The Fall of the Asbestos Empire
The asbestos house of cards built on denial, distortion and distraction1 is collapsing. With more and more evidence documenting the toxic effects of human exposures and action being taken the world over to protect populations, preliminary data for recent years have shown a dramatic fall in consumption and reports from the asbestos frontline have documented a waning of industry influence and power even in home markets.
Scientific papers published this summer highlighted serious underestimates of asbestos mortality by international agencies and identified categories of workers most at risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases (ARDs). In the past, the ILO and WHO have respectively estimated the number of asbestos deaths per year at 100,000 and 90,000 (in 2014 the WHO annual figure was increased to 107,000).2 The authors of the paper: Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions disagree with those figures; Jukka Takala et al calculated that the global asbestos-related death toll could exceed 300,000 per year based on employment figures, mortality rates, occupational burden of diseases and injuries and the most recent information on the problems from published papers, documents, and electronic data sources of international and regional organizations, in particular ILO, WHO, EU and ASEAN, institutions, agencies, and public websites.3 Support for the revised projections was contained in a paper published this month (September 2017) entitled Estimation of the global burden of mesothelioma deaths from incomplete national mortality data, which extrapolated mortality rates from countries with quality data to other countries to produce an estimated figure of 38,400 mesothelioma deaths per year; when other asbestos-related cancers and fatal diseases were added, global annual asbestos mortality incidence was estimated to be 250,000+.4 The question of who is most at risk of developing ARDs was informed by a new study which concluded that amongst Japanese workers, members of the construction industry many of whom were still being exposed to asbestos during maintenance, renovation, and asbestos removal from buildings with asbestos containing products were at the highest risk of contracting an ARD.5
Brazils Asbestos Endgame
One wonders what executives and shareholders of Eternit SA, the owners of Brazils only asbestos mine, must have been thinking as they watched the companys share price collapse in the aftermath of the Supreme Court August 24 decision upholding the constitutionality of the São Paulo State asbestos ban.6 In the face of this landmark verdict, there could be no denying that Eternit SA and its subsidiaries had lost Brazils asbestos war. The industrys downfall did not, however, happen overnight; as business competitors had transitioned to asbestos-free technologies and the voice of asbestos victims and their representatives had grown ever louder during the current century, industrys dominance of the national asbestos agenda had shattered. The glory days when officials of the Comissao Nacional dos Trabalhadores do Amianto (CNTA; National Commission of Asbestos Workers), an asbestos industry-funded union, and the Instituto Brasileiro de Crisotila (IBC/ Brazilian Chrysotile Institute)7 the Brazilian asbestos trade association were feted with foreign trips to proclaim support for the countrys asbestos sector were no more. Industry largesse formerly dispensed to manipulate public opinion, influence government officials and support global marketing campaigns fizzled out, and asbestos fellow travellers were cast adrift by former employers and paymasters. At a recent Senate hearing, a spokesman for the CNTA said that 200 workers had been dismissed last year (2016) and that asbestos fiber production had fallen by 50% since 2015. Considering the fall in mining output and the increasing likelihood of comprehensive asbestos prohibitions, the collapse of judicial, political and democratic support for Brazils asbestos industry should have come as no surprise. Commenting on recent developments, former Labor Inspector and co-founder of the Brazilian Association of the Asbestos-Exposed Fernanda Giannasi said:
With the demise of the asbestos industry in Canada and Brazil and the imminent prohibition of asbestos in both countries, the asbestos industry will survive only in dictatorships.
