Mesothelioma: Personal Tragedy, Global Disaster 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

In the doctoral thesis “The experience of mesothelioma in Northern England,” Dr. Helen Clayson reported the emotional impact on bereaved relatives of their first-hand encounter with mesothelioma. Family members spoke of having witnessed “severe suffering,” and expressed anger about “avoidable asbestos exposure,” characterizing deaths from mesothelioma as “mass murder.”1 Dr. Clayson's research confirmed what the members of the MARF2 community know: the emotional burden of an asbestos-related bereavement is overwhelming. The knowledge that the fatal disease which caused so much distress, suffering and pain was preventable makes it difficult if not impossible to come to terms with what has happened. Anger, rage and a sense of great injustice prevent acceptance. It is not a question of why him or why her, but a question of why anyone. Why were people exposed to a substance which was a known killer? Why are people still being exposed to this carcinogen? Why indeed.

Asbestos entrepreneurs like Bernard Coulombe and Baljit Chadha would have you believe that the mining and sale of asbestos is a business like any another. I don't agree. I have studied the asbestos industry for 25 years and I can tell you categorically that the commercial exploitation of asbestos is a criminal enterprise.

The criminal court in Turin agrees with me. In February 2012, a three judge-panel, headed by Giuseppe Casalbore, found former asbestos executives guilty for their part in the asbestos-related deaths of thousands of Italians who worked in the asbestos-cement factories of the Eternit company or who breathed the air contaminated by Eternit's plants in Casale Monferrato and other Italian towns. For their crimes, Stephan Schmidheiny and Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were sentenced to 16 years in prison and ordered to pay compensation of more than €100 hundred million (U.S. $123m).3

Two weeks ago (June 28), the Turin Public Prosecutor who pioneered this case – Raffaele Guariniello – announced that he had appealed the judgment. Considering the crimes committed, 16 years in jail was an insufficient punishment. Guariniello is calling for the sentences to be increased to 20 years for both defendants. The public prosecutor's office, he added, is now investigating the deaths of 117 Italians who worked in the Swiss and German Eternit plants and as well as the asbestos deaths of Italians in Brazil and France who were exposed to Eternit asbestos.4

The trial of the Eternit executives was a watershed in the global campaign to achieve justice for the asbestos-injured. The significance of the Turin court's verdict cannot be overstated not only for people in Italy but for asbestos victims in every country where the ruthless pursuit of profit resulted in short-cuts being taken and deadly practices being sanctioned. With modern technology the news of the landmark February 13th judgment spread worldwide in minutes. Coverage in Italy was massive and national newspapers ran front page stories about the verdict with TV reports on many channels. In Canada, speculation was rife about the implications of this trial for asbestos propagandists and executives in Quebec. In France, attempts to replicate the Turin process are being made but success has yet to be achieved, while in Brazil, another country which has experienced massive damage at the hands of Eternit, prosecutors regard the 128-page Italian verdict as a precedent to be used in Brazilian asbestos lawsuits.

Because of the extraordinary nature of this case and the total lack of literature on Eternit in the English language, it was decided that IBAS would produce a monograph entitled: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial. This text was officially published on February 13, 2012 to coincide with the handing down of the court's decision. Chapters and documents in this book substantiate suspicions about the illegal behaviour of industry stakeholders. Evidence in this monograph shows that:

  • Eternit knew of the human health hazard of asbestos decades ago.
  • Decisions were taken by Eternit management to disregard the risk to workers, consumers and members of the public in order to maintain manufacturing output and keep down costs.
  • Funds unavailable for the purchase of health and safety equipment at the Eternit plants were available to pay for the services of public relations experts, lawyers and consultants.
  • Eternit hired spies to infiltrate asbestos victims' groups and report on developments.
  • Eternit implemented detailed plans to manipulate the opinions and actions of government decision-makers, commercial organizations, medical associations, trade unions and other stakeholding bodies.
  • Eternit colluded in a long-term global program to protect the asbestos-cement industry, forestall the introduction of national restrictions and downplay the asbestos risk to human beings and the environment.
  • Eternit executives engaged in illegal practices such as price-fixing and market manipulation.

