Award for Ban Asbestos Activist in Brazil Covert Industry Disinformation in Canada
On March 28, 2018, Engineer Fernanda Giannasi received a prestigious award at a gala ceremony in Rio de Janeiro for her role in the struggle to end Brazils asbestos slaughter.
Fernanda Giannasi accepting the Globo award in Rio De Janeiro.
This recognition of the grass-roots movement to liberate citizens from the asbestos tyranny imposed by ruthless and rapacious vested interests was both timely and apposite. The occasion provided Fernanda with a platform to remind the Supreme Court of its duty to uphold the 2017 decision outlawing asbestos in the face of intense corporate pressure.1 It was also a visible manifestation of the victories that can be achieved when citizens in democratic countries take action to protect health and the environment.
Fernanda Giannasi (center) with ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza on her right and FIOCRUZ Professor Vanda D Acri on her left. March 28, 2018.
The demonstration of people power in Brazil took place at the same time as the Canadian asbestos ban scheduled to be implemented this year (2018) was under attack from anonymous and foreign pressure groups.2 Criticizing the federal governments failure to upload submissions received during the asbestos consultation process, Canadian campaigner Kathleen Ruff wrote:
Canadians will not know who made submissions or what they called for. This lack of transparency weakens democracy. And now we are witnessing a foreign company and an anonymous website, working for undisclosed asbestos interests, seeking to pervert Canadas democratic process and undermine regulations to ban asbestos in Canada. This is corruption of democracy.
To date, attempts to ascertain who was behind a disparaging press release sent to Canadian journalists3 and a similarly derogatory March 21, 2018 online commentary headlined: Muller & Green Comments on PM Trudeaus Canadian Asbestos Policy4 have proved fruitless. An email sent to the website of public relations firm Muller & Green (M&G) has remained unanswered and a stilted and barely distinguishable conversation this week with the person who answered the M&G phone number 0203 289 7118 raised more questions than answers. Moreover, responses to personal enquiries made by health and safety campaigner Mick Holder at the building at 1 Fore Street Avenue, London EC2Y 9DT the address listed as the site of the M&G London office on Monday, March 26, 2018, failed to clarify the situation as there was no record of a company by the name of Muller & Green at the building.
1 Fore Street Avenue, London EC2Y 9DT (photo courtesy of Mick Holder).
Commenting on his enquiries, Mick explained:
I spoke to reception who said they had no record of a company with such a name in the building but their list may not include very recently agreed tenants In the building's ground floor is a large area run by We Work (web link below)5 who operate as a resource for businesses which don't want/can't afford regular office space on a sort of hot desking/hot meeting place/hot office kind of principle. I asked if Muller & Green PR was one of their clients and they happily looked and said not under that name.6
The legions of dirty tricks and propaganda techniques used by those representing the asbestos industry since the early 20th century include numerous instances of industry-backed groups masquerading as public interest bodies to influence national governments, regional authorities, technical experts, medical associations and other decision-makers. It does not take a clairvoyant of exceptional transcendental powers to suggest that individuals representing the asbestos industry are behind the latest PR salvo on Canadas plans to prohibit asbestos, the countrys biggest occupational killer. The asbestos lobbyists are wasting their time; the battle for asbestos in Canada has been lost. Fernanda and her ban asbestos colleagues in Brazil have been at the sharp end of this fight for decades. As we celebrate their success, we find inspiration in their example. As they say in Brazil: A luta continua! The struggle continues.
1 Setti R. Prmio Faz Diferença: pioneira na luta contra o amianto, Fernanda Giannasi Giannasi faz apelo ao STF [Prize for Making a Difference: Pioneer in the fight against asbestos, Fernanda Giannasi appeals to the Supreme Court]. March 28, 2018.
3 PM Trudeau on Verge of Wasting $114 Million on Canadian Asbestos Policy. March 21, 2018.
4 Muller & Green Comments on PM Trudeaus Canadian Asbestos Policy. March 21, 2018.
6 Email Mick Holder to Laurie Kazan-Allen. March 26, 2018.
Par for the Course!
