Asbestos Profile: Brazil
(Updated April 2020)
Brazil was amongst the top five global producers of asbestos in the first decade of the 21st century and was the fourth largest producer as recently as 2018. Although the mining of chrysotile asbestos began in Brazil in 1939, significant amounts were not produced until the 1960s; national production rose in the 21st century and was over 300,000 tonnes in 2012 [Brazil: Asbestos Producer, User, Exporter]. Brazil was also one of the world's major asbestos consuming countries; the vast majority was used in the manufacture of asbestos-cement products [see: Hazards of Asbestos Cement] and friction materials such as brakes and clutches. During 2002-2012, Brazil exported 61% of the asbestos it produced, making Brazil then the second biggest exporter of chrysotile asbestos [Brazil: Asbestos Producer, User, Exporter].
The government was slow to regulate the use of asbestos. Until the 1980s, there were no regulations on the use of or allowable exposures to asbestos. After the ending of the military dictatorship, social movements and some trade unions began to press for better controls with limited success. In 1991, the official threshold for occupational exposure to asbestos was 4 f/cc; this was 20 times the U.S. workplace exposure limit. Asbestos stakeholders vigorously contested attempts to regulate the asbestos trade and attacked campaigners who called for national reforms [Brazilian Justice?] [ The Asbestos Institute Attacks Brazilian Campaigner] [Brazilian Asbestos Industry vs. Fernanda Giannasi] [A Debt of Honor] [Award for Latin American Activist: Fernanda Giannasi]. For decades, economic and social pressure exerted by asbestos stakeholders on people living in areas reliant on asbestos interests for employment succeeded in marginalizing the voice of the victims and supressing data revealing the human cost of the industry’s asbestos profits [Denial of the Occurrence of Occupational Asbestos Diseases in the Brazilian Mining Town of Minaçu].
Even as the federal government remained unwilling to act on the national asbestos scandal, state governments took steps to ban asbestos. Unfortunately, judicial proceedings brought by asbestos stakeholders declared these bans unconstitutional [São Paulo's Asbestos Battle]. At the beginning of June 2008, Brazil's Federal Supreme Court upheld the asbestos ban in São Paulo saying that citizens' rights to health and the dignity of labor are guaranteed under the country's constitution [History in the Making!]. The judicial decision was a shock for Brazilian asbestos stakeholders who watched share prices plummet. In 2012, asbestos hearings at the Supreme Court [A Perfect Day!] highlighted the ongoing battle over asbestos taking place in Brazil; this David and Goliath contest pits powerful vested interests supporting the status quo against civil society activists calling for a comprehensive federal ban on asbestos [The Future We Want is Asbestos-free!]. Finally on November 29, 2017, Brazil’s Supreme Court handed down a historic verdict which prohibited the mining, processing, marketing and distribution of chrysotile (white) asbestos in Brazil, at that time the world’s third largest producer of chrysotile [Brazil Bans Asbestos!]. Despite the Supreme Court’s decisive action, commercial and political stakeholders announced plans to recommence asbestos mining operations in 2019 to produce asbestos fiber for export purposes. Responding to that threat, delegates from former importing countries including India and Indonesia travelled to Brazil in April 2019 to lobby decision-makers, politicians, trade unionists, members of the public and others to support calls that the integrity of the Supreme Court ban be upheld [Asian Ban Asbestos Mission to Brazil 2019].
For over 50 years, the center of Brazil's highly profitable asbestos-cement industry was the town of Osasco, an industrial suburb of São Paulo [Asbestos Developments in Brazil]. In 1995, workers from the Eternit asbestos-cement factory established the Association of Brazilians Exposed to Asbestos (ABREA) to raise public awareness of the epidemic of asbestos disease which was affecting so many former colleagues [Global Asbestos Congress 2000] [A Quiet Hero, A Gentle Man] [Aldo Vincentin: One More Victim of Asbestos]. Since then, ABREA has gone from strength to strength and has become a vocal and highly visible pressure group [Update on Brazilian Asbestos Campaign]; ABREA has transformed the national asbestos debate and achieved substantial gains for the asbestos injured [Victory for Brazil's Asbestos Victims].
ABREA works closely with its supporters and other civil society stakeholders on a multiplicity of issues. In October 2016 ABREA, with partnering organizations, held a series of events in Campinas during which medical, legal, social, judicial and environmental challenges posed by the country’s asbestos legacy were considered [Brazilians United in Ban Asbestos Struggle].
Holding asbestos defendants to account for injuries sustained by their employees has been a formidable task. In recent years, personal injury cases have been won with sizable compensation being awarded to claimants. Actions brought by Brazil’s Labor Public Ministry have also succeeded; in 2013, Eternit, S.A. was ordered to pay the healthcare costs of workers from its flagship asbestos-cement factory in Osasco, São Paulo [Brazilian Court: Eternit to Pay]. In August, 2014, a class action against Eternit, S.A. was filed by Public Labor Prosecutors over asbestos infringements at the company’s factory in Rio de Janeiro [Landmark Asbestos Prosecution in Brazil].