Profiles of some Hazardous Industries 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

Shipbuilding and Ship-breaking    Power Generation     Construction
Railways    Asbestos Mining     Asbestos Industry

These short profiles of industries presenting well-documented asbestos hazards are intended to provide links to other articles on the site (and elsewhere) dealing with the subject matter in more detail.

 

Shipbuilding and Ship-breaking

Throughout the 20th century, asbestos-containing products were widely used in the shipbuilding industry for insulation, fireproofing and sound-proofing. A classic example was the Queen Mary, an iconic ship belonging to the Cunard White Line, which was built in the 1930s at a Scottish shipyard. Among the asbestos products used during the ship's construction were:

  • Newalls' 85% Magnesia and Newtempheit for insulating boilers, turbines, piping and steam lines;
  • asbestos pug (15% asbestos, 85% Magnesia) - a fiber-like substance which, when mixed with water on-site, was molded around pinwork;
  • pre-formed asbestos sections for application on pipe bends;
  • asbestos sheeting applied over layers of asbestos pug;
  • asbestos slabs used on pipes and turbines;
  • asbestos block on the turbines;
  • asbestos rope used on pipework less then ¾" in diameter;
  • asbestos cloth for covering pipework;
  • asbestos flag wool.

Workers who handled these materials and others who worked onboard when it was applied were put at risk from hazardous exposures generated by the handling and application of these products.

From 1930-1978, 4.5 million workers were employed in U.S. shipyards; during that time 25 million tons of asbestos were used to insulate and fireproof ships. As a result of the occupational exposure they experienced, asbestos-related disease and death has decimated former shipyard workers in the U.S. (See report on Global Asbestos Congress 2004).

Elsewhere, the situation is similar. In 2003, the (UK) Health and Safety Executive confirmed that the one of the highest risk occupations for mesothelioma (asbestos cancer) was shipbuilding (Mesothelioma: A National Tragedy).

The asbestos epidemic is particularly bad in Scotland where, according to one expert: "About 90% of deaths due to mesothelioma are due to exposure in unmonitored settings in the shipbuilding industry." In the shipbuilding center of Yokosuka, Japan many cases of pleural mesothelioma have been diagnosed in former shipyard workers, usually 40+ years after their exposures (see search refs. [1,2] and [3,4,5,6,7], respectively in: Global Asbestos Congress 2004). Australian research covering the period 1986-2000, identified shipbuilding workers as the 5th highest at-risk category. When the number of mesotheliomas amongst personnel from the Navy or Merchant Navy was added to those for shipbuilding and dockyard workers, this became far and away the highest risk category (Mesothelioma: Australian Data & Research).

If done correctly, the decommissioning of end-of-life vessels contaminated with asbestos and other hazardous materials is an expensive process. Seeking to minimize costs, governments have taken advantage of the world's dirtiest industry: the scrapping of toxic ships (Killing the Future - Asbestos Use in Asia).

In 1997, a Pulitzer-prize winning series of articles in the Baltimore Sun newspaper exposed the scandal in ship-breaking yards in the U.S. and Asia. The articles revealed a horrific picture of appalling conditions in America's depressed ports and Indian ship-breaking yards (see The Ship-breaking Industry).

In 2005-2006, the Clemenceau, a 27,000 tonne former flagship of the French Navy, became the focus of international attention as it sailed the high seas looking for a ship-breaking yard to decommission it. The fact that the ship contained up to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos was something the French Government only reluctantly admitted. Inconveniently for French decision makers, the international dumping of such contaminated waste infringes French laws, the Basel Convention, and the European Waste Shipment Regulation. A multinational coalition of asbestos victims' groups, NGOs, trade unions and campaigners forced the French Government to repatriate the ship and, after its fruitless 12,000 mile quest, the Clemenceau returned to its home port in 2006 (The Clemenceau Comes Home!).

In the wake of the Clemenceau, the issue of what to do with end-of-life ships has become a highly sensitive topic (Dismantling & Recycling Decommissioned Ships). The French Government's latest attempt to off-load the Clemenceau ran into problems when a small group of British activists objected to the Ministry of Defense's attempt to dump the problem in Hartlepool. Despite their best efforts, the campaigners eventually lost the legal challenge and The Clemenceau arrived at Able UK's Graythorpe site near Seaton Carew on February 8, 2009 [Clemenceau Debacle Rumbles On!].