Industrys Summertime Blues
Support for the ban asbestos movement has reached new civil society sectors and geographical locations this summer with important asbestos awareness initiatives held by asbestos victims associations, health and safety activists, trade unionists and politicians in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Colombia, Myanmar and Nepal.8 While the repercussions of activities such as these take some while to become manifest, significant media coverage of asbestos issues has already been generated.9
More recently, September 3 to 6, 2017, the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work was held in Singapore.10 This triennial event is organized jointly by the International Labor Organization and the International Social Security Association (ISSA). Nine years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the XVIII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Korea. From my vantage point, the Seoul event was of significance because it marked the transfer of power from Canadian to Russian leadership of the global asbestos lobby. The first outing for the asbestos comrades proved a disaster: The ill-advised diatribes, biased presentations and loutish behaviour of Alliance [International Alliance of Chrysotile Trade Union Organizations] representatives betrayed their lack of credibility and underlined the vacuousness of their arguments.11
Feedback received from colleagues who were in Singapore this month confirmed the attendance of asbestos industry lobbyist Dmitry Selyanin who in 2008 had astounded congress delegates with his assertion that: Chrysotile asbestos is the most valuable resource of the Earth.12 Ignoring the presentations made in Seoul by speakers from the World Health Organization, The International Labor Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the International Social Security Association (ISSA) about the dangers posed by chrysotile, Selyanin and other asbestos lobbyists of which there were many stuck unflinchingly to the party-line. On June 30, 2008, Selyanin told delegates to the ISSA Asbestos Symposium that there was no compelling scientific evidence that ambient exposure to chrysotile asbestos poses a significant health risk.
Roll on nearly a decade and it seems that although the arguments remain the same, the packaging has changed. During the ITUC Symposium on Trade Unions and Occupational Health and Safety: Fighting for the living on September 6, 2017, a delegate disputed the content of a presentation by Australian trade unionist Dr Deborah Vallance entitled: The fight for an asbestos-free world.
Dr Deborah Vallance, ITUC Symposium September 6, 2017.
Phillip Hazelton, Campaign Coordinator for the Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases for Australias Union Aid AbroadAPHEDA, identified the critic as lawyer Emiliano Alonso, partner and director of Alonso Asociados, a Brussels-based public relations company.13 Mr. Alonso has represented the International Chrysotile Association for a number of years. I first came across him in Geneva at the 2013 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention.
Laurie Kazan-Allen speaking to Emiliano Alonso during the 6th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, Geneva, 2013.
During the question and answer session of the ITUC Symposium, Alonso and Selyanin, the sole reminder of the bloated 2008 asbestos industry posse, objected to the anti-asbestos propaganda presented by panelists, urged evidence-based decision-making, asserted that no cases of asbestos-related diseases had been identified in Russia and that 80% of the world still used chrysotile asbestos; blaming exposures to other forms of asbestos amosite and crocidolite for asbestos-related diseases, they maintained that the use of chrysotile asbestos was safe.
Emiliano Alonso asking questions during ITUC Symposium September 6, 2017.
Commenting on the impact made by the pro-asbestos delegates at the XXI World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, Mr. Hazleton said:
The chrysotile asbestos industry was represented in Singapore by delegates from the International Chrysotile Association, the International Alliance of Chrysotile Trade Union Organizations (Russia) and the Thailand Chrysotile Information Centre among others. The handful of industry people monitoring this event made their presence felt via interventions intended to protect and preserve the interests of asbestos stakeholders. 14 They attacked information presented by speakers and dominated question time during a WHO September 6 strategy session to which they were invited. Their outrageous claims during the trade union session were greeted with disbelief by delegates new to the industrys tactics. From what I saw and the feedback I received from those at the session, I believe the industry and its representatives are becoming ever more isolated. In light of the WHO restrictions already in place for the tobacco industry at these sessions and the weight of global evidence against chrysotile asbestos, its surely time to question the appropriateness of allowing the attendance of these delegates to an event the tagline of which was A Global Vision of Prevention. Surely, at such an event, there is no place for those acting on behalf of an industry whose product is linked to nearly 200,000 deaths a year according to the latest independent research.
