The Rise & Rise of Asbestos Victims Activism
Thirty years ago, there was just a handful of asbestos victims groups working in a few industrialized countries. Nowadays, there are scores of such associations and charities the world over. The vital support they provide has helped to make manifest the hidden catastrophe caused by the widespread and unregulated use of asbestos, a class 1 carcinogen. In countries, where asbestos use remains legal, these groups lobby for a transition to a safer technology; where asbestos has been banned, they continue to address the toxic legacies which remain in the lungs of their fellow citizens, national infrastructures and contaminated environments. Whereas the strategies employed may differ, the message is always the same: Asbestos Kills.
This month (October 2021), members of the Association of Belgian Asbestos Victims (ABEVA) marked the 20th anniversary of their group with an array of initiatives designed to raise the profile of a subject that corporate and governmental stakeholders are anxious to sweep under the carpet the part played by Belgian decision-makers and business leaders in a national tragedy and international disaster. On October 1, a public meeting was held in Brussels to consider the successes and failures of ABEVAs first two decades.1 Amongst ABEVAs many victories was its role in the creation of the Asbestos Victims Compensation Fund (AFA) in 2007, as well as improvements made in 2014 and 2019 as a result of which thousands of Belgians injured by asbestos have been able to access compensation. While tensions created by the overlapping interests of authorities in the regions of Walloonia, Flanders and Brussels have often frustrated efforts to achieve a coordinated asbestos eradication plan, progress has been made in addressing asbestos contamination of schools and infrastructure and the dumping of toxic waste; however, much remains to be done.
On October 4, 2021, ABEVA uploaded to its Facebook page a short but powerful film highlighting the deadly asbestos legacy in the town of Kapelle-op-den-Bos, 35 km north of Brussels, where the worlds largest asbestos-cement factory provided full employment for local people.2 The Eternit pay packets came at a terrible human cost with much ill-health and many deaths caused by toxic exposures not just at the factory but also in homes and schools near the plant. The international ramifications of decisions taken by Eternit in Belgium were previously explored in a prize-winning 2019 documentary called Breathless.3 ABEVAs input to that film was fundamental with its President Eric Jonckheere playing an important role as the link between the industrial disaster caused by the operations of Eternits Kapelle factory in Belgium and the environmental fall-out from the dumping by Eternit and others of 600,000 square meters of asbestos waste at a site in Kymore, India.
Over its 20 years, ABEVA has collaborated with victims groups from Europe, Asia, Latin America and North America on legal as well as political actions to hold negligent companies and industry stakeholders such as CEOs, company doctors and public relations specialists to account for their crimes against humanity. The fact that ABEVA was co-founded by Françoise Jonckheere and Luc Vandenbroeck, both of whom died from asbestos-related diseases, and that successive ABEVA Presidents have been family members have ensured that the human touch was prominent in all the groups activities. The universality of the loss experienced reenforced the connectedness of ABEVA members with bereaved relatives on different continents. This was evident in 2017 at the Brussels Court of Appeal when victims from Japan, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland turned out en masse to support the Jonckheere family as they triumphed in their case against Eternit. 4
Whether by design or serendipity, in October a new 90-minute asbestos documentary was shown on Belgian TV which drew on eleven broadcasts between 1977 to 2003 by the RTBF the Belgian radio-television broadcaster of the French Community which had exposed the countrys emerging asbestos scandal and the cynical behaviour industrialists who had consistently lied to the government, workers and consumers about the hazard posed by using their asbestos products.5
On October 23, 2021, a national association representing French asbestos victims (ANDEVA) planned to lodge a summons at a Paris court calling for the criminal trial of ten individuals who as part of an unofficial movement called the CPA (Permanent Asbestos Committee) took decisions and implemented actions to prevent public authorities from banning asbestos. This trial, said lawyers at the 3rd ANDEVA Congress which took place on October 14 & 15 in the Ardèche region of Southern France, would hold to account individuals whose behaviour had allowed asbestos vested interests to prosper at the expense of the health and well-being of French citizens. Each year up to 5,000 people die in France from asbestos-related diseases.6
Civil society groups in the UK were amongst the first in the world to take up cudgels on behalf of the asbestos-injured. In 1986 Clydeside Action on Asbestos (CAA) since renamed Action on Asbestos was established in Glasgow by former shipyard workers. Amongst the founding members was Tommy Nelson, Iain McKechnie and Harry McCluskey. With the death this month of Tommy Nelson, all the pioneering founders of CAA have now gone. Returning from Tommys funeral on October 13, 2021, the group uploaded an online tribute to him which highlighted his commitment and outstanding contribution as treasurer over many decades. 7
Director of the Group Phyllis Craig said:
Tommy was one of the best treasurers you could ever have, always making sure every penny was accounted for. But Tommy was so much more than that, as he put his heart and soul into making sure that those who had been diagnosed with an asbestos condition were treated with dignity and respect. He did this in the various campaigns he undertook in order that he got justice for those who had been diagnosed with a condition caused through no fault of their own.
