Asbestos Issues in Colombia
According to the global asbestos trade figures published by the U. S. 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
|Country of |
|CIF Value |
|Disramfor Autopartes Ltda.||20.3||India||38,200.42|
|Eternit Atlantico S. A.||4765.5||Brazil-Russia||3,947,777.53|
|Eternit Colombiana S. A.||5955.0||Brazil-Russia-China||4,868,865.06|
|Eternit Pacifico S. A||6155.0||Brazil-Ukraine-Russia||5,227,346.20|
|Incolbest S. A.||2816.25||Brazil-Russia||2,114,070.74|
|Repuestos Colombianos S. A.||300.0||Brazil||197,764.27|
|Tecnologia En Cubrimiento S. A.||4610.00||Brazil-Russia-China||4,075,319.26|
|Source: Ministry of Foreign Trade and Customs Records from the National Office for Tax and Customs.|
The Rotterdam Convention is an important international instrument intended to protect populations and the environment from exposures to pesticides and certain hazardous chemicals. The United Nations multilateral protocol aims to establish a first line of defense, thereby preventing future tragedies by reducing the import of hazardous substances, particularly to developing countries.
During the most recent Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, held in Geneva from April 28 to May 10, 2013, it was not possible to get the parties to reach a consensus on including chrysotile asbestos on a list of hazardous products (Annex III) due to the determined opposition of vested interests led by the Russian delegation. It is not coincidental that Russia is the world's biggest producer of chrysotile asbestos.
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.
Two years ago, the current government announced a program to build housing for the neediest social strata of society. The aim of this initiative was to provide 100,000 units of affordable housing. Unfortunately, far from being a triumphant success it turns out that this program is fatally flawed: most of the roofs of these houses are covered with asbestos-cement tiles.
Source: Ministerio de Vivienda, Ciudad y Territorio [Ministry of Housing, Cities and Territory]: http://www.100milviviendasgratis.gov.co
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.
Since 2005, a collaborative effort by the national government and the Foundations Carvajal and Semana has been developing 120 houses and 50 refurbished units. And guess what? All these houses are roofed with Eternit tiles made of asbestos cement. This example is of concern not only for the people in this town but for others all over the country whose lives are put at risk by similar exposures to asbestos products. Is the government ignorant or are forces at play behind the scenes which further the interests of the asbestos-cement industry to the detriment of the population.
In 2013, asbestos technology is outdated and discredited. The use of asbestos-containing products in development projects is not recommended according to World Bank guidelines and the World Bank manual of best practice.
Schematic picture of a model home now under construction in Palenque de San Basilio.
Source: Fundación Semana [Semana Foundation] website: http://www.fundacionsemana.com/proyectos-especiales/san-basilio-de-palenque/articulo/un-sueno-empieza-hacer-realidad/3735
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. This suspicion is substantiated by the warning given on page two of the product specification.
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.
July 24, 2013
1 The authors of this article have asked to remain anonymous.