 

Power Generation 

Large amounts of asbestos were often used in power stations in industrialized countries during the 20th century. Despite the fact that the hazards of occupational asbestos exposure were known, there was no attempt to inform the workforce [Power Info]. In England, an employee from the Belvedere Power Station (1959-1984) commented that: “Some of the lads actually played football with asbestos as we were all ignorant of the possible dangers.” According to a trade unionist who worked at Northfleet Power Station, Dartford, as late as the 1970s the presence of asbestos in the power station went unrecognized. As the group unit operator, his job involved crawling under machinery and getting completely covered by asbestos dust which, he said, was regarded by the workers as more of a nuisance than a danger.

Former power station workers have reported the use of the following asbestos products in thermal or nuclear power stations:

  • asbestos lagging for thermal insulation applied to boiler room turbines;
  • moulded asbestos for fireproofing of steel work and the protection of electric cables;
  • pre-formed asbestos lagging for trunking and pipework – sections were cut to size on-site;
  • Newall's Magnesium Asbestos, a powder which was mixed with water on-site, was applied to pipework which was unsuitable for covering with pre-formed asbestos sections;
  • blanket asbestos;
  • blocked lagging;
  • asbestos blocks which were cut to size by saw wherever was convenient;
  • asbestos boards with 7”-8” bolts (studding & washers) set into them by welders.1

Some asbestos came in bags made of sacking material such as hessian, some came in big cardboard boxes. In the 1960s, workmen, such as welder JS from the Isle of Grain Oil Refinery, were paid extra for working near asbestos laggers. It was not unusual for different trades to work in close proximity in the power stations so the handling of asbestos by one group of tradesmen i.e. insulators/laggers, put others at risk. According to an employee of John Brown Land Boilers who worked at the Belvedere Power Station:

“Construction at the power station was months behind in the early 1960s because of wildcat strikes. Consequently there was great pressure to complete the work; men were working seven days a week and extra shifts. We were all working in close proximity so there were tubers (pipefitters), laggers, electricians, flooring contractors all vying for space and pushing to complete.”

The experiences of workers from the power industries in Wales, India, Australia and elsewhere have been similar to those in England; the results of hazardous occupational exposures they received have been all too predictable. An elevated incidence of asbestos-related deaths has been documented in Wales due to exposures received at the former Carmarthen Bay Power Station [Asbestos Developments in Wales and Ireland].

In the State of Victoria, Australia former workers from thermal power stations in the Latrobe Valley are succumbing to asbestos-related diseases in increasing numbers [Asbestos Issues in Australia and Southeast Asia].

In the Summer of 2009, a scandal blew up over hazardous asbestos exposures experienced by workers employed to strip asbestos from the redundant Manila Thermal Power Plant in Isla de Provisor in Paco; the workers had no training and no health and safety protection [Mobilization in the Philippines].

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the level of asbestosis amongst power station workers throughout India is also high. Despite an order by the Supreme Court that the Government must check all power plants, no action has been taken by the Labor Ministry [Chrysotile in India: Truth Held Hostage].

In Kazakhstan there has been no quantification of the occupational fallout from the widespread and unregulated use of asbestos in power stations. In 2002, one observer from Northern Ireland who visited a huge power station in Almaty reported seeing: the manual opening of asbestos sacks, the storage of asbestos in open bins, no controls of any sort on asbestos use, disintegrating asbestos insulation, contamination of workers' clothes and shoes and the constant vibration of old equipment causing continuous liberation of fibers [see conference report: Latin American Asbestos Meeting].

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1 This is not a comprehensive list of asbestos products used in power stations. It is a list compiled from discussions with former power station workers.

 

Construction 

People working in construction have historically been at a high-risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases due to the substantial amounts of asbestos used in the fireproofing and insulation of public buildings, private residences, factories, schools and infrastructure projects such as airports and train stations [see: Where can you find asbestos,   The Question of Asbestos In The United States of America,   Asbestos Disease registries].

From the 1950s, asbestos was used on a massive scale in the Australian building industry; much of it went into the construction of “fibro” houses. It is not surprising therefore that of 3,752 respondents to a mesothelioma questionnaire covering 1986-2000, 14% (521) were carpenters/joiners, builders/laborers [see: Mesothelioma: Australian Data and Research,   Fatal Collapse of Asbestos Roof].

