Getting Away with Murder
Future generations will look back at the unregulated and ubiquitous use of asbestos throughout the 20th & 21st centuries much as we view the now banned use of arsenic, mercury and lead. As a big city resident, I am in no doubt that I inhaled lungfuls of lead-filled exhaust fumes and received multiple mercury filings from the family dentist during my childhood. At least in 2021, fewer children are being exposed to these hazards! As for asbestos, however, the majority of the worlds population live in countries where asbestos use is still a fact of life and toxic exposures remain routine.
The explanation for this state of affairs would take thousands of pages and this is neither the time nor place for such an exposition. For readers wishing to delve more deeply into the history of the killer industry, the following sources are highly recommended:
In this article I wish to highlight methods used to prolong asbestos sales, despite mounting evidence of the damage done, through an examination of archival documents, some of which I have only recently received. Taken as a whole, these texts delineate industrys strategic approach to dominating the asbestos dialogue at home and abroad, manipulating decision-making by regulatory authorities at all levels and deceiving civil society stakeholders in order to create a climate in which sales of asbestos products could flourish.
Document 1: Report on The First International Conference of Asbestos Information Bodies 
This 74-page report listed 34 participants1 from 11 countries and the subjects discussed at a two-day asbestos conference in London in November 1971.2 Although, global stakeholders in the asbestos-cement industry had colluded since 1929, establishing an international cartel referred to as a miniature League of Nations to do so,3 and asbestos producers had also conspired for decades via secret meetings and trade agreements,4 this was the first formal meeting of Asbestos Information Bodies such as the Asbestos Information Association/North America (AIA/NA), the German Asbestos Association (Wirtschaftsverband Asbest), the French Asbestos Trade Association (Chambre Syndicale de l'Amiante) and others.5
The fact that the meeting took place in London was not coincidental. UK asbestos companies had for many decades been at the forefront of the global asbestos industry and had pioneered many of the corporate techniques and marketing ploys which had proved so successful in increasing asbestos sales, co-opting governments and marginalizing calls for improved working conditions at sites where asbestos was processed and used. In addition, the Asbestos Information Committee, which organized the meeting, was based in the UK.
With nine members, the UK delegation tied with Germany for the largest number of representatives; France had six, the Benelux countries had four and there were small numbers from the remaining seven counties. It is of relevance to note the name of Mr. A. Masteron-Smith from Hill & Knowlton (UK) Ltd. on the list of UK delegates. From the 1950s to the late 1960s, the public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton had represented the interests of the U.S. tobacco industry. In 1967, T&N, the UK Asbestos Giant, hired the firm to combat and, if possible, to forestall adverse publicity [on asbestos].
The relatively small attendance belied the importance of this meeting as shown by the report which was compiled. Discussions during the sessions on November 24 & 25 laid the groundwork for an international campaign which was to bring healthy profits to asbestos shareholders and deadly exposures to workers, consumers and members of the public.
Document 2: Minutes of AIA Executive Committee July 6, 19776
The 7-page minutes from the July 6, 1977 meeting of the Executive Committee of the Asbestos International Association (AIA),7 which took place at its office in Central London, are extremely informative as they confirmed: the establishment of the AIAs fully equipped office in Gloucester Place, the engagement as of July 1st of Cape Industries Ltd.s former Director-General Dr. Gaze as the AIAs Director-General, and the search for an assistant director of the AIA preferably via an advertisement in the magazine Asbestos: the suitable candidate should have direct experience of the asbestos industry.
Along with updates on administrative arrangements, subjects dealt with at the meeting included: expansion of AIA membership in Spain, Yugoslavia, Russia, Central America, Mexico, India, Greece and Thailand; monitoring of appointments to the Medical Advisory Panel; asbestos developments in the European Economic Community and the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC]; plans for the 1978 AIA Conference; the cultivation of productive relationships with labor associations such as the International Metal Workers and the International Federation of Chemical and General Workers Unions Federation in the hope that a more common understanding of the nature and extent of asbestos-related health hazards could be achieved.
