Reflections on International Womens Day 2022
March 8, 2022 is International Women's Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.1 For well over a century, women have played a vital role in the campaign for asbestos justice. Indeed, the first notification given to the British Parliament about the toxic repercussions of asbestos exposure was in 1898 by Factory Inspector Lucy Deane who described the evil effects of asbestos dust in a workplace setting.2 In 1965, Muriel L. Newhouse and Hilda Thompson published one of the earliest academic papers to link environmental asbestos exposures to elevated incidences of asbestos cancer.3 At about the same time, former civil servant Nancy Tait embarked on what would become her lifes work: supporting and campaigning for the rights of asbestos victims. Years later, she formalized her work by founding the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases (SPAID), the worlds first charity to lobby for the needs of asbestos victims. Without a doubt, the face of UK asbestos victims during the latter part of the 20th century was that of Alice Jefferson who was the focus of a heart-breaking TV documentary (1982): Alice A Fight for Life which propelled the asbestos catastrophe onto the national agenda.
It is noteworthy that the women mentioned in the paragraph above were from a cross section of society and represented different disciplines: a factory inspector, a medical doctor, a mesothelioma widow/campaigner and a factory worker. Three of them chose to undertake their ground-breaking work and two were chosen by happenstance to do so.
Heroes of Our Time
In the 21st century, change has remained constant with some accidental activists engaging in short-term battles whilst others signed up for the duration. On International Womens Day 2022, a global coalition of groups and individuals campaigning for asbestos justice have chosen to single out leading female activists in Asia, Europe and Latin America.4 They are listed below, in alphabetical order:
Dr. Anna Suraya, Indonesia
Pioneering doctor and activist, Dr. Suraya is a specialist in occupational medicine and an independent occupational safety and health consultant in Indonesia. Her work with the Indonesian Ban Asbestos Network (Ina-Ban) has been pivotal in gaining official recognition of the countrys asbestos epidemic. Dr Surayas years of research paved the way for the first cases of asbestos-related occupational disease to be officially recognized and compensated. The data she collected and the information she provided convinced decision-makers that a change in policy was required so that medical clinics and specialist doctors were able to report cases of occupational diseases whereas previously only companies were allowed to do so.
Asli Odman, Turkey
Lecturer and researcher from Istanbul Health & Safety Labour Watch, Asli Odman is an indomitable campaigner for civil, environmental and workers rights in Turkey. She was a co-organizer of the first public asbestos conference in Turkey (2013) and the first public asbestos rally in Istanbul and, to this day, remains a stalwart supporter of communities and workers affected by work-related accidents, diseases and hazardous conditions. Her recent campaigns relate to shipbreaking yards in Aliağa where elevated cancer rates substantiate the consequences of toxic occupational and environmental exposures and to asbestos exposure due to large-scale urban transformation demolitions in Turkey.
Dr. Federica Grosso, Italy
Medical oncologist and Director of the Mesothelioma and Rare Cancer Unit at SS Antonio e Biagio General Hospital, Alessandria, Dr. Federica Grosso has spent over a decade treating patients with mesothelioma and pioneering therapies and protocols to improve medical outcomes. Embracing a multidisciplinary approach, she has collaborated widely with leading researchers at home and abroad as a member of the Italian Medical Oncology Association, the Italian Sarcoma Group, the Italian Rare Cancer Network, the European Society for Medical Oncology and the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer. Dr. Grosso works closely with the Association of Italian Asbestos Victims and their Families whose members value her empathy and ability to communicate complex issues in comprehensible language.
Joanne Gordon, UK
For nearly twenty years, Joanne Gordon has been progressing efforts on behalf of UK asbestos victims initially as the Co-ordinator of the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team and since 2019 as the Chair of the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum (the Forum). She is the fourth Forum Chair and the first female to occupy that position. Her tenure began months before the Covid-19 pandemic upended British life, requiring campaigners to devise new ways to continue support for asbestos victims and their families. As Forum Chair she has given evidence to two Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee enquiries, spoken on the Forums behalf at multiple Parliamentary meetings and coordinated the Forums efforts to ensure that all those suffering from asbestos-related diseases received their entitlement to benefits and government compensation in a timely fashion.
Dr. Marcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga, Brazil
Former manager of the Labor Public Ministrys National Program to Ban Asbestos, Dr. Marcia Cristinia Kamei Lopez Aliaga spearheaded efforts by the Labor Prosecutors Office to end toxic workplace asbestos exposures and hold negligent employers to account for their crimes. Under her guidance, multiple prosecutions were initiated against corporations, with the money from the financial penalties ordered by the courts earmarked for work to raise asbestos awareness and support workers with asbestos injuries. Dr. Kamei Lopez Aliaga works closely with members of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA) to monitor developments such as the illegal transport of asbestos fiber from the mine in Minaçu, Goiás State through São Paulo State to the Port of Santos for exports mainly to Asia. Nowadays, she is the national coordinator of the Labor Public Ministrys surveillance program to safeguard the occupational health of all Brazilian workers.
Melita Markey, Australia
Melita Markey is the CEO of one of the worlds leading support groups for asbestos victims: The Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA). Using her formidable managerial skills, she has brought the ADSA, a group formed over 40 years ago, into the 21st century computerizing files and systems, harnessing internet technology to raise the profile of asbestos issues, modernizing the Societys premises and improving conditions for both staff and members. As a skilled negotiator, she continues to expand the ADSAs social and financial support network. In her capacity as the Chair of the Advisory Board of the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases (NCARD), Melita works tirelessly to ensure that the concerns of asbestos disease sufferers remain a matter of top priority for medical researchers as well as government decision-makers.
Wherever asbestos has been mined, processed or used, populations have paid a heavy price for the asbestos industrys profits. The occupational and environmental exposures experienced by factory workers, their families, local people, building users, tradespeople and others have led to a global asbestos epidemic which is claiming ~300,000 lives every year.5 In most of the world, the burden of an asbestos-related disease is shouldered by families, most of whom experience great hardship and trauma in their struggle to cope emotionally, medically and financially with this tragedy.
The support and comfort that Anna, Asli, Federica, Joanne, Marcia and Melita provide cannot be quantified. In their honor, an original image by artist Ajat Sudrajat was commissioned in which they are pictured together, a feat never before achieved as they live in Asia, Latin America, Europe and Australia. Despite the distance between them, their level of commitment and active engagement somehow makes it appropriate that they be depicted together.
Heroes of Our Time. From left: Melita Markey, Dr. Anna Suraya, Asli Odman, Joanne Gordon, Dr. Federica Grosso and Dr. Marcia Kamei Lopez Aliaga
By celebrating their work, we pay tribute to all those individuals, male as well as female, whose lives are devoted to supporting the asbestos-injured and to shutting down an industry which has caused so much death and destruction all over the world.
March 8, 2022
2 British Asbestos Newsletter, Issue 109. 2019.
4 Groups which took part in the collaboration included: IBAS, ABREA, ABAN, Ina-Ban, APHEDA.
5 Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. Central European Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 2017.