The mission and energy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA), one of the world’s leading asbestos victims’ support groups, shows no signs of diminishing more than 35 years after it was founded. After several visits to the Society’s offices last month (the latest on February 27, 2018), I can report that the staff were busier than ever; regrettably, they had already registered 20 new cases of mesothelioma since the beginning of the year among people coming to the society for assistance.
Despite the enormous amount of work which each case requires, the ADSA still makes time to raise funds for scientists at the Sir Charles Gairdner hospital who are at the cutting edge of medical research into the causation, treatment and a possible cure for asbestos cancer. On February 18, I was delighted to observe the latest fund-raising initiative which took place at the Meadow Springs Golf Course in Mandurah, some 40 miles from Perth. The event, organized by ADSA’s Vice President Dave Hall, consisted of 18 fearless teams (see photo below) playing a round of golf on a sunny Autumn Sunday.
Prizes down to 10th place were awarded, with Professor Anna Nowak presenting the winning team “Short Putt” with the annual ADSA trophy. The day raised $13,000 for mesothelioma research.
Commenting on the event, Robert Vojakovic President of the ADSA said:
“I am immensely proud of the fundraising efforts of many contributors who raised a total of $98,000 in the year 2017 which includes the proceeds of the February Golf Tournament and the ADSA Walk 2017. It gives me great hope that there will be advances in the search to find a cure for mesothelioma. The ADSA will continue with our fundraising efforts to support our talented team of researchers at the National Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases Western Australia.”
Asbestos Endgame: 2017!
The enduring rapaciousness of the asbestos industry has been confirmed today (December 20, 2017) with news that Sri Lanka, a country poised to protect human health by restricting asbestos use in 2018, has been bullied into backtracking by the Russian Government. A surprise announcement last week of an impending ban on Russian imports of Sri Lanka tea and agricultural products was widely seen as a tit-for-tat reprisal over plans to curtail Russian asbestos imports by Sri Lanka. The Russian embargo sent shockwaves through the Sri Lankan government and industry stakeholders; Russia is currently the largest importer of Ceylon tea 48 and 36 million kilograms in 2011 and 2015, respectively. In 2016, Sri Lanka tea exports to Russia were valued at US$143 million. Most of the asbestos fiber in Sri Lanka comes from Russia.1 After an emergency cabinet meeting presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on Tuesday, December 19, 2017, the Sri Lanka government announced the asbestos ban would be postponed. The President said he would request Russian President Vladimir Putin consider suspending the embargo.
It seems unbelievable that in this day and age one country can dictate the health and safety policy of another; especially when the substance at the center of the dispute is known to cause a variety of fatal cancers and respiratory diseases.
It is no secret that asbestos vested interests have long relied on a variety of methods, including confidential trade agreements, to preserve asbestos markets; the main difference this time is that the threat to Sri Lanka was so blatant: you buy our asbestos or else!
Considering the huge strides being made around the globe by ban asbestos campaigners, one should not be overly surprised by the desperate measures being taken by the beleaguered industry. On November 27, 2017, Moldova, one of Russias closest neighbors, announced that the sale and import of chrysotile asbestos-containing materials and chrysotile asbestos fiber were to be outlawed by 2019. The same day, confirmation was published that Canada would abide by its decision to ban asbestos in 2018 despite a trade agreement with Ukraine which had come into effect on August 1, 2017.2 On November 29, 2017, Brazils Supreme Court ruled that the production, processing, use and sale of asbestos were unconstitutional and therefore not permitted anywhere in the country. The betrayal by former allies and pro-asbestos fellow travellers Canada had been the worlds largest asbestos producer throughout the 20th century and Brazil was, in recent years, the worlds 3rd largest producer must have been bitter pills for asbestos vested interests to swallow. To add insult to injury at a meeting in Delhi, India on December 16, 2017, a new organization the Indian Ban Asbestos Network was formed to progress efforts to end asbestos use in the worlds largest importing country!
The final days of 2017 have brought no respite for asbestos stakeholders who, despite trade agreements, bullying and the use of covert strategies, are seeing the demand for their goods plummet. When the asbestos mines have finally been shut and asbestos consigned to the history books, 2017 will be regarded as the year the world finally turned its back on asbestos. Happy New Year to one and all!