From left: Jimmy Dempsey, Harry McCluskey and Tommy Nelson, Action on Asbestos stalwarts. Photo courtesy of Action on Asbestos.
Reenforcing the continuing relevance of the group, in late October 2021 it was announced that Action on Asbestos had won the Scottish Enterprise Awards Best Industrial Disease Support Initiative for 2021.
For decades, Italian asbestos victims and groups representing them have worked closely with Public Prosecutors in their attempt to hold to account local and foreign decision-makers and entrepreneurs who were, allegedly, responsible for the asbestos deaths of Italian workers, their relatives and members of the public. A recent decision by the Court of Appeal in Lecce, Italy sentenced former company executives of Italys largest steel producer Italsider to one year and ten months of imprisonment for the manslaughter of six workers who had died from asbestos-related diseases caused by toxic occupational exposures experienced in the 1980s. Prior to the Lecce Courts judgment, verdicts in this case had been issued and cancelled by the Court of Cassation and the Court of Appeal as the defendants legal teams explored every possible avenue to frustrate victims calls for justice.8
Unbelievable stamina is needed to bring an asbestos prosecution to a successful conclusion in Italy. The epic saga which is the attempt to hold Swiss billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny to account for 380+ deaths caused by the operations in Casale Monferrato, Italy of the Eternit asbestos-cement factory is a classic example. A trial, which began in the Novara Court of Assizes on September 13, 2021, remains ongoing with one or two days of hearings per week.9 During the proceedings on October 22, 2021, expert testimony documented how carcinogenic fibers liberated by the manufacturing operations at the factory polluted the neighborhood, exposing members of the public as well as workers to a deadly carcinogen.10
On Monday, October 25, evidence was given by family members about the deaths of their loved ones from Casales disease. Amongst the roster of those remembered were: Velia Anatrini, Evasio Amisano, Daniela Pezzo, Margherita Avonto, Adriana Sapelli, Matilde Finotto, Vincenzo Ferrara, Marisa Vescovo, Angela Varese, Maria Andreone, Luciana Deambrosis, Francesco Ferrero, Maria Paolo Granziera, Sergio Possedel, Elena Ginepro, Alessandro Roggero and Franco Libero.11 Reading the English translation of the report of the October 25 court proceedings was not easy. The details of the fatal illnesses of mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and others were recounted over and over again with one witness commenting:
In Casale there is a dark cloak hanging over everyone. A person who feels a pain in their chest doesn't go to the doctor to ask for treatment to make the pain go away, they go and ask for an X-ray. We are all involved and suffer from anxiety.
As November 1 is a national holiday in Italy, the next court hearing is scheduled for Monday, November 8; evidence will be provided by another 18 family members.
Although the public, including members of victims families, have been barred from attending the sessions because of Covid-19 regulations, they are following the proceedings closely through the reporting of Silvana Mossano, a journalist whose husband Marco Giorcelli died from environmental asbestos exposures experienced in Casale Monferrato, his home town.
Whilst the developments above relate to asbestos victims groups based in Europe, mobilization by groups on other continents has also been growing. Work remains ongoing in the USA by asbestos victims and their civil society partners to raise the public profile of the countrys asbestos epidemic,12 to lobby state authorities for action on the asbestos hazard and to persuade the Environmental Protection Agency that its efforts to protect citizens have been grossly negligent.13 The fact that the 30th anniversary of the overturn of the US asbestos ban has been and gone this month (October 2021) has not gone unnoticed.14
In Australia, asbestos victims groups will lead the way in marking National Asbestos Awareness Month in November. In Western Australia, this year the Perth-based Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) will be focusing its efforts on warning state residents of the dangers of visiting the spectacular but deadly former mining town of Wittenoom, where blue asbestos fiber (crocidolite) was mined during the 20th century. The environmental legacy of those operations means that time spent in Wittenoom could prove fatal.15 Campaigning groups on the east coast will be focusing on the hazards posed by asbestos contained in many Australian homes, warning tradespeople: Stop Playing Renovation Roulette!16
Asbestos victims, many of whom are actively campaigning to ban asbestos in their home countries of Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Malaysia and Nepal,17 played a prominent role in the first virtual conference of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN) which took place at the end of last month (September 2021).18 Indonesian asbestosis victim Siti Kristina spoke for many others when she told participants in the ABAN conference: We are fighting for justice.19
Siti Kristina at the São Paulo Chambers of Deputies during the Asian Ban Asbestos Mission to Brazil, April, 2019.
Siti had worked for 23 years in a textile factory in Jakarta that produced asbestos cloth for pipe insulation in the mining industry. Under atrocious conditions, she and 64 others mixed, carded, spun, twisted, wound and wove chrysotile (white) asbestos on a daily basis. When she became ill in 2013, she was fired. It took another three years before she was diagnosed with an occupational asbestos-related disease. She was never warned about the hazard posed by working with asbestos and was never provided with any protective equipment. She has received compensation neither from her former employer nor the government.
Sitis experiences were echoed by those of 58-year old Indonesian asbestosis sufferer Tuniyah, another former asbestos textile factory worker, 31-year old South Korean mesothelioma victim Lee Seong Jim and Cambodian construction workers Mrs. Keo Sokhem and Tout Vuthy, both of whom use asbestos-containing construction material on a daily basis.20
Whether in court, on the streets, in the media or in parliamentary meeting rooms, the manifestation of the evil committed by asbestos profiteers is best voiced by those who have paid the ultimate price for the asbestos industrys profits. With a growing appreciation of the extent of the climate crisis faced by humanity, it is an indisputable fact that business as normal cannot continue. The asbestos industry is doomed to extinction but before it goes, it must be held to account for the lives it has taken and the injuries it has caused.
October 30, 2021
2 ABEVA. ABEVA Video. October 4, 2021
4 Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos Victory in Belgium. March 30, 2017.
5 Le tombeau de l'amiante, chronique d'un désastre annoncé un documentaire édifiant [The tomb of asbestos, chronicle of an announced disaster" an edifying documentary]. October 4, 2021.
Le tombeau de l'amiante, chronique d'un désastre annoncé un documentaire édifiant [The tomb of asbestos, chronicle of an announced disaster" an edifying documentary]. September 29, 2021.
Also see: Le tombeau de l'amiante: Chronique d'un désastre annoncé [The Asbestos Tomb: Chronicle of an Announced Disaster].
6 Amiante: les victimes déposeront une citation directe en octobre [Asbestos: victims will file direct citation in October]. September 18, 2021.
3ème congrès national des victimes de l'amiante adhérentes à l'Andeva: un franc succès [3rd National Andeva Congress of Asbestos Victims: a Great Success]. October 18, 2021.
7 Tommy Nelson, asbestos campaigner and founder member of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, has passed away, aged 83. October 13, 2021.
8 Ex Italsider, morti per amianto: condannati due ex dirigenti [Former Italsider, dead of asbestos: two former executives sentenced]. October 24, 2021.
9 Kazan-Allen, L. Update from Novara Asbestos Trial. September 16, 2021.
10 Mossano, S. Tutta quella polvere uscita dallo stabilimento Eternit ha contaminato la città [All that dust from the Eternit plant has contaminated the city]. October 23, 2021.
11 Mossana, S. Eternit Bis, ora si entra nelle case delle vittime dellamianto [Eternit Bis, now we enter the homes of asbestos victims].October 26, 2021.
13 US EPA to strengthen asbestos risk evaluation. October 14, 2021.
15 ADSA. Asbestos Awareness Week November 22-26, 2021.
ADSA Newsletter. October 2021.
16 Australians Told Stop Playing Renovation Roulette! Amid Renovation Boom. October 27, 2021.
17 Joint Resolution of the Asian Ban Asbestos Conference. September 2021.
18 Kazan-Allen, L. Taking the Asian Battle to Ban Asbestos Online. October 13, 2021.
19 APHEDA. Calls for Asbestos Bans across Asia and Pacific Intensify. October 19, 2021.
Press Briefing. Asian Ban Asbestos Mission to Brazil. April, 2019.
20 Indonesia. Victim Diary: Tuniyah. June 14, 2021.
South Korea. Victim Diary: Lee Seong Jin. June 1, 2021.
Cambodia. Asbestos and its impacts in Cambodia (Khmer language).June 15, 2021.