The AIAs presence at deliberations on policies affecting the asbestos industry was a prime objective of the Association. An action point on page 4 explained that the exclusion of industry input was unacceptable citing AIAs displeasure at a development in July 1977:
AIAs dissatisfaction with this further selectivity [by IARC], amounting to discrimination against participation by asbestos industry expert displayed in the organisation of the recent meeting called by IARC on Biological Effects on Fibres on 30th June and 1st July, 1977.
The AIA was determined to ensure that its experts took part in asbestos meetings held by governments, international agencies and associations representing the medical and scientific communities; there was: a major need for the AIA to counter by a reputable expert spokesman the opinions increasingly widely disseminated or inspired by [asbestos antagonist] Dr. Selikoff.
The development of new warning labels for bags of Canadian asbestos fiber was flagged up as regrettable but AIA members were reassured that the producer did not intend to use this label on exports to Europe. The addition to the text Asbestos Kills by its author asbestos activist Nancy Tait was noted and plans by asbestos antagonists Selikoff, Langer and Nicholson for a U.S. asbestos workshop on July 18-20 were reported.8 It is clear from the minutes that no detail was too small to go unnoticed and no matter too trivial to attract the AIAs attention.
Document 3: AIA Memorandum: The Asbestos Problem and the EC Authorities 1980
Infuriatingly, this four-page AIA document (1980) is both incomplete and, in parts, illegible. As it was unearthed during the discovery process for an Italian asbestos trial, some of the text was translated into Italian and those pages were useful to cross check some of the English words, however, significant parts are missing from the Italian version.9
In 1980, the AIA was obsessed by the threat posed to the asbestos industry by the European Community as indicated by the title of this memo: The Asbestos Problem and the EEC Authorities. Under point number 2, the text noted:
There are many conflicting EEC [European Economic Community] interests which cause disagreement among members. However, environmental protection and workplace health are two of the very few matters in which all EEC countries have a common interest and identity of views the environmentalists have frightened public opinion on to their side.
Asbestos, a small industry with few political friends, is vulnerable to this emotional onslaught and is therefore a potentially an easy victim in a popular campaign. Not many will want to change this situation and defend us. The industry has been slow to deal with its problems and has therefore lost some sympathy.
In the 30+ years that I have been studying the history of the asbestos industry, I have met and read about many victims; this is, however, the first time I have seen the word victim used in reference to the asbestos industry!
The analysis of how EEC officials might be persuaded over to the industrys side is laid out in detail and AIA members were exhorted to act before it was too late to fight for asbestos using an elaborate strategy to be supported and jointly executed by all the national asbestos industries [in the EEC]. Fight they did, with the result that the use of asbestos remained legal in European Union member states for a further 25 more years!
Document 4: Eternit Memo: Ban on A/C Water Pipe Philippines Islands December 14, 1982
The seven-page document dated December 14, 1982 revealed the swift and coordinated response by Eternit-Manila to the threat posed by a surprise ban on the use of asbestos-cement (A/C) pipes announced by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos.10 Should the prohibition have remained in place, Eternit-Manila could not only have lost millions of dollars in sales of A/C pipes in the Philippines but also market share elsewhere because of ripple effects from this adverse action affecting Far Eastern markets for A/C pipes. 11
Eternit-Manila, supported by the Italit Construction and Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Water Works and Sewerage System of Manila (MWSS), Eternit-Belgium, Asbestos International Association, Canadian Asbestos Information Center, South Pacific Asbestos Association, Association of Asbestos Cement Pipe Producers (AACPP) and others, sprang into action, petitioning the President on November 17, 1982 urging him to lift the ban until such time that an independent scientific and medical study was conducted.