1 Sri Lanka: Sri Lankan government to temporarily suspend the ban on asbestos. December 20, 2017
Ban on Asbestos to be Relaxed. December 20, 2017.
Russia suspends tea imports from Sri Lanka; three ministers to fly to Moscow for urgent talks. December 17, 2017.
Seven Days, Six Countries, Five Voices – One Mission
As if by a fortuitous alignment of the planets, between November 21 and 28, 2017, the actions of a British campaigner, a Brazilian engineer, a Colombian Senator, an Australian physician and an Indian school teacher highlighted multiple facets of the global struggle for asbestos justice at places as diverse as the British Parliament, universities in Rio de Janeiro and Bogota, a monastery in the West Australian capital of Perth and a United Nations hearing in Geneva.
On Tuesday November 21, 2017, Mavis Nye, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2009 and is in recovery following treatment with the immunotherapy drug Keytruda, attended a meeting of the Parliamentary Asbestos Sub-Group at the House of Commons.1 During the discussions, Mavis drew attention to the discrepancy which now exists between civil court verdicts mandating that defendants cover costs for non-NHS funded treatments such as those she herself benefited from and awards made under the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS)2 which only provide a one-off lump sum payment to eligible claimants. For a person diagnosed in her late sixties, as Mavis herself was, the amount paid by the DMPS would be around £168,000, enough to pay for about two years of immunotherapy treatment, were the entire award applied to that purpose.3
As a result of Mavis intervention on November 21, enquiries are being made into the feasibility of amending provisions of the DMPS to address this discrepancy. Next month (December 2017), Mavis and her husband Ray are launching the Mavis Nye Foundation to provide a hardship fund and support and financial grants to aid newly diagnosed victims of mesothelioma in the UK.4 In an interview, Mavis said: I was so lucky and believe I was saved from this dreadful disease for a purpose. I hope that the new foundation will enable me to help those still suffering.
Two days later (November 23, 2017) and thousands of miles away, at Brazils National School of Public Health (Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública), Engineer Fernanda Giannasi, retired labor inspector and advisor to Brazils Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA), addressed students studying for a Masters Degree in Public Health in Rio de Janeiro on Brazils struggle for asbestos justice, with a focus on the ongoing legal and legislative battles to prohibit asbestos use and secure the rights of the injured.5
As the Brazilian students were gaining the benefit of Ms. Giannasis knowledge, another asbestos information session was taking place in Bogota, Colombia. The public hearing was addressed by medical and scientific experts including: Luis Ernesto Gómez, Deputy Minister of the Interior, Dr. Adriana Estrada from the Ministry of Health, Dr. Fabián Méndez Paz, Director of the School of Public Health, Associate Professor Dr. Juan Pablo Ramos of the Department of Civil Engineering, Silvia Gómez, Director of Greenpeace Colombia and Cecilia Riao, sufferer of an asbestos disease.
Pivotal to the public hearing was input from Senator Nadia Blel, whose proposal to ban asbestos as enshrined in the Ana Cecilia Nio Asbestos Ban Bill was approved by the
7th Commission of the Senate on October 11, 2017. The bill is currently proceeding through the Congress.
Marking the end of Australias National Asbestos Awareness Week on Friday, November 24, 2017, an ecumenical service was held by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia at the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth. At this 22nd annual service, the eulogy was given by Professor Anna Nowak, a much-loved and respected clinician held in the highest esteem by the Societys members.
Photo courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia
Professor Nowak spoke about what she had learned from her patients about love and hope. To own up to being an oncologist is a conversation stopper, she said. However, she continued:
my patients and their families have taught me to think differently. An oncologists office is a place of hope, of love, and of learning and its not me that makes it that way. Its my patients and their families, who teach me every day the meaning of hope, the meaning of love, and so many other lessons. Our patients are our teachers.
On Tuesday, November 2, 2017, asbestosis sufferer and former school-teacher Nirmala Gurung testified before delegates at the United Nations Forum for Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland about the deadly effects of asbestos contamination caused by asbestos-cement manufacturing operations of British and Belgian companies in the Indian town of Kymore in the State of Madhya Pradesh.6 It is believed that representatives of the current owner of the company Everest Industries Limited had been invited to attend.
