Colombia’s Asbestos Stories, from Economic to Legal 

by Guillermo Villamizar



(English translation by Martha Castro)

Bogota. According to the US Geological Survey and the Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade), annual global asbestos consumption was 2,104,484 metric tons last year. Using available figures, this gives the trade a worth of around US$900 million for 2013; a figure not negligible for any commodity.

The prevention of asbestos-related disease represents a global public health issue, and after the collapse in demand for asbestos in developed countries, asbestos producers have mounted a global campaign to protect and develop new markets.

At present, the asbestos trade is mainly concentrated in the BRIC countries, which shows that the industry’s move to emerging economies, where commercial interests take precedence over public health, has been a successful policy. The development of alternative markets was necessary as developed countries banned or restricted the industrial use of asbestos as has happened in the USA.

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. A text that appears in first place on the Ascolfibras web site entitled Health risk of chrysotile revisited is written by American toxicologist David Bernstein who has lived in Geneva (Switzerland) for many years. Bernstein is a “scientific mercenary,” hired by the asbestos industry to produce reports in exchange for large sums of money.

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. This is patently untrue.

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. In addition to the interference of natural forces, there are the human interactions which occur when these products are manipulated, cut or drilled without any forms of dust suppression or human protection.

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.

Not only must we learn from developed countries but we must also overcome our country’s deadly asbestos legacy. To the extent that scientific advances in occupational and environmental risks are being made, emerging economies should be able to correct past mistakes in order to achieve economic development, secure the human rights of our citizens and protect the environment from deadly contamination by asbestos.

September 22, 2014



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