As a result of an attempt by Eternit defendant Stephan Schmidheiny to derail the court case last year (2011), the Italian Minister of Health became involved. On New Year's Day 2012, Health Minister Renato Balduzzi had meetings in Casale Monferrato, the beleaguered town at the heart of this case, during which he reaffirmed the Government's concern for asbestos victims and support for the municipality.5 The response to Italy's “national asbestos emergency,” would, the Minister promised, be spearheaded by Casale Monferrato, the country's “anti-asbestos capital.”6

Even as Italian political pressure is exerted on the European Union to address the tragic asbestos legacy, the UK government turns a blind eye to the asbestos suffering of so many of its citizens. In the financial vacuum which exists, funding for mesothelioma research has been sourced piecemeal from national bodies7 and fund-raising charities such as the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund and the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund, both of which were established in the name of mesothelioma victims. On June 27, the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Tissue Bank – Mesobank – was launched at a Parliamentary reception in London. Mesobank is Europe's first mesothelioma tissue bank. The short-term aim of the project is to "establish a tissue collection of mesothelioma tumours supported by a detailed clinical information database"; the long-term aim is to "unlock the secrets of mesothelioma," and find new treatments.

Epidemiologists have predicted that between 1995 and 2029 more than 250,000 people will die of mesothelioma in Western Europe;8 it is appalling that knowing the scale of the disaster, it remains necessary to beg for the research funds needed to address it. In the months to come, calls will be made at high-profile meetings in Bonn and Brussels for a coordinated, comprehensive strategy for dealing with Europe's asbestos epidemic. An informed observer might say that these efforts are akin to bolting the barn door after the horse has bolted. After all, each of the EU's 27 member states has already banned asbestos. While the bans do indeed represent progress, they are not the end of the story; people already poisoned continue to get sick and will do so for decades to come.

In 2000, 35% of worldwide asbestos usage took place in European countries; in 2012, the region still accounts for 22% of annual consumption. That this takes place in countries like Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, where the lack of workplace and public health safety measures is endemic is cause for concern. The situation in Asia is even worse. During the period 1920-2007, Asian asbestos consumption was 55.5 million tonnes, 29% of total use. Nowadays, annual asbestos consumption in Asian countries accounts for 68% of worldwide use with the region's biggest users being: China (613,760 tonnes/t), India (426,363 t), Indonesia (111,848 t), Vietnam (67,420 t), and Sri Lanka (47,892 t).9 As you would expect, there is little or no effort being made in these countries to implement effective controls of hazardous exposures.

In a 2011 peer-reviewed academic paper, epidemiologists confirmed the link between the large amounts of asbestos used in Western countries and the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases, typically mesothelioma, which have occurred. The researchers noted that:

“It is highly unlikely that ARD are absent in countries that have used large volumes of asbestos but do not report the related numbers. In Asia, the problem is especially relevant to China and India… [Our] estimates suggested that China and India have already 'missed' 5100 and 2200 cases [of mesothelioma] respectively.”10

The scientists concluded their paper as follows:

“…. our analyses of available data in public databases and the literature revealed a paucity of information on ARD in Asia. This finding is likely related to the fact that asbestos use was not high until around 1970, but it is also compounded by the poor political will to improve national situations and the lack of resources to diagnose ARD. Most importantly, asbestos use in Asia has increased drastically since 1970 and has reached formidable levels in terms of per capita use and absolute volumes. A surge of ARD in Asia should be anticipated in the coming decades. Asian countries should not only cease asbestos use but also prepare themselves for an impending epidemic of ARD.”11

How can it be otherwise given that human biology is the same for people in Western countries as it is for those elsewhere? If British and American bodies are susceptible to the carcinogenic properties of asbestos, it is unlikely that Indian or Chinese bodies will be immune. Given the fact that between 1960 and 2010, India's total asbestos consumption was 8,110,528 tonnes,12 the government and medical authorities in New Delhi would do well to heed the epidemiologists' warnings. That they seem disinclined to do so is obvious from recent import data and negotiations with Canadian trade officials regarding the elimination of all Indian import duty on Canadian chrysotile.13

To further compound the threat posed by asbestos to Indian citizens is the news that on June 29, 2012, the Quebec Government handed over $58 million of public money to the international consortium behind a new chrysotile asbestos mine in Quebec. The backers of this scheme have made clear their intention to export millions of tonnes of asbestos to Asian markets over the coming years; Baljit Chadha, the leader of this group of private investors, is setting his sights on India, which, for years has been Canada's most lucrative market for chrysotile.