Dissension in the Ranks
Even in Russia, the worlds largest supplier of chrysotile asbestos, industrys dominance of the national asbestos agenda is faltering. At a meeting last month (August 2017) in the Russian city of Kazan, President Rustam Minnikhanov of Tartarstan confronted the head of the Russian asbestos giant Orenburg Minerals JSC. Disputing reassurances given by the executive, the President asked about the poisonous nature of chrysotile.15 This is the first time that such a high level administrator has questioned the safety of asbestos. At about the same time as this exchange was reported,16 preliminary asbestos trade data for 2016 was received which showed a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Russian asbestos industry. Although Russian production and consumption data are notoriously unreliable, an initial comparison of the figures for 2015 and 2016 revealed:
The Empire Strikes Back
Although the 2016 collapse in Russian consumer demand for asbestos may just be a blip lets hope not desperate attempts are being made to shore up demand from elsewhere. On August 25, 2017 an event entitled Chrysotile Asbestos was held in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic by the Russian Chrysotile Association (RCA).18 Although Vladimir Galitsyn of the RCA and pro-asbestos Russian government official and sometime researcher from the Yekaterinburg Scientific Center Dr Sergey Kashansky participated, long-gone were the international asbestos superstars and the sense of solidarity provided by their inclusion.19
Zimbabwe, formerly the worlds sixth largest asbestos producer, has been out of the business for a decade. This month it was announced that operations could recommence at the Shabanie and Mashava mines in the south of the country by the end of this year. 20 According to Mines and Mining Development Minister Walter Chidhakwa a capital injection as part of a $100 million loan from the Chinese company XCMG will provide financing needed to revive the mines. As appalling as this would be the last thing the world needs in 2017 is more asbestos it is also very likely to be impossible according to an asbestos expert from South Africa who recalls previous estimates of US$1 billion to resuscitate the mines infrastructure and equipment. His recollection was correct according to a 2016 article: The two mines require US$1 billion in fresh capital for successful revival, an amount analysts said was significant for a country that has failed to attract foreign investors due to unfriendly economic policies.21
What the asbestos industry has so long feared has come to pass. Formerly isolated individuals and organizations from around the world have come together to progress the campaign to ban asbestos using the latest technology and platforms to disseminate their message. In a letter of September 2, 2017, the Occupational Health and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) urged the Chief Minister of Gujarat to carry out rehabilitation work in flooded areas with the use of asbestos-free materials for the protection of health of our people. Doing so, OEHNI Coordinator Jagdish Patel pointed out, could set a precedent for other states and reconfirm the progressive status of Gujarat.22 Recalling Ms. Giannasi's prophecy that: the asbestos industry will survive only in dictatorships it is worth remembering that India is the worlds largest democratic country. Maybe it will be the next one to ban asbestos? The struggle continues.
September 17, 2017
1 This expression was first seen in an article by Denis Campbell entitled: Alcohol firms distorting link with cancer. September 8, 2017.
2 WHO. Chrysotile Asbestos. 2014.
ILO. Resolution concerning asbestos, 2006.
WHO. Elimination of asbestos-related diseases. 2006.
3 Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. June 2017. Central European Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
4 Odgerel, CQ, et al. Estimation of the global burden of mesothelioma deaths from incomplete national mortality data. September 2, 2017, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Epub ahead of print.
5 Sawanyawisuth K. et al. Compensation for Asbestos-Related Diseases in Japan: Utilization of Standard Classifications of Industry and Occupations. July 2017 Doi:10.22034/APJCP.2017.18.7.1779 ISIC
6 Eternit SA (ETER3) Plunged -1.71% on Aug 29.
8 Kazan-Allen L. Ban Asbestos Update: Summer 2017. July 20, 2017.
Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. Press Release. July 21, 2017.
Press Release Calling for Asbestos Ban in Indonesia. July 28, 2017.
9 Below are links to coverage of Summer 2017 asbestos events in Asia.
11 Kazan-Allen L. Defending the Indefensible. August 16, 2008.
12 Selyanin D. Prospects of the Global Chrysotile Ban. XVIII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work Global Forum of Prevention. Book of Abstracts. Page 27. 2008.
14 From information received, along with Alonso (Spanish) and Selyanin (Russian), there were industry supporters from India, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
15 Open Letter to President Minnikhanov. September 1, 2017.
16 Минниханов — минтрансу: «Г..…е дороги делаете!» [Minnikhanov vs. The Ministry of Transport].
August 28, 2017.
17 Other significant information contained in the preliminary data were the following:
18 Страшилки про асбест. Мифы и правда [Horror stories about asbestos. Myths and truths]. September 4, 2017.
20 Zim to resume asbestos production. September 9, 2017.
21 No suitor for Shabanie and Mashaba Mines. June 16, 2016.
22 Letter to Chief Minister of Gujarat, India. September 2, 2017.