Brazil: Asbestos Producer, User, Exporter
Presented at the 2012 meeting of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network
November 19, 2012
Brazil is a wonderful country with generous people, great music, terrific food and pretty good football players. It has a wealth of natural resources and historical sites including Iguaçu Falls, Copacabana beach and Brasília. It is also one of the few countries around the world which is still producing, using and exporting asbestos. An analysis of Brazilian asbestos data undertaken for this presentation has revealed some interesting long-term and short-term trends. Over the last decade:
In the last four years:
The last fact is highly significant as well as a bit problematic. The use of asbestos is now banned in five Brazilian states São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco and Mato Grosso which account for 90% of the Brazilian population. So either the remaining states have upped their consumption exponentially or something else is happening. There are various possibilities:
There is evidence to support the last of these hypotheses. Although the State of Rio de Janeiro has banned asbestos, the asbestos-cement manufacturer Eternit has obtained a judicial exemption which enables it to continue production pending a final decision by the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of asbestos use. In São Paulo State, two other companies obtained similar exemptions to continue using asbestos. The spectacular growth of the Brazilian economy and huge ongoing infrastructure projects like the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016 are increasing demand.
History: Brazil's Asbestos Industry
The commercial exploitation of asbestos began in Brazil in 1939 with asbestos mining operations at the São Felix mine in Poçes, Bahia State. Three years later, asbestos-cement production began in Osasco, São Paulo State with a new factory becoming operational in Rio de Janeiro in 1949.2 European asbestos multinationals were pivotal in the development of the asbestos industry in Brazil; amongst them were the French multinational Saint Gobain and the asbestos conglomerates Eternit-Switzerland and Eternit-Belgium. In 1967 a new asbestos mine became operational in the city of Minaçu, Goiás State; that mine now supplies all of Brazil's chrysotile asbestos. The multinational companies that owned the asbestos business in Brazil for more than 50 years eventually sold their interests to national businessmen; while the former Saint Gobain companies are now embracing asbestos-free technology, the Brazilian Eternit conglomerate continues to own the asbestos mine and manufacture asbestos-cement products.
Commenting on Brazil's asbestos industry in 2009 Senior Labor Inspector Fernanda Giannasi said:
Following the precedent set by Canada, Brazil was exporting increasing amounts of its annual production; 65-70% (~290,000 tons) of exports were being sold to Asian and Latin American countries, most of which had few, if any, health and safety regulations. According to government data, 74% of raw asbestos fiber exports went to Asia; shipments to Thailand, Brazil's biggest overseas customer, accounted for 25% of all sales, with other exports going to India (23%), Indonesia (17%), Iran (7%), Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Trade data sourced from the United States Geological Survey and United Nations Commodity Database show that in 2010 Brazil exported 142,987 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos of which:
It is important to note that while Brazilian exports to Thailand seem to have fallen significantly in 2010, the total amount of asbestos imported by Thailand was 79,250 t (2010) and 81,411 t (2011). These amounts are not insubstantial and seem to indicate that despite the ongoing commitment by the Government to ban asbestos, vested interests remain confident that the status quo will remain in place for the time being.
Winds of Change
Using propaganda techniques developed by the tobacco industry and embraced by asbestos stakeholders the world over, vested interests in Brazil promoted asbestos as a national resource and a valuable commodity for over 50 years. The Brazilian asbestos dialogue was controlled by industry stakeholders including corporate spin-doctors, hired gun scientists, friendly politicians, civil servants, judges and even, sorry to say, some trade unionists. As asbestos profits rolled in and asbestos factories engaged in round the clock production, there was no mention of the inconvenient truths about asbestos.
This conspiracy of silence was shattered by ABREA, a group of former asbestos workers which was formed in Osasco, São Paulo State in 1995. Fernanda Giannasi, a founding member of this association, was an outspoken advocate for the rights of the asbestos-exposed to receive justice and medical treatment. By 2000, ABREA had become a nationally-recognized voice in the new asbestos dialogue. In 2000, ABREA co-sponsored the world's first global gathering of ban asbestos activists, asbestos victims and leading authorities. Significantly the Global Asbestos Congress 2000 (GAC 2000) took place in Osasco, the former asbestos-cement capital of Brazil and nowadays the capital of the asbestos victims' movement.
Since then, ABREA has led the Brazilian campaign for asbestos justice. It has:
Working with ban asbestos partners at all levels local, city, state and national and in all sectors trade unions, prosecutors, judges, doctors, researchers of society, ABREA has created the climate in which every aspect of Brazil's asbestos legacy is being investigated and exposed. Indeed, in the last three months (August, September, October 2012), cases relating to the constitutionality of the use of asbestos were the focus of legal proceedings at the Brazilian Supreme Court. Although the Court's final decision remains pending, there is hope that Supreme Court action may result in a Brazilian ban on asbestos. If that happens, it will be totally unprecedented. But the logic is sound. ABREA says that the Brazilian Constitution acknowledges a citizen's right to life, health and the dignity of labor; how then, can a federal law which permits the use of a known carcinogen be constitutional?
At the moment the Supreme Court action has reached a stalemate; we can be optimistic, however, that Brazil, the world's third biggest asbestos supplier, will, before long, end toxic exposures not only of its own citizens but also of millions of people the world over who live in countries which import Brazilian asbestos. At the landmark international conference held in Osasco in 2000, there were fireworks which said it all: bastamianto! Enough, asbestos! An asbestos-free future is possible!
2 The Rio de Janeiro factory was the biggest plant operated by Eternit in Latin America.