The economic argument the company presented, estimating the cost of replacing 20,000 kilometers of A/C pipes in Manila, must have been persuasive as Maros temporarily suspended the ban.12 According to Administrative Order No. 455, issued the day after Eternits petition was received, a Special Committee was:
empowered to collect and collate data and materials; study and assess all the issues relevant to the above subject in order to determine whether or not the use of asbestos cement pipes for water distribution systems shall be further allowed in the country; and submit to the undersigned within three months from date hereof the results of the study together with recommendations for a policy that would best serve the interest of all the citizenry.
News of the Presidential Advisory Committee was music to the companys ears, allowing scope for asbestos industry input which Eternit-Manila intended to exploit to full advantage. Reframing the discussion from a simple one about public and occupational health to more general issues, such as the non-corrosive nature of Manilas water as shown by a 25 year old [A/C pipe] sample removed from the San Juan section, could be relied upon to cool down the impetus for the ban and preserve the status quo. The issue regarding A/C pipes was, the author of this memo concluded:
best resolved by scientists, such as those on the Presidential Advisory Committee, rather than legislators. Any decisions will have substantial political component, regardless. Hopefully a harmonious and consistent conclusion will be drawn.
A timeline constructed from the information contained in the memo provides some idea as to the precision and range of Eternits strategy for dealing with the proposed ban:
|November 18:||News received of President Marcos plan to ban A/C pipes in Manila.|
|November 17:||Petition sent by Eternit and Italit to President Marcos.13|
|November 18:||Meeting with Assemblymen Ramas, Monfort and Mrs. Monfort at Parliament.|
|November ??:||Manila meeting with Rich Richardson from CDM, Inc. (Boston company).|
|November ??:||Manila meeting of representatives of Eternit-Manila and AACPP with Carlos Leano of the Local Water and Utilities Administration and Marcial Manlaysay of the Metropolitan Water Works and Sewerage System of Manila (MWSS).|
|November ??:||Preparation and dissemination by Eternit-Manila staff of various documentation on the safety of A/C pipes including medical and scientific data.|
|November 22:||Discussions of marketing and lobbying strategy by Eternit-Manila staff.|
|November 22:||Cancellation of public hearing of Presidential Advisory Committee.|
|November 23:||Eternit and AACPP went to Parliament to check up on the cancellation of the hearing and met with Assemblymen Monfort and Ramos, Dr. Priscilla Tablan (Officer in charge of the Lung Center of the Philippines) and Minister of Health Azurin who was gracious and pledged a fair hearing of all sides but declined persistent offers by AACPP and Cartuyvels (Eternit-Manila) to appear before the joint meeting.|
|November 23:||Eternit-Manila staff went to a dinner hosted and attended by Italit officials and staff members, the General Manager and Assistant Managers of the MWSS, three World Bank officials from Washington, D.C. plus an unnamed consulting engineer.|
|November 24:||Meeting with Assemblyman Gualberto Lumauig of the Subcommittee on Environmental Health in Parliament to present data supporting asbestos industrys position.|
|December 14:||Circulation of Eternit Memo re: Field Problem in Manilla.|
A close study of this document makes the following conclusions blaringly obvious:
The Eternit memorandum was never meant to see the light of day.14 Its contents were explosive and when news of what the industry had done was exposed by the media in the 1980s, a ban on A/C water pipes in Manila was immediately implemented.15
The protocols put into play 40 years ago by Eternit-Manila and its partners continue to pay dividends to this day with actions by the Association of the Chrysotile Industry in the Philippines, the Manila-based Chrysotile Information Centre and others continuing to frustrate growing ban asbestos mobilization by trade unions, labor federations and others.16
Document 5: Deposition of Bobby Joe Pigg June 18, 2013
This 314-page document constituted the written record of a five-hour video deposition taken in Virginia on June 18, 2013 by U.S. attorney Joe B. Satterley representing Ronald and Joanna Nelson in a mesothelioma case against Allied Packing & Supply. Bobby Joe Pigg (Pigg), the President of the Asbestos Information Association of North America (AIA/NA), was questioned not only about the work of the AIA/NA but also, as the designated corporate representative and treasurer, about the history, activities and personnel of the Asbestos International Association (AIA).17
Pigg confirmed that the AIA had been established around 1975 in London eventually relocating to Paris and subsequently Montreal; in 1997, it was renamed the International Chrysotile Association (ICA).18 Despite frequent equivocations, Piggs testimony made clear the corporate and personal relationships that international asbestos associations had exploited to their advantage,19 the large sums they had spent in commissioning favorable scientific reports and the unrelenting pressure they had brought to bear to forestall or minimize the impact of government regulations.20
In his testimony, Pigg confirmed that a key objective of the ICA was to prevent the use of chrysotile (white) asbestos from being banned; as articulated in its bylaws, the ICA was tasked with defending the chrysotile industry from unwarranted attacks. This goal was pursued with vigor whenever and wherever ICA officials and members gathered including at conferences in Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Montreal.
