Brazilian Ban Asbestos Mobilization 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



According to the most recent data, Brazil is the 4th largest asbestos producer and the 5th largest asbestos consumer in the world. Across this vast country, consumption patterns differ, however, as the use and sale of asbestos is banned in 4 states and several municipalities.

The legislative bans which have been achieved are under constant attack by the asbestos lobby, led by the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute; vested interests have devised and implemented legislative and judicial strategies to counteract the asbestos prohibitions. A bill (Lei 917/09) recently tabled by Waldir Agnello, a member of the São Paulo State Chamber of Deputies, could reverse the state ban if epidemiological evidence documenting a high incidence of asbestos mortality does not become available; as no efforts have been made to accumulate this data, it is unlikely that the “required proof” will materialize. Should Agnello's bill become law, it is possible that at the end of the “transitional period,” the use of asbestos would, once again, be legal in São Paulo State.

There is vociferous opposition to this bill. At a meeting held on November 10, 2009 at the Legislative Assembly, Deputy Marcos Martins, the author of bill 12.684/07 which prohibited asbestos in the State of São Paulo, condemned this transparent attempt to prioritize commercial interests over public health.

Deputy Marcos Martins.

During the four hour seminar, a panel of experts documented the fatal effects of Brazil's exploitation of asbestos. Taken as a whole, the contributions by labor inspectors, medical professionals, trade unionists, politicans, campaigners and journalists described a perilous situation in which workers and members of the public are endangered by hazardous exposures to a known carcinogen. Speakers detailed efforts by the asbestos industry – described as the evil twin of “big tobacco” – to deny the harsh asbestos reality and to manipulate public opinion.

Conference speakers support asbestos ban.

As asbestos-related deaths in Brazil continue to rise, little is being done by the national government to support those affected or to protect society from future exposures. President Lula, who had promised to ban asbestos during the run-up to his first election in 2002, has shown little interest in tackling the country's massive asbestos fallout; affected individuals and contaminated communities are left to their own devices and no national ban has been implemented. Fortunately, politicans in São Paulo have been more proactive. On November 10, Marcos Martins launched a Mesothelioma Initiative, to help raise awareness of the fatal cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. This initiative is being sponsored by the National Institute of Cancer, the Ministry of Health and the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed (ABREA).

A few days after the high-profile event at the Chamber of Deputies, ABREA held a meeting in Osasco, formerly the center of Brazil's asbestos-cement industry. The subject of this session was: “Stephen Schmidheiny: Saint of Sinner.”1 A presentation by Laurie Kazan-Allen, the Coordinator of IBAS, laid out the case for the defence and the prosecution. During this session, ABREA members commented on Stephan Schmidheiny's account of the time he spent at the Eternit asbestos factory in Osasco. Speaking about the occupational conditions in the factory in 1969, Schmidheiny reported that:

“(I) frequently helped load asbestos bags and pour(ed) the fibers into the mixer, breathing in deeply all the while due to the exertion the work entailed. At the end of a hard day's work, I would often be covered in white dust.”2

Former Eternit supervisory staff who were present at the ABREA meeting did not recognize Schmidheiny's account of his Osasco work experience. There was, they said, no way that they would not have known if a tall, blond 23 year old Swiss man had been working in the factory. They said that, as far as they had been aware, Schmidheiny's time in Osasco was spent at tourist destinations and social engagements and not at the factory. The consensus of the former Eternit employees at the meeting was that either Schmidheiny's memory was faulty or that he was deliberately lying about the nature of his activities in Osasco.

Despite the fact that a seat had been reserved for Journalist Tatiana Serafin, whose laudatory article in Forbes Magazine entitled: Stephan Schmidheiny: The Bill Gates of Switzerland, had spurred ABREA to hold this meeting, she did not deign to join former Eternit factory workers who could have informed her of the true nature of the Schmidheiny family business.

Seat reserved for Forbes journalist remained unoccupied!


November 20, 2009


1 Kazan-Allen L. Stephan Schmidheiny: Saint or Sinner? October 28, 2009




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