Asbestos: Global Action Needed!
Over a period of three days in mid-October, 2004, Central London was home to twenty thousand European activists who participated in a vast number of plenary sessions, seminars and workshops at the third European Social Forum (ESF). Subjects as diverse as: IRAQ: Fault line in British politics, Oil addiction, The ecological debt, The politics of youth exclusion, The IMF & the power of money, Refugee Women - Rights and Wrongs were part of a crowded agenda which provided organizations and individuals the opportunity to present information and exchange views on global threats to freedom, justice and democracy. On October 16, 2004, for the first time, asbestos was the focus of an ESF seminar. Simultaneous translation into English, Spanish, Italian, French and German ensured that the seminar Asbestos: Global Action Needed was a pan-European event. The session, organised and supported by the London Hazards Centre (LHC), the Trades Union Congress and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), achieved a visibility for issues too often ignored: the global epidemic of asbestos death and the on-going efforts of asbestos profiteers to off-load their poisonous wares on unsuspecting consumers.
Welcoming delegates, Chairperson Mick Holder encapsulated the UK's asbestos legacy by citing the case of Barking and Dagenham, the sickest borough in London;1 former workers, their relatives and local people are paying with their lives for hazardous exposures generated by decades of production at the Cape Asbestos factory. In recognition of the area's status as an asbestos hotspot, a support network has recently been established by the LHC in collaboration with Unison, a UK trade union, and others to provide practical and emotional support for victims and their families, help raise public awareness within the community and campaign for a global asbestos ban.
|Chairperson Mick Holder|
The PowerPoint presentation given by Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator of IBAS, exposed the fallacy of the global asbestos lobby that chrysotile (white asbestos) can be used safely under controlled conditions. Photographs from Brazil, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Egypt revealed horrific conditions which included a complete lack of regulation and high levels of hazardous exposures. A series of recent photographs from Canada constituted a damning indictment of government impotence in the face of decades of industrial pollution; the existence of mountains of contaminated waste in asbestos mining towns are a serious threat to public health.
|Laurie Kazan-Allen (left) with Nafisa Elsabagh|
In the 1980s, Italian workers and asbestos victims in Casale Monferrato began to campaign against conditions in the local Eternit asbestos factory; this unrest eventually lead in 1989 to the formation of the first branch of the Associazione degli Esposti all'Amianto/The Association of (Those) Exposed to Asbestos (AEA); in the mid-1990s, branches of the AEA were started by shipyard workers and railway workers in Monfalcone and Padua respectively. A few years later, a branch of the AEA was begun by port workers and stevedores from Trieste; other branches of the AEA are in Milan, Bologna, Genoa and Florence. In his talk, Fulvio Aurora, an AEA official, said there are currently 4,000 asbestos-related deaths a year in Italy. Although the use of asbestos has been banned since 1992, there are 23 million tonnes of asbestos in the Italian infrastructure and environment.
In 1992, the AEA organised a 5 day conference on asbestos which took place in Rome. Despite the resolutions passed and proposals made by delegates to this conference, the Italian Government has failed to protect the workers and public from asbestos hazards. For this reason, a second national conference is being held on November 12 & 13, 2004. The main subjects under discussion will be:
epidemiological and clinical problems;
assessment of the number of those affected and a proposal for health monitoring of at-risk groups;
early diagnosis of lung cancer and
primary prevention and the issue of asbestos substitutes.
Angel Carcoba, from the Conferacion Sindical de Comissiones Oberas (CCOO), one of the biggest trade unions in Spain, discussed the subject: Spanish Trade Union Action on Asbestos. A graph displayed by Angel showed the correlation between the amount of asbestos consumed in Spain and the incidence of disease decades later. Epidemiologists predict that there will be up to 50,000 asbestos deaths in Spain in the coming 25 years. As many of the asbestos workers were members of the CCOO, the Occupational Health Unit of the union has been working hard to raise awareness of asbestos-related issues through mass meetings, guidance booklets and other literature for a number of years; Angel's 240 page book: El amianto en Espana, published in May 2000, addresses subjects such as: the range and incidence of asbestos-related diseases, levels of occupational asbestos exposure, asbestos substitutes, the case brought by Canada at the World Trade Organization and asbestos use in the construction industry. The CCOO has achieved a remarkable 95% success rate for cases brought on behalf of injured workers, many of whom come from the maritime, iron and steel, garage and railway sectors.
Angel called for harmonization by the European Union (EU) of national laws protecting workers' health and the establishment of national mesothelioma schemes and at-risk registers. Having mentioned his membership to the European Commission's Working Group on Asbestos, Angel volunteered to act as a conduit with this consultative body. He urged delegates to support the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' campaign for a global ban on asbestos.
Since 1995, the UK's GMB, General Municipal and Boilermakers' Union, has mounted a sustained campaign to ban the use of asbestos in the UK, achieved in 1999, and raise awareness amongst workers of the hazards. Richard Morgan from the GMB's Derby office described the widespread ignorance amongst workers of asbestos hazards when he was employed in the car industry. Nowadays, GMB safety advisers visit workplaces to explain the issues, exchange information, review corporate safety initiatives and evaluate progress. The union has also produced a range of material on asbestos which can be viewed on the website: http://www.gmb.org.uk/
The presentation by Nafisa Elsabagh from the Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS) in Egypt was entitled Case Study: Strike by Egyptian Asbestos Workers. There are twelve asbestos factories in Egypt, four of which are publicly owned; the 4,500 workers at the largest of the public sector asbestos facilities, Sigwart-Heluan Maasarrah, use very old equipment. As this factory is located in a residential area, asbestos contamination of the environment is a serious problem. In 2002, asbestos imports from Russia and Canada, respectively worth US$703,000 and $35,000, were used for the manufacture of asbestos-cement pipes, joints, brakes and clutch parts.
