Chaos has Come to the World of Asbestos
The title of this article comes from a paper written nearly 25 years ago by American academics.1 While the demise of the asbestos industry they predicted may have proved to have been overly optimistic in 1997, it is certainly a realistic appraisal of the situation in 2021.
Decades of mobilization by ban asbestos campaigners and civil society groups have led to triumphs in recent months that have humbled governments, held guilty industrialists to account and exposed asbestos lobbyists in multiple jurisdictions around the world. The decisions of Supreme Court Judges, the actions of international agencies and the successes of asbestos activists have reinforced the global consensus that there is no place in the 21st century for asbestos.
Nearly two months ago (May 2021), Japans Supreme Court issued a historic plaintiffs verdict in its first unified asbestos judgment. The Court accepted arguments advanced by lawyers representing 500 claimants in class action lawsuits brought by asbestos-injured construction workers or family members at courts in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto, and found that the Government of Japan had been negligent in delaying action on the asbestos hazard and that manufacturers of building products were liable for damage done by occupational exposure to their asbestos-containing products.2 Following the verdict, the Prime Minister of Japan not only attended a meeting of asbestos victims to apologize for the Governments failures, but also supported plans for a new scheme to compensate the injured.3
The following month (June 2021), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the American pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson (J&J) of a Missouri Court of Appeals (2020) judgment awarding $2.12 billion in compensation to twenty plaintiffs who, as a result of exposures to asbestos contained in J&Js iconic baby powder, had contracted ovarian cancer; nine of the women have died since the litigation began.4 The news of this decision reverberated around the world and negatively impacted both J&Js reputation and share price.5
Across the Atlantic Ocean, also in June 2021, the French Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) reversed a 2018 verdict by the Pau Court of Appeal and upheld claims for asbestos anxiety suffered by former power station workers. The 89 successful claimants had been exposed to asbestos at the Arjuzanx power plant. Since the plant was closed in 1990, more than 120 cases brought by former workers who had contracted asbestos-related diseases have been recognized, 35 of the claimants have died.6
Lower courts have also battled valiantly to force vested interests to comply with asbestos prohibitions and hold to account defendants whose actions or lack of actions resulted in asbestos deaths. On June 9, 2021 Judge Athanasios Avramidis of the 7th Labor Court of Santos a coastal city in Brazil's São Paulo state issued a ruling prohibiting Mineradora Sama (Sama Mining), Eternit the operators and owners of Brazils only chrysotile (white) asbestos mine and the transport company TSL Transportes Scatuzzi (TSL Scatuzzi Transport) from handling, receiving and/or transporting chrysotile asbestos. The defendants were ordered to pay a sum exceeding R$5 million (US$965,000+) in damages for contravening São Paulo law nº 12.684/2007 banning asbestos and the 2017 Supreme Court verdict banning asbestos throughout the country. In the Courts ruling, the Judge was categorical about the hazard posed by exposures to asbestos:
In all evidence, as reported in the case file, there is a consensus in the scientific community that chrysotile asbestos is a highly carcinogenic product and its use, maintenance, handling and transport cause the degradation of the work environment, as it puts at risk the physical safety of employees.7
On the same day, nearly 10,000 kilometers away, another asbestos trial was starting in Italy; Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of the Eternit asbestos group, stood accused of 392 counts of manslaughter over the deaths of workers and members of the public exposed to Eternits asbestos.8
Also on June 9, an article was published in Turkey exposing eight government Ministries which had consistently failed to protect workers and members of the public from the deadly dangers posed by asbestos exposures.9 Amongst those government departments adjudged to have been negligent were: the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, the Ministry of Industry and Technology, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the Ministry of National Education, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. Since the sale was announced earlier this year of an asbestos-contaminated Brazilian warship to a Turkish buyer for scrapping at a dismantling yard in Izmir, public opposition to the status quo which views Turkey as a global dumping ground for toxic waste has been building daily.10 The presence of an estimated 900 tonnes of asbestos on the vessel has acted as a cause célèbre, uniting a vast array of civil society groups and voices including local people, municipal, provincial and federal politicians, health and safety campaigners, technical professionals, environmentalists and others.
Meanwhile, news circulating in June that yet another international agency the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) had outlawed the use of asbestos in its projects was warmly welcomed by campaigners with Ban Asbestos Campaign Coordinator Phillip Hazelton of Australias Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) saying:
With all we know about this deadly fibre and all the safer quality alternatives now available, in the 21st century workers and consumers in Asia and other parts of the world should not still be being exposed to asbestos from newly manufactured products. This is an overdue but important step by the AIIB. We call on all multilateral investment banks and international financial institutions to quickly do the same and exclude asbestos containing materials from any investments they support.11
The asbestos industry does not flourish in democratic countries with free speech and transparent political processes. The ongoing battle to reinstate Ukraines asbestos ban is a textbook example of how this toxic industry exerts pressure, manipulates decision-makers and wages public relations offensives to protect its markets. Through first-hand experience,12 I am acutely aware of the dislike that asbestos vested interests and their hired help have for public exposure. The longer the battle goes on in Ukraine, the more visible the diabolical machinations of the asbestos lobby will become. Articles such as one uploaded on June 17, 2021 reveal unsavory details about the interference by outside forces in Ukraines democratic processes. The article entitled Government delegation of Kazakhstan plans to lobby the interests of the asbestos monopolist broke the story that the Embassy of Kazakhstan had urged Ukrainian officials to scrap ban asbestos legislation proceeding through Parliament. Another disclosure featured in this article was the alleged involvement of the Russian-Kazakh Kusto group in the 2017 invalidation of Ukraines Ministry of Healths ban on asbestos.13
Returning from a recent fact-finding trip to Russias asbestos heartland, Japanese lecturer Shinjiro Minami reported his findings to an investigator at Japans Chunichi Shimbun daily newspaper. Minami described the fear of reprisals which prevented people in the asbestos monotown from openly criticizing the citys largest employer: the Uralasbest Mining Company.14 While Minamis guide told him that: "Everyone knows that asbestos is harmful. My grandfather's colleagues who worked in the mine died thin and coughing repeatedly, a company spokesperson told the reporter that asbestos health hazards are hoaxes and that the ban on asbestos in Europe and Japan were part of a conspiracy to erode the Russian asbestos industry.
Having completed his field survey in Asbestos, Minami confirmed that in Russia as in Japan, the asbestos industry had sacrificed human life to corporate profits; adverse effects of asbestos mining included diseases contracted by the asbestos-exposed and the medical costs of caring for them. Minami was in no doubt that the cost to society as a whole is far greater than the benefits to the city of Asbestos. 15 I could not have said it better.
July 14, 2021
1 The future for asbestos appears downright grim. After two decades of horrendous headlines, this strange fiber probably represents the most feared contaminant on the earth. It is almost certainly the most expensive pollutant in terms of regulation and removal. This year alone, remediation efforts will cost several billion dollars a staggering outlay, even for an era of enthusiastic environmental activity. Clearly, chaos has come to the world of asbestos.
Alleman J.W., Brooke B.T. Asbestos Revisited. Scientific America. July, 1997.
2 Kazan-Allen, L. Historic Victory for Japanís Asbestos Victims. May 20, 2021.
3 建設アスベスト被害者への給付金法が成立 来年度に運用開始 [Enactment of Benefits Law for Construction Asbestos Victims Starts Operation Next Year]. June 9, 2021.
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Victory for U.S. Ovarian Cancer Victims! June 3, 2021.
5 Johnson & Johnson to pay $2.1bn in talc cancer case after supreme court rejection. June 1, 2021.
6 Amiante: la Cour de cassation reconnaît le droit à lindemnisation dex-salariés dEDF [Asbestos: the Court of Cassation recognizes the right to compensation for former EDF employees]. June 9, 2021.
7 Uma vitória a comemorar na luta em defesa das vítimas do amianto [A victory to celebrate in the fight to defend asbestos victims]. June 10, 2021.
8 Kazan-Allen, L. Déjà Vu: Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock. June 15, 2021.
9 Bakanlıklar katil toz asbestle mücadelede sorumluluktan kaçıyor [Ministries evade responsibility in tackling killer powder asbestos]. June 9, 2021.
10 Open Letter Concerning the Scrapping of aircraft carrier São Paulo. June 21, 2021.
11 Asbestos industry takes a big hit in Asia. Jun 29, 2021.
12 Kazan-Allen, L. Corporate Deceit: Asbestos Espionage at Home and Abroad - How Industry Spied on Ban Asbestos Activists! March 18, 2019.
13 Правительственная делегация Казахстана планирует пролоббировать интересы асбестового монополиста – СМИ [Government delegation of Kazakhstan plans to lobby the interests of the asbestos monopolist media]. June 17, 2021.
14 Seven thousand of the 60,000 people in Asbestos work for Uralasbest.