Nirmala explained how a school teacher became a victim of an industrial disease. In the text she has released prior to the event, she recalled that:
During the dry season asbestos dust particles even blew into the classrooms. Parents and children used to come into the classroom covered with dust. The owners and workers in the UK and Belgium certainly knew about the hazards of asbestos but did not inform the community. I have seen many victims dying slowly and painfully. Its really horrible to watch a healthy person turn into a skeleton. I wish the coming generation to be saved from this and that first and foremost there is a need for proper treatment of the asbestos waste which the factory dumped in the surrounding populated area. Asbestos must be banned and those suffering from asbestos diseases should be compensated.
Mavis, Fernanda, Nadia, Anna and Nirmala are women on a mission; each one of them has had direct experience of the devastation caused by asbestos exposures, and each seeks to prevent future generations from coming to harm.7 The world is a better place with them in it.
1 Mavis Nye One of Few People in the World in Recovery from Mesothelioma. November 15, 2017.
2 The scheme is in place to compensate people with Diffuse Mesothelioma who were exposed to asbestos either negligently or in breach of statutory duty by their employers, and who are unable to bring a claim for compensation against the employer or that employer's Employers' Liability insurer. The scheme can also make payments to eligible dependants of a sufferer of mesothelioma who has passed away.
The Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS).
3 There is a difference in amounts awarded under the DMPS to people diagnosed from July 25, 2012 to February 9, 2012 and those diagnosed after July 25, 2012 with payments to someone diagnosed in their late sixties in the earlier period listed around £134,500 and £168,000 in the later period.
Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme: Payment Tariff for those diagnosed from February 10, 2015 onwards:
Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme: Payment Tariff for those diagnosed from July 25, 2012 to February 9, 2012:
5 Aula aberta Banimento do amianto: uma luta coletiva e continua.
6 Environmental Exposure to Asbestos Kills Indian People; Kymore A Slow-Motion Bhopal.
7 Although these events took place in 5 countries, the news of Nirmalas trip to Switzerland will have a significant impact in India as well (see article below); this is why the headline refers to 6 and not 5 countries.
Madhya Pradesh village sees slow death of hundreds of asbestos victims caused by now closed British, Belgian subsidiary. November 21, 2017.
Shedding Light on Tragic Darkness
For decades, victims of an epidemic caused by fibers often too small to be seen were equally invisible, cast adrift by former employers and unacknowledged by governments. Off-loading suffering and treatment costs onto the injured not only left corporate profits undented but also enabled political support for the asbestos sector to go unchallenged. As long as stakeholders could hide the human tragedies caused by their commercial operations, their desired status quo – one in which business could continue as usual – would be allowed to prevail.
However, a remarkable grassroots mobilization of asbestos victims and campaigners eventually turned the tide: one by one, governments across the world are coming to recognize the irreversible harm caused by asbestos, and courts in many jurisdictions have awarded substantial compensation for the negligent behaviour of asbestos-industry employers – with such settlements going back several decades in a handful of countries. Still more needs to be done, but in considering future action we must recognise that the progress that has been achieved so far has only come about following sustained battles fought on multiple fronts against powerful vested interests over many years.
Highlighting these struggles, in recent months, three major documentaries have been screened – in a serendipitous confluence of activity from three different regions (Latin America, Asia and Europe).
The first of the films to appear was a Brazilian production entitled “Não Respire – Contém Amianto” (“Do not Breathe – Contains Asbestos”).1 It was premiered at the 6th Ecofalante Environmental Film Festival in June 2017 in São Paulo, Brazil where it won the jury prize for best film.
Last month (October 2017), the film was shown in the Brazilian city of Florianópolis, with more screenings planned at upcoming film festivals. Given that this year has been pivotal in the Brazilian struggle to ban asbestos, the timing for the release of a documentary exposing the horrific impact of asbestos exposures on Brazilian citizens could not have been better!
In October (2017), a documentary entitled “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” won the Citizen’s Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan and the Mercenat Award at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea.2 This “heart-breaking epic chronicles the prolonged struggle of a dwindling group of dying former asbestos workers and others seeking justice and recognition from an indifferent Japanese government.” The film is 215 minutes long and took ten years of research, filming and post-production to bring to the screen.
