What does Hope Look Like 2022
In May 2022, hope is in short supply. With Russian troops still killing innocent Ukrainians, extreme temperatures baking populations in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, devastating wildfires decimating US western states and the Covid-19 pandemic far from conquered, a rational person could be forgiven for seeing gloom and disaster on every front. And yet, if you look closely, there are glimmers of hope to be found.
In many global asbestos hotspots, sustained work by grassroots groups resulted this month (May 2022) in high-profile initiatives which insured that asbestos remained a top priority on national agendas. From Cambodia to Brazil via Italy and Australia, campaigners representing labor federations, trade unions, asbestos victims, medical associations and their civil society partners mounted a series of events to make manifest the tragic consequences of asbestos use.
On May 1, 2022, a call to unilaterally ban the use of asbestos was amongst key demands made by protestors at an event organized by the Cambodian Labor Confederation in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Amongst the speakers addressing the rally was Sok Kin, President of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation for Cambodia (BWTUC), who highlighted the hazard construction workers faced every day from toxic exposures to asbestos.
Two BWTUC members with banner calling for a Cambodian asbestos ban.
Commenting on the May Day activity, Veasna Noun, Cambodia Country Manager, Union Aid Abroad APHEDA said:
For far too long raw asbestos fiber has been imported to Cambodia as a raw material for use by manufacturers in a range of products. Most of the asbestos imported goes into the production of building material. From the docks to the factories to the building sites, every worker exposed to asbestos is put at risk of contracting an asbestos cancer. Workers in Cambodia have a right to healthy workplaces. We are mobilizing support for our campaign to end the use of asbestos in Cambodia amongst trade unionists, members of the public and industry stakeholders. During our demonstration on May 1, our demand to ban asbestos was a focal point.1
In Brazil, two events were organized by the Labor Public Ministry (MPT), the Inter-Union Department of Studies and Health Research and Work Environments (DIESAT), the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA) and the Heart Institute (INCOR/São Paulo): on May 4-6, 2022 in São Paulo, the 3rd International Seminar on Asbestos: An Approach to Health Surveillance; on May 6-8, in Osasco, the IV National Meeting of Asbestos Victims. The purpose of these events was to pinpoint effective measures to identify and support people at risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases by devising healthcare initiatives that could be rolled out nationwide.2
Attorney General for Labor José de Lima Ramos during his opening remarks on May 4, 2022. Photo courtesy of Eduardo Metroviche.
Legal and medical experts from Brazil and abroad joined grassroots campaigners and asbestos victims in discussions aimed at examining state-of-the-art solutions for addressing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by decades of asbestos mining and manufacturing in Brazil.
It is necessary, said the events organizers to put an end to the so-called abysmal epidemiological silence still present in Brazil, which was until recently one of the world's largest producers, exporters and consumers of a mineral, known to be carcinogenic to humans.3 As this was the first post-Covid face-to-face meeting, the wearing of masks was mandatory and social distancing and other precautions were put in place. In addition, some presentations were made virtually with all sessions streamed online.
On May 8, 2022, coaches were provided to transport ABREA members and their supporters to a formerly wind-blown traffic island in Osasco, the erstwhile heartland of Brazils asbestos-cement industry. At a ceremony that morning, a plaque was presented by ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza to Osasco officials: Gelso Lima and Waldyr Riberiro Filho. The text on the plaque explained that a memorial, soon to be erected on this newly landscaped piece of land, was a tribute to Osascos asbestos victims; the statue was being gifted to the municipality in perpetuity by ABREA, an association which had been supporting Brazils asbestos victims since 1995.
ABREA President Eliezer João de Souza unveiling the plaque at the Osasco ceremony, May 8, 2022. Picture courtesy of Eduardo Metroviche.
When completed. the six-meter-tall monument will, Eliezer said, be a constant reminder not only of the hundreds of lives lost in Osasco but also of the hundreds of thousands of people dying around the world every year from exposures to asbestos.4 The Lung-Tree was designed by Brazilian artist W. Hermusche in collaboration with ABREA members. Speaking about this commission, the artist remarked:
In this asbestos tragedy, workers innocently surrendered their daily lives to work, which they believed was guaranteeing their livelihood and that of their families and, consequently, their lives. Each day, however, they were slowly being poisoned. This cruel contradiction is what the lung tree expresses.
The placing of the statue was carefully selected as it is directly across the street from the location of Latin Americas largest asbestos-cement factory, owned by Eternit S.A. Affixed to the statue will be a panel with the names of more than 600 citizens who died from asbestos-related diseases. The artists video below provides an idea of how the memorial will be sited and an impression of the contribution it will make not only to residents of Osasco but also to people throughout Brazil and the wider world whose lives have been cruelly affected by deadly exposures to asbestos. 5
On May 13, 2022, an event in Meldola, Italy took place which explored the new era in the treatment of mesothelioma patients with a discussion of pioneering research into the use of immunotherapy protocols by Italian and international clinicians. 6
Some of the participants at the Meldola event. May 13, 2022. Photo courtesy of Dr. Grosso.
Participation in the session was over-subscribed but fortunately delegates were able to monitor the proceedings virtually. Commenting on the feedback from the participants, Medical Oncologist Dr Federica Grosso, Director of the Mesothelioma and Rare Cancer Unit at SS Antonio e Biagio General Hospital, Alessandria and head of the mesothelioma Unit at Spirit Hospital, Casale Monferrato said:
After so many years of incremental progress in the treatment of mesothelioma, it was refreshing to present the latest information on advances being made via the use of immunotherapy protocols. During the discussion segment of the symposium, there were a multitude of questions from patients and family members about the availability of these therapies, the nature of the treatments and the projected increase in survival times. The fact that this meeting was over-subscribed is a clear indication of the interest in this subject matter in Italy where, unfortunately, asbestos cancers continue to cause suffering and death decades after toxic exposures had occurred.7
The motto of the 2022 Asbestos Safety and Management Conference is acting together to prevent asbestos exposure.8 With one of the worlds worst asbestos legacies, Australia is a country which continues to make a concerted effort to address the consequences of decades of asbestos mining, manufacturing and use.9 On May 19 & 20, 2022 hundreds of speakers, delegates, experts and civil society stakeholders, including representatives of asbestos victims groups, will be convening in Australias Blue Mountains to examine progress being made in eradicating the hazard at home and the challenges which remain not only in Australia but throughout the region.
The event will be livestreamed and delegations from Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR and Vietnam, composed of government representatives, trade union officials and civil society activists, will be participating in the proceedings. After the conference, many of the international visitors will be meeting with asbestos victims campaigners, staff from cancer charities, medical researchers, legal experts, trade unionists and politicians in the States of Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales at events organized by Union Aid Abroad APHEDA. Commenting on these activities, APHEDAs Executive Officer Kate Lee said:
This Southeast Asia/Australia exchange will give APHEDAs Asbestos Not Here, Not Anywhere campaign a massive lift in these countries, where a total ban remains an ongoing challenge. Australians know about the toxic legacy of asbestos all too well. The only way to protect future generations is to ban asbestos now.
Many people in Vietnam, Laos PDR, Indonesia and Cambodia are committed to achieving a ban of asbestos, but they face challenges from an active industry lobby spreading misinformation and promoting continued use. We hope the delegation are inspired by the path Australia took 20 years ago to ban asbestos. Importantly, without country-level bans on asbestos, people will continue to be exposed to asbestos and die, in Australia and right across our region.10
The events discussed above were selected to show how in May 2022 civil society stakeholders in far-flung countries are not only addressing toxic national asbestos legacies but also acknowledging and supporting the needs of the injured. With medical breakthroughs on the horizon and the rejection of pro-asbestos rhetoric by countries formerly tied to Russian asbestos exporters, there is hope that the end is in sight for this discredited industry. The future is asbestos-free!
May 18, 2022
1 Email received from Veasna Noun. May 5, 2022.
3De Mello Pontim, L.H. MPT participa da abertura do 3º Seminário Internacional do Amianto [MPT participates in the opening of the 3rd International Asbestos Seminar]. May 6, 2022.
4 Osasco terá Memorial em homenagem às vítimas do amianto [Osasco will have a Memorial in honor of asbestos victims]. Accessed May 10, 2022.
6 Immunoterapia nel mesotelioma pleurico: l'inizio di una nuova era Incontro fra medici, pazienti e associazioni [Immunotherapy in the treatment of pleural mesothelioma: the beginning of a new era; a meeting for doctors, patients and associations].
7 Email from Dr. Grosso, May 16, 2022.
For more information on the use of immunotherapy treatments for mesothelioma, see the new resource by Mesothelioma UK: Immunotherapy. May 2022.
9 Four times as many Australians die from asbestos-related diseases as from road traffic accidents every year.
10 APHEDA. Asbestos ban in Australia continues to be undermined by use in Southeast Asia. May 16, 2022.