UK government data show that amongst the top 10 occupations with the highest risk of contracting mesothelioma, asbestos cancer, are: plumbers and gas fitters, carpenters, electricians and construction workers. Research by trade unionists in Denmark, a country which banned asbestos over twenty years ago, substantiates the high incidence of mesothelioma and lung cancer in construction workers [Asbestos A Never Ending Story].

An analysis of compensation claims made for asbestos-related disease in Quebec, Canada has found that 42% of the claims were from workers in the construction, maintenance and building repair sectors [Quebec Asbestos Record Further Reason Not to export to Developing Nations].

Today, more building workers die each year from past exposures to asbestos than are killed in falls [Consensus on Asbestos Hazard,   Killing the Future - Asbestos Use in Asia].

As 90% of current global asbestos consumption is for asbestos-cement construction materials used in the developing world, building workers in Asia are at serious risk of contracting deadly asbestos diseases; the fact that the vast majority of them work in the unregulated informal sector with no masks, protective equipment or training is, given all that is known about the asbestos hazard, unconscionable [India: Asbestos Deaths Mount as Production Expands].

The World Health Organization (WHO) has remarked on the difficulties in preventing exposures to asbestos occurring on construction sites:

“Continued use of asbestos cement in the construction industry is a particular concern because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure, and in-place materials have the potential to deteriorate and pose a risk to those carrying out alterations, maintenance and demolition” [WHO Support for Global Asbestos Ban,   International Trade Union Conference on Asbestos].

Until global action is taken to ban the use of asbestos and address the problems caused by contaminated products hidden within national infrastructures, construction workers will continue to die from these avoidable diseases.

 

Railways 

The excellent fireproofing and insulating properties of asbestos made it extremely useful on railway rolling stock and infrastructure. Large amounts of asbestos insulation products, both sprayed and non-sprayed, were used on steam locomotives; maintenance crews and railway personnel experienced hazardous exposures to asbestos on a daily basis [See: Asbestos and railways]. While the introduction of diesel trains and the use of asbestos-free railroad brake shoes decreased these exposures, the legacy of the dangerous exposures is high rates of disease amongst workers such as UK boilermakers. [We Will Never Go Away], and railway workers in Japan [Legal Victory for Railway Workers in Japan].

The widespread contamination of railway rolling stock continues to pose a risk to workers in the transport industry [Asbestos A Never Ending Story] and those people responsible for decontaminating old railway stock [Don't Know, Don't Care and IBAS Report AAC 2009 print page 34].

Asbestos removal at stations can also liberate fibers unless the work is conducted under carefully supervised and rigorous conditions [IBAS Report AAC 2009 print page 25].

 

Asbestos Mining 

From the beginning of the 20th century until the outbreak of World War II, world production of asbestos rose by 2000%. Output continued to grow steadily, peaking in 1975 at 5 million tonnes. Despite a slight downturn, annual production remained at over 4 million tonnes until 1991. Global production is currently 2,230,000 tonnes (t)/year, with the majority of fiber being mined in Asia. Major asbestos producers are: Russia (875,000t), China (355,000t), Kazakhstan (346,000t), Canada (200,000t), Brazil (194,000t) and Zimbabwe (152,000t) [Killing the Future - Asbestos Use in Asia].

For most of the 20th century, the world's leading supplier of chrysotile asbestos was Canada which, between 1880-2002, mined 61.5 million tonnes worth C$12.8 billion. Falling global demand and stiff competition from asbestos producers in Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Zimbabwe have impacted negatively on the Canadian industry which is now just a shadow of its former self [Asbestos Mine Faces Bankruptcy,   Asbestos Mine Reopened by Court Order,   And Then There was One!,   The Mystery of Canada's Disappearing Asbestos].

Environmental contamination posed by mountains of asbestos-contaminated waste in the mining region of Quebec has led to many cases of asbestos disease amongst townspeople in places like Thetford Mines [Canadian Asbestos: A Global Concern,   History in the Making, In Korea, Italy and the U.S. mining operations have adversely affected the health of people living in towns near the mines [Tremolite Contamination in South Korea,   Environmental Hazard].