On November 8, 2017, “Les Sentinelles: hommage aux victimes de l'amiante et des pesticides” [The Sentinels: tribute to the victims of asbestos and pesticides] premiered in Paris.3 The director of the documentary was Pierre Pézerat, the son of the famous scientist-activist-researcher Professor Henri Pézerat4 who for over 30 years fought to protect his fellow citizens and the environment from hazardous substances, including asbestos. Footage of Henri and fellow ban asbestos activists Annie Thebaud-Mony, Josette Roudaire and Jean-Marie Birbès reinforces the importance of sustained collaborations between experts and workers and highlighted the almost insurmountable challenges they faced and continue to face.
To successfully tackle a problem, one must first define and quantify the key elements to be addressed. “Visualization” of the formerly hidden asbestos epidemic was one of the earliest tasks for campaigners; ensuring that the faces of asbestos victims were seen and that the numbers of those affected were counted heightened asbestos awareness of decision makers as well as members of the public. These films, and others like them, will help ensure that the asbestos fallen and the lessons learned from their fight for justice will not be forgotten.
2 Sennan Asbestos Disaster. 2017.
3 Les Sentinelles.
The Global Asbestos Jigsaw
Reflecting this afternoon on the contents of news items uploaded to this website yesterday and today gave me pause to think. Taken as a whole, the asbestos developments in Europe, Asia, North America and Australasia which they detailed constitute a damning indictment of asbestos use, a shift in even the most hostile of political environments to a prohibition culture and a willingness not only to assign blame for failures to protect workers but also to order negligent political and commercial entities to compensate the injured and/or their surviving family members.
Although the six developments reported are but fragments of a global jigsaw puzzle seen together they reinforce the feelings of public revulsion at the ongoing damage caused by historic and continuing asbestos use. The October 27, 2017 verdict by the Tokyo High Court should put national governments on notice that they will be held to account for the damage done by their failures to act on the asbestos hazard. The Indian Parliament, the Colombian Congress and the People’s Consultative Assembly of Indonesia might do well to consider how they will afford to pay compensation to thousands of future victims whose lives will have been sacrificed for the profits of the asbestos industry.
In rhetoric used by asbestos profiteers the world over, industry stakeholders assert that as no cases of asbestos-related diseases have been diagnosed in their countries, there is no need to take action. Ignoring the fact that human biology is the same the world over, lobbyists for chrysotile (white) asbestos in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh rely on this propaganda to forestall ban asbestos legislation. The fact that amongst these news items are two which report cases of asbestos disease in these same countries is evidence of the disingenuousness of the industry’s argument.
Compared to the self-serving and unfounded claims of the International Chrysotile Association, the (Russian) Chrysotile Association and other interested parties, international agencies are in no doubt about the severity and reach of the deadly asbestos epidemic. In the paper: Barriers and Facilitators to the Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases—Stakeholders’ Perspectives, which is the subject of one of the November 5 news updates, the authors are categorical that banning asbestos not only saves lives but also saves money. This finding undermines the very last shred of defense for this industry of mass destruction.
You don’t have to be a Greek oracle or the seer of Omaha to predict what the future holds for the asbestos industry. As night follows day, national ban asbestos prohibitions will be enacted, corporate profits will collapse in asbestos-based industries and political influence will evaporate. The future is asbestos-free!
Asbestos Disconnect: Russia vs. Australia
On October 20, 2017, two articles1 were published which clearly demonstrated irreconcilable views on the nature of asbestos, a word so toxic in many countries that it has been eliminated from the names of corporations and trade associations (e.g. Canadas Asbestos Institute was rechristened the Chrysotile Institute), and has brought derision to eponymous communities debate is ongoing regarding a change of name for the mining town called Asbestos in the Canadian Province of Quebec.2
The first article was in Russian and detailed attempts to preach asbestos industry gospel to students at Kazan Construction College, Tatarstan on October 12, 2017. The headline of the article gave an indication of its pro-industry slant: Architectural students from Kazan rediscover chrysotile. It is worth noting that the title of the lecture given by Vladimir Petrovich Uglev of the Chrysotile Association was Chrysotile-cement materials and their applications. The word asbestos did not appear in the title of the lecture nor does it appear in the name of the national trade association the Chrysotile Association3 representing asbestos stakeholders. Clearly, although the profits from asbestos sales are not too toxic for the associations members to covet, the use of the word asbestos is too repellent for general discourse.
During his presentation, Uglev displayed a range of sample products, the qualities of which no doubt he extolled. He also attempted to bolster the audiences interest by informing them of a competition with cash prizes for designs using chrysotile products for childrens play spaces or urban/garden/park environments. Online resources were available to assist designers with the calculations for their projects.
It is unlikely that the industry propaganda peddled by Uglev will be accepted at face value by the students from Kazan Construction College. This summer, the President of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital, confronted an asbestos industry official about the poisonous nature of chrysotile.4 Clearly, information about the deadly effects of chrysotile is available in Tatarstan; given the almost 90 million Russians who use the internet and the online availability of information from international agencies and other independent sources on asbestos, the disinformation conveyed by Uglev will most likely receive the contempt it deserves.5
The second article published on October 20th originated in Australia, a country experiencing its worst epidemic of occupational mortality, the cause of which is asbestos. Although asbestos use was banned in 2003, the presence of millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing products throughout the national infrastructure, the environmental devastation caused by asbestos mining in New South Wales and Western Australia and the uncontrolled and widespread exposures experienced by workers, their families and members of the public has made the subject of asbestos a hot-button issue with local, regional and national asbestos awareness initiatives supported by asbestos victims groups, trade unions, independent agencies, government bodies, medical researchers and others. The subject of the article entitled: Betty - the ADRI House brings asbestos awareness, is one such initiative. Betty is a purpose built mobile model house designed to demonstrate where asbestos-containing products might be found in a typical pre-1987 Australian house. Betty and her minders have travelled extensively throughout New South Wales and further afield to educate residents, home renovators and others about the potentially fatal consequences of asbestos exposures. Quoted in this article are warnings by Asbestos Awareness ambassador and well-known actor John Jarratt:
Most Australians believe that asbestos-related diseases are a thing of the past but theyre very wrong. Each week 13 Australians die of asbestos-related diseases. Today we know better and we do know the risks so if youre a homeowner, renovator, tradie or property manager, please take the warnings seriously.
The disconnect between the Russian and Australian articles could not be greater with the former urging increasing asbestos use and the later warning of deadly effects of toxic exposures. Asbestos propagandists know full well that Russians like people all over the world are dying from asbestos-related diseases. Despite their blanket assurances that chrysotile use is safe,6 new data shows that Russia is amongst the worst affected countries for asbestos-related mortality.7 Whatever the vested interests say, it is the ordinary people in both countries that are paying the price for the asbestos industrys profits.
1 Студенты-архитекторы из Казани заново открыли для себя хризотил [Architectural students from Kazan rediscover chrysotile]. October 20, 2017.
Betty - the ADRI House brings asbestos awareness. October 20, 2017.
2 Five years after asbestos mine closure, Quebec town seeks new identity. Aug 25, 2016.
3 According to the Chrysotile Association website, it works to: Promote the adoption and application of appropriate prevention and control measures, regulations, standards, work practices and techniques for the safe use of chrysotile [asbestos].
4 1 Минниханов — минтрансу: «Г..…е дороги делаете!» [Minnikhanov vs Ministry of Transport]. August 28, 2017.
5 Asbestos policies of major international agencies.
6 A publication issued by the International Chrysotile Association in Autumn 2017 asserted that:
The safe and controlled use of chrysotile is neither a myth nor a pipe dream. It is a well-known and well documented reality. The products marketed are without real health risks because the chrysotile fibre is encapsulated in a cement or resin matrix. Because it is encapsulated, the chrysotile fibre cant be airborne (non airportable) and therefore cant be breathed in (non-respirable).
ICA. ASBESTOS Amphiboles MUST BE BANNED, Chrysotile MUST BE CONTROLLED. Autumn 2017.
Halloween: Asbestos Ghouls and Chrysotile Devils 2017
October 31 is marked in the U.S. and some others countries as Halloween, an opportunity for children to wear fancy dress costumes depicting supernatural figures such as witches, devils, ghosts, vampires, monsters, and characters from popular culture – in my children’s day, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia costumes were very popular. Horror stories, hopefully age-appropriate, are a feature of the day.
