Denial of the Occurrence of Occupational Asbestos Diseases in the Brazilian Mining Town of Minaçu
On May 17, 2019, I presented and defended the Doctoral thesis: With a Chest Full of Dust an ethnography about the denial of asbestos workers illness at Minaçu (state of Goiás, Brazil).1 It was developed over four years in the Postgraduate Program in Social Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Federal University of Goiás (Brazil). The main purpose of my research was to understand the social, economic, medical-scientific, legal, and institutional processes that culminated in certain cases of illness and death among an asbestos mining companys former employees, through occupational exposure to chrysotile asbestos fibers. This ethnography starts from the conceptualization of the risks involved in working with asbestos, in an international perspective, casting the comparison with the empirical case of Minaçu, a Brazilian town that was founded and consolidated to service the needs of the chrysotile industry, represented by S.A. Mineraçes Associadas (SAMA) a subsidiary of the largest national producer group of asbestos-based fiber cement materials, Eternit do Brasil Cimento Amianto S.A. (Eternit).
Although observations in this brief online article focus on social forces at work in Minaçu, in my thesis, comparisons were drawn between the results of my research in Minaçu and ethnological factors applicable internationally as reported in studies from South Africa, England, and India. Briefly, the discussion considered:
The ten months of fieldwork carried out in Minaçu revealed the avoidance and embarrassment of local people concerning a dialogue about the occurrence of asbestos-related illness in former SAMA employees. Many times interlocutors refused to grant taped interviews with me, preferring to limit their participation to a few minutes of informal conversations in which their desire to distance themselves from any complaint against SAMA became explicit. This situation also reflects the collusion between Science, Industry and State, as instances of power responsible for raising doubts about the dangers of toxic substances that, in the city of Minaçu, become entangled in the mining companys strategies of concealment of the risks involved in working with chrysotile, and manipulation of the former employees medical reports.
By means of the anthropological concept of social suffering, the doctoral thesis brings to light narratives and experiences of pain and affliction reported by workers who were critically ill from exposure to chrysotile fibers. The medical symptoms of the diseases that led to death were never identified as clinical expressions of ARDs. The widows and children of these SAMA former employees also involved in the fruitless search for correct diagnosis, treatment and medical-legal recognition became the key interlocutors of my ethnographic research at Minaçu. They described a complete absence of any compensatory measures being offered by the asbestos mining company3. In light of this, they were/are particularly revolted by the intentional indifference and intransigence they encountered from SAMA representatives. Uncompensated and ignored, they feel less threatened by the mining company than would otherwise be the case, more willing to verbalize (inside the home environment) harsh criticism of Minaçu's mother a maternal analogy that reveals the affective, moral, economic, and institutional hold maintained by SAMA on the local population.
Through the testimonies of suffering experienced by my interlocutors, I perceived that their pain and anguish represented a kind of corrosion of everyday life, which hindered their ability to return to their daily routines prior to the experiences of illness and death. However, such corrosion did not lead to an extreme, traumatic and catastrophic disruption of relations with relatives, former co-workers at SAMA, friends, neighbors and other residents, because the disruptions experienced by those families presented themselves as a (quite significant, of course) part of the ordinary flow of events, assimilating suffering to a normality not dramatic enough to provoke a public commotion over the countless cases of workers sick and killed by the chrysotile asbestos fibers.
The economic, institutional and symbolic power exercised by SAMA is revealed in the narratives of my local interlocutors. It is exercised, for example, through verbal threats and retaliatory actions by the mining company's management and by those who defend SAMA with nails and teeth. Thus, these actors maintain a kind of mutual vigilance over and among all the residents of Minaçu. The silences maintained by the victimized, their unwillingness to voice open criticism of the mining company and their views about the risks of chrysotile asbestos to human health, have also to do with their concern to maintain social cohesion within the wider community; because the denunciation and the testimony of the pains and anguish they experienced could compromise their personal standing in that community.
To the normality of their daily suffering are added the conditions of helplessness and abandonment in which workers made seriously ill by asbestos, as well as their widows and children, are not recognized as asbestos victims by medical doctors linked to the mining company or by the general population of Minaçu. It remains for them to suffer a deep sense of isolation, and also the bullying of local pro-SAMA groups. This situation ultimately prevents them from engaging ethically, politically and civilly in defense of their social and economic rights, through public complaint about the often fatal risks of working with chrysotile fibers.
August 19, 2019
1 AMARAL, Arthur Pires. Com o peito cheio de pó: uma etnografia sobre a negação do adoecimento de trabalhadores do amianto na cidade de Minaçu (GO). 2019. 289 f. Tese (Doutorado em Antropologia Social) - Universidade Federal de Goiás, Goinia, 2019.
Available at : https://repositorio.bc.ufg.br/tede/handle/tede/9686.
2 Anecdotal evidence reflecting poorly on the medical treatment provided by doctors with links to SAMA and others from hospitals receiving support from the company can be found in chapters 4 & 5 of the dissertation.
3 Such as financial compensation and/or the provision of private health care plans.