The Aura-Egypt Company, belonging to Ahmed Abdel-Azeem Lokma, is an asbestos facility in the 10th of Ramadan City, a desert city east of Cairo. Occupational asbestos exposures have been rife at this company since production began in 1983; it is no coincidence that 46 workers have contracted cancer. At the beginning of 2004, new safety measures were specified by the government and the company was closed until guarantees were forthcoming that these measures would be implemented. A few weeks later, payment of the workers' salaries ceased. With no income, injured workers looked to the Government for assistancebut the Health Insurance Institution refused to recognize their illnesses asoccupational diseases; this decision prevented the workers from receivingcompensation and medical treatment. Left with no other choice, the workers went on strike in June, 2004; their demands were simple:
payment of wages owing since April, 2004;
implementation of recommended safety measures prior to the recommencement of asbestos manufacturing at the company;
access to fair compensation and comprehensive health insurance;
full compliance by Aura-Egypt with ministerial asbestos decreesregarding health and safety for asbestos workers.
On September 21, 2004, the Ministerial Group of the Egyptian Parliament, which consists of the Ministers of Water Resources, Petroleum, Electricity, Planning, Civil Aviation, State for National Developments, Agriculture and State for Environmental Affairs, recommended that the Aura-Egypt factory be closed. At the same time the Parliamentary Committee of Health recommended that:
the factory be closed;
asbestos imports into Egypt be banned;
asbestos manufacturing in Egypt be phased out;
asbestos and asbestos-containing materials should be disposed of;
workers contracting asbestos-related diseases should be compensated;
the owner of the Aura-Egypt factory should be indicted for the crimes he has committed.
Nafisa concluded her talk by saying that as these recommendations do not have the force of law, the campaign must continue. A two-day asbestos conference being held by the CTUWS in Cairo in December 2004 will, it is hoped, propel the national debate on asbestos.
Addressing the subject of Medical and Epidemiological Issues, Dr. Tom Treasure, a surgeon from Guy's Hospital, London, said that the increase in the number of mesothelioma patients he is seeing confirms the predictions made in 1995 that the incidence of this disease would increase. Tom said that with so much information on radical mesothelioma surgery on the internet, patients can be overwhelmed; unfortunately, data on survival rates of radical mesothelioma surgery is not standardized and this leads to confusion amongst doctors as well as patients. Without tangible proof of the efficacy of surgery, patients can be robbed of the best three months they might have had following diagnosis. Studies to clarify the situation are urgently needed because the numbers are increasing, the disease is grim and fatal, the (extrapleural pneumonectomy) operation is high risk and there is a fundamental divergence of opinion. In the UK the MARS Trial, now underway, aims to prevent futile treatments particularly if they are: expensive (or) burdensome on patients. Until solid evidence has been gathered of proven health-gains of these aggressive operations, more realistic goals including prompt diagnosis, palliation of pleural effusion, port site irradiation and access to active symptom control should be set.
|Dr. Tom Treasure|
Jason Addy, a member of the group Save Spodden Valley, described the grass-roots campaign by local people to prevent the hazardous development of a former asbestos site in Rochdale. Calling the redundant industrial estate, formerly home to Turner Brothers Asbestos (TBA), Asbestos Ground Zero, Jason said that the accumulation of one hundred years of asbestos waste and pollution made this 100 acre estate one of the most contaminated in the country. Photographs showing large clumps of asbestos fibre hanging from trees and discarded on the riverbank illustrated his point graphically. Taking into account the prevailing wind and proximity of the factory to residential areas, the high incidence of environmentally-contracted asbestos-related disease is not hard to explain. According to documents obtained by the campaigners:
the TBA asbestos mill began operations in 1879 and grew into the largest asbestos textile factory in the world; asbestos processing on this site continued for 115 years;
production at Rochdale increased throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s; by 1970, TBA was producing 2.2 million yards of asbestos cloth and 5.5 million miles of asbestos yarn per year;
a TBA document (1957) described the factory's asbestos dust filtration system as follows: the total weight of dust recovered in the filter rooms weekly is about 15,000 lbs., all of which is dumped to waste;
In 1996, 800 tons of asbestos were removed from this site in open wagons driven through the city streets.
An attempt by property developers in May, 2004 to begin clearance work on the site, without an asbestos survey or preventative measures, incensed local people, many of whom were, as former TBA employees, well aware of the potential fallout. Over recent months, protesters have been gathering background information including corporate memos, oral histories and photographic evidence. They have lobbied national agencies, civic bodies, NGOs and the media to gather support for their campaign. Jason suggested that after a comprehensive decontamination of this site is achieved, a memorial forest should be planted here, the birthplace of the UK asbestos industry, to commemorate all those who have lost their lives to asbestos.
The final session of the meeting was the discussion led by John Flanagan of the Merseyside and District Asbestos Victims Group of a draft resolution. After a lively discussion suggested changes were made and this document (Appendix 1) is now being widely circulated. As the Chairperson thanked delegates for their participation, he proposed that the meeting be continued in a local hostelry. During the social event which followed the seminar, plans were made for future initiatives which would advance our mutual goals of justice for all asbestos victims and a global ban on asbestos.2 The struggle continues.
October 19, 2004
1 Rising from the Dust can be viewed online: