First Seminar on Asbestos Exposure in Bahia, Brazil
The reality and danger of asbestos were debated in the First Seminar on Asbestos Exposure in Bahia, Brazil. This meeting was held on June 20, 2002, organized by the Federal Public Ministry and the Public Ministry of the State of Bahia, in collaboration with the Occupational Health Center - CESAT. The main topics were: the impact of asbestos on human health and the environment, information about these issues from other regions and countries, the state of art of lung diseases, legal aspects and civil responsibility. Dozens of current and former asbestos workers participated in the sessions. This seminar was a satellite meeting of the Conference of Occupational and Environmental Health: integrating the Americas, organized by the Department of Preventive Medicine of the Federal University of Bahia. This important encounter brought together people from several countries who engaged in high level discussions about the main issues regarding health and the environment in the context of globalization.
In Brazil, it has been estimated that about 200,000 workers are exposed to asbestos in workplaces; another 100,000 are exposed in non-occupational situations. These statistics were presented by the President of the Brazilian Association of Occupational Medicine, Dr. René Mendes, in the panel entitled The current scientific knowledge about exposure to asbestos – a public health issue. Asbestos exposure is a public health problem; there is no safe limit of exposure to asbestos. For this reason, it is ineffective and dangerous to pursue a policy based on the "controlled use" of asbestos. According to Dr. Mendes, the asbestos problem requires "broad action, social mobilization and state intervention". The other speaker in this panel, Dr. Eduardo Algranti, researcher of the Fundacentro (Ministry of Labor), called attention to the importance of indirect exposure to asbestos. He pointed out that among 29 patients who attended his clinic for occupational lung diseases, 7 had no occupational history of exposure. As part of an on-going project, Dr. Algranti treats former workers of the Eternit company in the city of Osasco, state of São Paulo. There are 820 registered patients, among whomst 246 have pleural diseases and 29 have asbestosis.
The Eternit plant in Bahia State is located in the city of Simões Filho. Since 1963, 2100 workers have worked in this factory; of these only 60 have been medically examined. The company alleges that it is difficult to locate former workers, many of whom left the company a long time ago. To solve this problem, the Public Ministry is helping former workers to organize an association of ex-workers. It was resolved at this seminar that the next phase, constituting an asbestos workers’ victim support group, will begin in August: "The worker has the right to know about the status of his health. Through this association, he will be well oriented," said Prosecutor Dr. Hortênsia Pinho, of the organizing committee and Coordinator of the panel: Impacts of the use of asbestos: legal issues and civil responsibility.
Although the risks of asbestos are well-known, only the states of Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul have specific laws prohibiting the use of asbestos. In the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and São Paulo, similar laws were blocked by the Federal Justice after the intervention of the Government of Goiás, the state that has the largest and most important asbestos mine in Brazil.
Another important discussion at the seminar centered on the experience of the city of Osasco, São Paulo. In 1995, former asbestos workers in Osasco, the pioneers in the fight against asbestos exposure in Brazil, created ABREA: The Brazilian Association of Workers Exposed to Asbestos (ABREA). According to ABREA’s President, Mr. Eliezer João de Souza, there are about 500 claims for asbestos victims now proceeding through the local Court. An inspector from the Ministry of Labor, Dr. Fernanda Giannasi, said: "if they (the asbestos claimants) do not win in this instance, they will bring the action to the court of the home country of the company". Using many pictures of workplaces and a video, Dr. Giannasi presented a summary of the struggle to ban asbestos in Brazil. She also translated the very clear and opportune presentation given by Dr. Laurie Kazan-Allen about exposure to asbestos in other countries and the job of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS).
The Osasco experience was considered a reference by the participants of the panel: Perspectives of participation and social control, the role of worker representatives and organized society, coordinated by the Director of CESAT, Dr. Leticia Nobre. Besides the President of ABREA, the debate had the participation of the Federal Deputy and physician Dr. Rosinha (Workers’ Party, State of Paraná), the Counselor of Osasco and Director of the Metal Workers’ Union, Mr. Carlos Aparício Clemente, and the State Deputy and President of the Commission of the Environment of the House of Representatives of Bahia, Mr. Artur Maia (Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy). Dr. Rosinha is a member of the Special Commission which is analyzing the feasibility of proposals for the progressive substitution of asbestos products in Brazil. He advised that "only with strong popular pressure can we ban asbestos in Brazil". For this Deputy, the asbestos industry’s threat of a rise in unemployment is a fallacy. Almost the same position was taken by Mr. Clemente, who was adamant that there is sufficient technology to substitute asbestos. He pointed out that "in Brazil, the automobile industry continues using asbestos in the auto parts for Brazilian consumption, but not in those for export to developed countries".
The seminar was an outstanding success and highlighted many important factors. While strengthening the ties between institutions responsible for workers’ health, it also explored asbestos and other problems being faced in workplaces. It reinforced the need for workers to be organized in order to safeguard occupational health and highlighted the connections between work processes and the environment. Finally, the participants of the asbestos seminar decided to summarize their conclusions, writing the Letter of Salvador.
LETTER OF SALVADOR
The participants of the FIRST SEMINAR ON ASBESTOS IN BAHIA – Work, Health and Environment", which had the main objective of discussing the exposure to asbestos in the State of Bahia,
Asbestos is a serious risk to public health and the environment; it is a carcinogenic substance in all its forms and causes: asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural mesothelioma and other diseases;
There is no scientific guarantee that the "safe use of asbestos protects the health of the workers and the general population;"
It is necessary to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos amongst the public, workers, government authorities, politicians and members of the media;
Alternative and safer products exist to replace asbestos.
THE FOLLOWING objectives were agreed:
Alert former asbestos workers in Bahia about their rights, including the monitoring of their health;
Suggest the approval of a State Law to the House of Representatives initiating a progressive ban on asbestos in Bahia;
Guarantee the adoption of fair policies for the transition from asbestos to other type of processes, considering employment opportunities, workplace conditions, and the protection of workers’ health;
Hold asbestos companies responsible for the problems they generated in workers’ health and the environment.
July 20, 2002
1This document was modified from the original in Portuguese from the Journal INFOC, n. 20, abr-jun 2002 edited by the Occupational Health Center - CESAT. The translation was done by Dr. Marco Antônio Rêgo and the English editing by Laurie Kazan-Allen..