Deploring Canada's double standards on asbestos, a substance it is happy to export but refuses to use, an Indian activist characterized Canada's asbestos policy as “racist and hateful.” Commenting on negotiations to eliminate trade tariffs on Canadian asbestos imports to India, campaigner Mohit Gupta asked whether “only light-skinned people [are] entitled to breathe clean air and drink clean water.” Knowing what we know about the effects asbestos has on human beings, our answer must be an emphatic no. The right to live a life free of asbestos is a fundamental human right and one which should be afforded to everyone. If asbestos is too harmful to remain in the Canadian and British Parliaments, it is too toxic for use in Indian buildings, homes and cars. We are as one when we say to Canada's asbestos profiteers that the sale of deadly asbestos is as disreputable as it is immoral; people's lives count for more than asbestos profits.

_______

1 Clayson, H. The experience of mesothelioma in Northern England. 2007.
http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/1775/

2 This paper formed the basis for a presentation by the author at the MARF (Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation) Annual Conference, July 2012.

3 Kazan-Allen L. Landmark Victory for Italian Asbestos Victims. February 18, 2012.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-landmark-victory-italian-asbestos-victims.php

4 Eternit, l'appello della Procurat “Pene piu severe per I manager.” June 28, 2012.
http://www3.lastampa.it/torino/sezioni/cronaca/articolo/lstp/460443/

5 Kazan-Allen L. A New Year in Casale Monferrato. January 4, 2012.
http://ibasecretariat.org/lka-new-year-in-casale-monferrato.php

6 Since January (2012), the Minister has made good on his promises and discussions have taken place at meetings in Rome with representatives of the Ministries of Health, Environment, Economic Development and Labor to plan a coordinated response by national agencies, local authorities and federal bodies to the asbestos scandal. In April (2012), Minister Balduzzi discussed proposals to address the problems of asbestos safety and the care needs of asbestos victims with the European Union's Commissioner for Health John Dalli during an EU health summit. Recommendations made included the establishment of an international network of centres of excellence and European Commission asbestos initiatives. Balduzzi's request that asbestos be made an agenda item for the six month Cypriot Presidency of the European Union (July 1-December 31, 2012) has been granted. During this time a high-profile national asbestos conference will be held in Venice (November 21-24) which will highlight the need to find a resolution to the problems of compensation and care for the victims, asbestos contamination of the infrastructure and environment, and medical research into new treatments and protocols.

7 For information on some UK mesothelioma research projects, see:
http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/mesothelioma/treatment/whats-new-in-mesothelioma-research

8 Peto J, et al. The European mesothelioma epidemic. British Journal of Cancer. 1999 Feb;79(3-4):666-72.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10027347

9 Data from United States Geological Survey; asbestos consumption 2010.

10 Le G V, Takahashi K, et al. Asbestos use and asbestos-related diseases in Asia: Past, present and future. Respirology (2011) 16, 767-775.

11 Park Eun-Kee, Takahashi K, et al. Global Magnitude of Reported and Unreported Mesothelioma. Volume 119, Number 4, April 2011.
Delgermaa V, Takahashi K, et al. Global mesothelioma deaths reported to the World Health Organization between 1994 and 2008. Bull World Health Organ 2011;89:716-724C

12 Allen D, Kazan-Allen L editors. India's Asbestos Time Bomb. IBAS. 2008.
http://ibasecretariat.org/india_asb_time_bomb.pdf

13 Kazan-Allen L. Historic Mission to Canada. December 10, 2011.
http://ibasecretariat.org/search_item.php?l0=37+356+369&f=lka-historic-mission-to-canada.php

 

 

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