From my vantage point, you don’t have to go far to find a horror story – one that details the activities of a coven of industry stakeholders responsible for a global epidemic of ill health and premature death. Supporters of the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) would certainly be amongst the ghouls so indicted. In the run-up to Halloween, the ICA has published a 30-page booklet aimed at forcing Canada to rescind its pledge to ban asbestos by 2018.1 Such strong-arm tactics will not succeed in swaying the government of Justin Trudeau2 but they have worked and continue to work in other countries where asbestos industry propaganda is distributed as fact.
Last week, news was circulated of an asbestos initiative targeting Russian students such as those at the Nizhny Novgorod State University of Civil Engineering who attended a lecture by Vladimir Galitsyn, director of the (Russian) Chrysotile Association, which extolled the unique properties of asbestos and encouraged the future use of asbestos-containing products. This is one of a series of lectures for students at secondary and higher educational institutions in Russia. There can be little doubt that the offer of cash prizes to the winners of a competition to encourage the use of chrysotile cement products provided an incentive for the students’ interest.
Asbestos stakeholders in Russia and elsewhere purport to represent the interests of people working in the asbestos industrial sector. As has happened in other countries, once the profits evaporate, the tens of thousands left behind with damaged lungs, shortened lives and polluted towns will be on their own. Asbestos comradeship has a limited lifespan; today’s highly vocal spokesmen of the ICA and Chrysotile Association have no interest in the broken lives and toxic landscapes left in the wake of their profit-driven activities.
1 ICA. ASBESTOS Amphiboles MUST BE BANNED, Chrysotile MUST BE CONTROLLED. Autumn 2017.
Asbestos: Redemption, Restitution and Remediation
Canada, a country admired worldwide for its tolerance, civil liberties and enviable living standards, has long had a blind spot: asbestos. Despite the many advantages Canadians enjoy and the country’s top tier ranking as an educational powerhouse,”1 when it came to a substance once known as “white gold” there was no arguing with the perceived wisdom – carefully crafted over decades by industry stakeholders – that the production and use of Canadian asbestos was not injurious to human health.
When inconvenient truths were published in Quebec regarding the high levels of environmentally-caused asbestos cancer in mining areas, the researchers were vilified. When asbestos victims attempted to hold a meeting to discuss the asbestos threat to public health in 2008, they were threatened.2 Years after the dawning of the 21st century, the national discourse on asbestos remained much as it had been for years with political, economic and public support for the industry undiminished.
In under a decade, an astonishing reversal has been achieved led by scientists and researchers in Quebec supported by international experts, campaigning bodies and asbestos victims.3 It seems that almost every day another article or study is published indicting the one-time “magic mineral” for having caused a national epidemic of occupational disease and for having created widespread contamination of the built environment.4 The contrast between the current willingness to quantify the damage caused by this industry of mass destruction with the former wall of silence could not be greater.
As Canada finalizes legislation needed to ban asbestos use and implements measures to protect workers and the public from hazardous exposures, Brazil remains adrift on a sea of indecision and uncertainty. According to a much-argued over Supreme Court decision in August 2017, state legislation banning asbestos is constitutional and the federal government’s policy allowing the commercial exploitation of asbestos is not. If the Canadian ban is surprising due to the country’s former love affair with asbestos it is not quite as remarkable as an expected ban in Brazil. Canada had long ago run out of asbestos and would have needed tens of millions of dollars to develop a new underground asbestos mine. Brazil, now the world’s third largest asbestos producer, is actively mining, selling, exporting and promoting chrysotile (white) asbestos. With Supreme Court verdicts expected shortly regarding the constitutionality of asbestos bans in the State of Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, it is likely that Brazil’s asbestos industry will be consigned to the history books before long. When this happens, epidemiologists, medical specialists, engineers and others will, as in Canada, find plenty of evidence of the harm which had been done by the country’s asbestos stakeholders. The only way ahead for Canada and Brazil is to prioritize the implementation of national bans, undertake phased remediation of contamination caused by decades of asbestos mining and use, provide assistance needed by those whose lives have been sacrificed to the greed of the asbestos industry and ensure that individuals, corporate entities and other vested interests which caused the epidemics of asbestos-related deaths now occurring are brought to justice. The struggle continues.