Before the asbestos mines closed down [South Africa Bans Asbestos], South Africa was the only country to produce amosite, chrysotile and crocidolite [Chrysotile Production: Contradictory Developments Signal Industry Confusion].

The working conditions in the mines were appalling with an absence of even the most basic dust control measures despite the fact that the mines were owned by multinational corporations which were well aware of the hazards. Asbestos mining was often a family affair and it was common for children and women to work as a family unit at the South African mines. Environmental pollution caused by decades of asbestos mining and processing have scarred the countryside and caused disease amongst local people in towns such as Penge [Environmental Asbestos Fallout in Asia and Africa ].

 

Asbestos Industry 

For over one hundred years, asbestos was an integral part of the industrialization process. Powerful commercial interests developed increasingly sophisticated methods to popularize asbestos and extend its markets; the fact that asbestos killed workers, family members, consumers and the public did not deter the insatiable pursuit of profit. Asbestos producers lied to national governments, trade unions, workers and customers about the dangerous nature of their raw material. They suppressed adverse scientific findings and pressurized editors to omit contentious news about asbestos from the pages of trade and academic journals. Even after all that has been learned about the deadly effects of asbestos on humanity and the environment, billions of dollars of industry money are being spent on commissioned research to “substantiate” the latest pro-asbestos propaganda [See Barry Castleman's review of Defending the Indefensible: The Global Asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival, by Jock McCulloch & Geoffrey Tweedale, the Press Launch of "Defending the Indefensible" and the Article by Laurie Kazan-Allen with the same title; also relevant are Asbestos Resources, Secrecy and Subterfuge in Switzerland, and “Swiss” Asbestos Expert was Paid by the Brazilian Asbestos Industry].

Throughout the 20th century, Canada was the world's largest producer of asbestos [The Fallacy of Controlled Use]. The industry's financial clout gave Canadian asbestos stakeholders unique access to regional and federal politicians who willingly did their bidding [The Asbestos War,European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Health and Human Rights].

Canadian embassies and civil servants are heavily implicated in efforts by the asbestos lobby to promote the “controlled use of asbestos” in developing countries, despite the fact that Canada itself refuses to use the deadly fiber [Canada's Asbestos Shame, Asian Asbestos Conference 2006].

In many ways, the efforts of the asbestos industry to exploit the commercial potential of the “magic mineral,” has replicated that of another pariah business: big tobacco. For decades, asbestos companies Johns-Manville (U.S.), Turner & Newall Ltd. (UK) and Eternit (Switzerland, Belgium etc.) worked to control market fluctuations and develop strategies to challenge damaging discoveries [multiple references in: European Asbestos Conference: Policy, Health and Human Rights].

Asbestos bankruptcies caused by litigation for asbestos-related illness began in the U.S. and spread to Europe; leading UK asbestos groups have sought refuge in court-sanctioned schemes to ring-fence their asbestos-related liabilities [T&N: Who Gets What?, Federal Mogul's New offer to (UK?) Creditors].

Elsewhere in Europe and Australia, courts are upholding judgments for asbestos victims with varied types of exposure and issuing jail sentences for negligent asbestos company executives [Eternit Negligent for Toxic Waste,   Jail Time for Eternit Executives,   Secrecy and Subterfuge in Switzerland,   Asbestos Pigeons Coming Home to Roost,   Medical and Legal Developments in Australia].

Although the days of the asbestos multinationals are coming to an end [The Times They are A-Changing], nationally-owned asbestos companies such as those in India continue to pressurize their governments to maintain the status quo [The Rotterdam Convention: Fighting for its Life, Chrysotile Asbestos: Hazardous to Humans, Deadly to the Rotterdam Convention, What Price the Truth?, Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia].

Due to industry's influence, representatives of the Government of India blocked United Nations plans to regulate the global trade in asbestos-contaminated waste and the export of asbestos fiber [September: A Month of Mixed Fortunes].

As industrialized nations seek to exert a modicum of damage limitation by banning or restricting the use of asbestos, consumption is increasing in the developing world [The Times They Are A-Changing, India's Asbestos Time Bomb, Asbestos Olympics?, Killing the Future – Asbestos Use in Asia].

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Updated September 2009

 

 

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