The use of multiple seemingly independent bodies the AIA, ICA, AI, CI, AIA/NA gave weight as well as heft to pro-asbestos propaganda and ensured that the industrys key messages drowned out news of adverse scientific and medical findings. The frequent changes of identity of the asbestos associations, the confusing array of names and initials and the repeated relocations were all pieces of the same puzzle. When taken together, they constituted a smoke and mirrors strategy pioneered and used to such good effect by the industrys evil twin Big Tobacco to:
The confusion created, the influence wielded, the propaganda disseminated and the strategic expenditure of financial resources prolonged sales of asbestos well beyond its best-before date.
The contents of the documents discussed above are indicative of the modus operandi of asbestos stakeholders who invested tactically and generously to support measures that would enable sales of their products to flourish. Whilst these companies enjoyed healthy financial returns, untold numbers of workers, family members and consumers died from asbestos exposures. To our knowledge, the only country ever to put asbestos executives/managers on trial is Italy and, even there, only a few individuals have been charged over the asbestos deaths of untold numbers of Italians. Elsewhere, asbestos company executives have been feted and honored for providing employment and generating exports.
Throughout the pandemic, theres been a resurgence of support for sustainable development, environment-friendly policymaking, better informed government direction, and evidence-based decision making. Politicians the world over have pledged to build back better, restore science to Government, mobilize science to protect the health and well-being of citizens and develop policies guided by the best available scientific data.21 The accomplishment of these goals will be fundamental, weve been told, in addressing climate change and creating a greener economy. The continuing use of carcinogenic materials, such as those containing asbestos, is incompatible with this shared vision.
In May 2021, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), banned the use of all asbestos-containing materials from AIIB-financed projects; previously, the Asian Development Bank had signalled its intention to do likewise.22 On August 9, 2021, news was released that the Indian asbestos conglomerate HIL Limited, established in 1946 as Hyderabad Asbestos, was diversifying from being a predominantly asbestos products company a decade ago to an integrated green building materials company.23 That Indias market leader in the Building Material Segment had turned its back on asbestos was a development of huge significance in the country which had for years been the worlds largest importer of asbestos fiber. 24
The loss of Asian markets is a fatal blow to the asbestos industry, one from which it almost certainly will not recover. Asbestos companies must transition to asbestos-free technologies as so many others have done before them. All of this is possible and, in fact, some steps have even been taken by the Russian asbestos giant Uralasbest to move away from its mono-dependence on chrysotile asbestos.25 There is no future for the Russian and Kazakh asbestos mines; their communities must be supported in the diversification of municipal economies and decontamination of their towns.
It could be said that the idea of asbestos-producing and using companies abandoning chrysotile asbestos is but a pipe dream but just a few days ago, the CEO of Philip Morris International (PMI) the maker of Marlboro cigarettes said that the tobacco company was looking to unsmoke the world and metamorphize into a healthcare and wellness company. PMIs CEO Jacek Olczak could, he said, envisage a world without cigarettes and actually, the sooner it happens, the better it is for everyone. 26
Given the similar paths trod by the asbestos industry and Big Tobacco, who knows if one day the CEOs of Russian and Kazakh asbestos conglomerates will envisage a world without asbestos? Whilst we dream, we will continue to mobilize; the future is asbestos-free!
August 11, 2021
1 The fact that the conference took place on November 24 & 25 and that Thanksgiving that year fell on November 25 could explain why there was just one delegate from the U.S.
2 The First International Conference of Asbestos Information Bodies .
This document was obtained through the discovery process in the United States.
3 Kazan-Allen, L. Poisoning for Profit. January 16, 2017.
4 Ruers, B. Eternit and the SAIAC Cartel. Chapter 1 in the monograph: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial (2012).
6 Asbestos International Association. Minutes of Meeting of Executive Committee. July 6, 1977.
This document was obtained through the discovery process in Italy.
7 The minutes clarified that the Asbestos Information Association had previously been known as the International Asbestos Information Conference.
8 The AIA was determined to ensure that its experts took part in asbestos meetings; as explained on page 4 of this document, there was: a major need for the AIA was to counter by a reputable expert spokesman the opinions increasingly widely disseminated or inspired by [asbestos antagonist] Dr. Selikoff.
9 AIA Memorandum: The Asbestos Problem and the EC Authorities.1980.
10 It is noteworthy that this unwelcomed news was first received by Etienne van der Rest from Eternit-Belgium who communicated the news on November 18, 1982 to Eternit-Manila.
11 Vikram, K. What Corporations Know and What They Claim to Know: Eternit and Asbestos Cement Pipes. July 8, 2021.
12 Administrative Order No. 455, s. 1982. November 18, 1982.
13 According to the information in the Eternit-Manila document, the petition was sent to President Marcos on November 17, 1978 even though the news of the Presidents ban on A/C pipes had not been received until November 18, 1978.
14 Vikram, K. What Corporations Know and What They Claim to Know: Eternit and Asbestos Cement Pipes. July 8, 2021.
Administrative Order No. 455, s. 1982. November 18, 1982.
15 Email received by Laurie Kazan-Allen on August 2, 2021 from trade union colleague in Manila.
16 Since 1990, the use of crocidolite (blue) and amosite (brown) asbestos have been banned in the Philippines. The regulated use of chrysotile (white) asbestos remains legal despite efforts by the largest national trade union center in the Philippines the Associated Labor Unions-Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUVP) to progress ban asbestos legislation through the Congress.
18 In 2013, the International Chrysotile Association had 20 members and an annual budget of $200,000 although it could make exceptional requests to members for additional sums to pay for projects such as the commissioning of research by Dr. David Bernstein, Dr. Jacques Dunnigan and others.
19 The Asbestos Institute (AI) was set up in Canada in the 1980s and around 2000 the name was changed to the Chrysotile Institute (CI). It was shut down in March 2012.
20 In the 1970s, the AIA/NA was involved in the OSHA and EPA asbestos rulemaking process, providing comments and evidence which supported industrys safe use propaganda. Some years later, Pigg recommended the input of known opponents of banning asbestos [Professor Wilson and Dr. Nolan] to U.S. Senators. In the evidence submitted to the March 1, 2007 asbestos hearing by the Senates Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, Professor Richard Wilson, on behalf of himself and Dr. Robert Nolan, wrote: The proposal is to ban asbestos in the United States, which might have been sensible in 1979
We argue the time for an absolute ban is past.
21 Kazan-Allen, L. Pandemic Portends the Demise of the Asbestos Industry. February 23, 2021.
22 Asbestos Policies of Major International Agencies. Updated July 5, 2021.
23 HIL eyes $1b revenues as it transforms to an integrated green building materials company. August 10, 2021.
24 HIL Limited. The Economic Times. August 10, 2021.
25 Kazan-Allen, L. Behind the Asbestos Curtain: Uralasbest 2021. July 16, 2021.
26 Wood, Z. Tobacco firm Philip Morris calls for ban on cigarettes within decade. July 25, 2021.