2 “Scientists cannot be silenced” The story behind how Canada finally banned asbestos. October 3, 2017.
3 Ruff K. How Canada Changed from Exporting Asbestos to Banning Asbestos: The Challenges That Had to Be Overcome. September 27, 2017.
4 Asbestos: doctors demand a tightening of exposure. September 25, 2017.
Workplace carcinogens lead to thousands of cancer cases in Ontario each year: study. October 3, 2017.
Asbestos Exit Strategies
Wherever asbestos has been used, political, social and commercial frameworks have been constructed to prioritise the interests of the asbestos industrial sector at the expense of workers, the public and the environment. Historically, the growth of support for national bans is accompanied by the erosion of these structures; what happened in Canada to asbestos associations and mining communities is now being replicated in Brazil and Russia.
For decades, Canada’s Chrysotile Institute (CI), formerly the Asbestos Institute, was the mouthpiece for the Canadian asbestos industry and a cheerleader for global asbestos interests.1 The institute’s operations, supported by cash injections from industry and both provincial and federal governments, shrunk as asbestos mines filed for bankruptcy.2 As public opinion turned against the asbestos industry, political support wavered and funding disappeared as a result of which the CI closed its doors in 2012.
Unlike Canada, Brazil still has – for the time being at least – a Chrysotile Institute: the Instituto Brasileiro de Crisotila (IBC). In the aftermath of decisions this summer by Brazil’s Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of state asbestos bans and the unconstitutionality of asbestos use, it looks like the IBC’s days are numbered. Adding insult to injury, a recent court decision annulled the National Agreement on the Controlled Use of Asbestos between the IBC and the National Commission of Asbestos Workers (Comissão Nacional dos Trabalhadores do Amianto/CNTA) and the National Confederation of [Asbestos] Industrial Workers (Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Indústria /CNTI), industry-funded groups purporting to represent asbestos workers. The recent court verdict ordered the IBC to desist from “financially supporting, directly or indirectly, any legal entity of a trade union nature representing workers…”3 Without such support, the demise of the CNTA and CNTI is almost certainly guaranteed.
It is not only former asbestos supporters, some of whom may face criminal or civil charges in the post-asbestos era, whose prospects are in ruins but also the future of mining communities with economies built on asbestos. Even as the Canadian towns of Thetford Mines and Asbestos struggle to reinvent themselves with the help of government funding, the Russian monotown of Asbest (Russian: Асбе́ст) is looking to diversify its economy with the support of the authorities of the Sverdlovsk region.4 The outlook for the people of Minaçu, the city which is home to Brazil’s only operational asbestos mine, is bleak.
Commenting on Minaçu’s future, Brazil’s leading ban asbestos campaigner former Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi said:
“For years we had advised the workers, local politicians and residents in Minaçu of the need to promote economic alternatives for the region so as not to be totally dependent on asbestos, as the commercial exploitation of this mineral would end either because of the exhaustion of the mine or because of the prohibition of production. None of our arguments convinced them and they continued to rely on demagogic and populist policies. They remained deaf to our appeals; perhaps now they will hear the voice of reason.”
When Eternit pulls the plug on the mine, the city of Minaçu and the state of Goiás will be left with a deadly legacy: generations of asbestos-injured citizens, contaminated infrastructures and polluted landscapes. Will Eternit SA, the company which owns the mine, be there to support the dying, remediate the buildings and clean-up the environment? If experience teaches us anything, the answer to that question is no.
1 Kazan-Allen L. The Rise and Fall of the Chrysotile Institute. May 1, 2012.
3 A farsa do lobby do amianto: Sentença – Acordo nacional do uso seguro do amianto celebrado entre CNTA/CNTI e IBC é extinto [The asbestos lobby farce: Judgment – National agreement on the safe use of asbestos between CNTA/CNTI and IBC is void].
4 Куйвашев поручил властям Асбеста подготовить комплексную стратегию развития города [Kuyvashev instructed the Asbest authorities to prepare a comprehensive city development strategy]. August 9, 2017.