was declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005;2 it is now undergoing a delicate process of transformation, where elements of modernity are being introduced into local culture.

Informed sources confirmed that the roofing tile being used in Palenque de San Basilio is “Profile 7,” a product manufactured by Eternit Colombia. Although the company's specification sheet for Profile 7 states that the material is made of “Fibrocemento” [Fibrocement], it is widely believed to contain asbestos.

Of course asbestos is not the only carcinogenic substance being used in Colombia. It is believed that the five most serious occupational hazards in Colombia are: asbestos, silica, benzene, inorganic lead and ionizing radiation. Unfortunately, there are no statutes or protocols for the diagnosing of occupational cancer in Colombia. We believe that this is partially due to the disinterest on the part of oncologists about the origin of their patients' cancers and in part due to the industrial interests which have much to lose from an open debate about occupational hazards and illnesses.

It is well past time that Colombia's workers, trade unions and members of the public took up the challenge posed by asbestos and other carcinogens and called for action by our civil servants and politicians.

19 British Campaign for Asbestos Justice: Update (July 22, 2013)

A piece of digital art entitled: The Female Face of Britain's Asbestos Catastrophe by Colombian artist Guillermo Villamizar; this stunning image conceptualized the catastrophe caused by asbestos in Britain over the last century.8

20 Report from the Asbestos Frontline 2013 (February 26, 2013)

Although the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute closed down last year, national industry associations, working in tandem with international partners such as the ICA, the AIA/NA, and the AACPP, continue to aggressively promote asbestos use in 2013, as we have seen by developments in Pakistan,5 Thailand6 and Peru.7 Attempts by civil society in Peru to end asbestos use resulted in the adoption of Law No. 29662: Asbestos law prohibiting amphiboles and regulating the use of Chrysotile asbestos under which a ban on the use of chrysotile was proposed as of October 1, 2013. The legislation, which has not yet been promulgated, has been under constant attack by vested interests from home and abroad including, amongst the former category the Peruvian Chrysotile Association and, amongst the latter, the Columbian (Asbestos) Fiber Association (Asociacion Colombiana de Fibras) and the Mexican (Asbestos) Fiber Industry Institute (Instituto Mexicano de Fibro-Industrias).8

I should also mention the fact that we the Mexican Fibre Industries Institute (IMFI) together with Ascolfibras from Colombia have made several trips to attend this issue in different fronts; Health Ministry and the Peruvian Congress, besides several other instances. So far, we have been able to stop in its tracks all actions started. But as we are aware that these attacks will not stop, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico have joined forces and are financing and driving actions through the recently formed Peruvian Chrysotile Association, so as to prevent whatever actions are taken.”10

 
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