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Hazards issue 85, January-March 2004
Global Asbestos plc - it lies, it kills, it robs the dead
It blocked a deal that would have made it more difficult to unload asbestos on the developing world. It bought scientists and column inches in national papers. And it is killing hundreds of thousands each year. Hazards exposes the global asbestos industry's desperate battle for survival - at any price.

Selling death
Hazards issue 85, January-March 2010



Global dirty tricks campaign

Asbestos producer nations have blocked the addition of chrysotile (white) asbestos to the UN list of highly dangerous substances that cannot be exported to developing countries without their knowledge and agreement. The blocking manoeuvre on "prior informed consent" (PIC) listing of chrysotile at the Rotterdam convention meeting in Geneva on 18 September 2004 was spearheaded by the Canadian and Russian governments.

The move drew protests from campaigners, while the European Union said it would set a negative precedent. "The failure to list chrysotile asbestos is a bad omen for the convention, risking serious harm by sending a signal that the convention's requirements do not need to be taken seriously," said Clifton Curtis, director of World Wildlife Fund's global toxics programme.

Global construction union IFBWW, which has been at the forefront of the worldwide union ban campaign on asbestos, expressed "profound disappointment and its determination to continue the struggle for a global ban." Supporters of the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the list are expected to keep up the pressure.

Asbestos bundle image
DEADLY BUNDLE Microscope analysis shows a bundle of white asbestos fibres in the Asbestos Institute press release paper. An analysis found the paper to be composed of 60 per cent asbestos by weight.

Asbestos makeover reignites old battle, Toronto Star, 22 November 2003 • International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

The asbestos lobby pulled off an identical blocking move at the 2003 PIC meeting. As the procedure has no mechanism to force signatories to play by the rules, Canada and other asbestos interests could feasibly block listing indefinitely. However, the strategy could totally discredit the Rotterdam Treaty, which could lead to increasing pressure on these nations to observe the spirit of the treaty.

In September 2004, the International Social Security Association joined international union and health organisations in calling for a global asbestos ban.

More information see the Hazards PIC and asbestos pages

Doctoring the facts

The Asbestos Institute has spearheaded the global asbestos industry charm offensive - and has used dirty tricks and suspect science to further its arguments.

A paper in the November 2003 edition of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine (AJIM) concludes: "The Canadian asbestos mining industry has a long history of manipulating scientific data to generate results that support claims that their product is 'innocuous'"(3).

It adds that the industry does this by retaining its own, industry sympathetic researchers. "Researchers complicit in this manipulation seem to be motivated by a variety of interests, including a desire to support an important national industry and a pre-existing ideological commitment to support corporate interests over worker or community interests.

"Conducting industry-friendly research can also anchor an academic career by guaranteeing the steady stream of funding necessary to stay afloat in the 'publish or perish' environment of the university."

The report comes on the heels of a paper in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH) that concluded the continued use of asbestos "is testament to the effectiveness of a campaign, spearheaded by Canadian interests, to promote a product already banned in many developed countries."(4).

Cancer epidemic

Asbestos will inevitably claims thousands of lives in those already exposed. Today, thousands are dying each year in the UK as a result of exposures a working lifetime ago.

The United Kingdom is facing an epidemic of mesothelioma cancers among workers exposed to asbestos. An editorial in the 31 January 2004 edition of the British Medical Journal said there are now over 1,800 mesothelioma deaths per year in Britain - more than one in 200 of all deaths in men and almost one in 1,000 in women - and the number is still rising, with the peak of the epidemic still to come.(5)

"For a man first exposed as a teenager, who remained in a high risk occupation, such as insulation, throughout his working life, the lifetime risk of mesothelioma can be as high as one in five.

"There is nothing we can do now to prevent it in workers exposed to asbestos throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. What we can do is recognise it early, treat it actively, and learn about best treatment with carefully thought out studies because we will be seeing many more mesotheliomas in the next 25 years. In the developed world alone 100,000 people alive now will die from it."

Others argue the real risk is much, much higher. Hugh Robertson, head of health and safety at the British TUC says: "A more realistic estimate is that within the EU alone 500,000 will die in the next 35 years, half from mesothelioma and half from lung cancer. In Japan, an estimated 100,000 will die. If you add the Australian, Canadian and US figures then even a million is an underestimation - and that is only for the developed countries."

For each mesothelioma case, experts estimate there will be between one and three asbestos-related lung cancer cases.

No justice for victims

Any notion of compensation is as elusive as justice for many of the victims. The company sent in as administrator for T&N, the asbestos giant that opted for bankruptcy to avoid asbestos payouts to dying workers, is making millions in fees while sufferers receive nothing. Kroll Buchler Phillips has charged £17 million in fees to date and their solicitors have charged £6 million.

Tony Whitston, a spokesperson for the coalition of asbestos support groups that lobbied Kroll's UK HQ in November 2003, said "the administrators are making a financial 'killing,' significantly reducing the fund they are supposed to help to establish!"

Kroll demo image

The system protects hazardous employers and insurers, but routinely penalises the victims of deadly occupational diseases.

Moira Sim, whose husband died of an asbestos-related cancer, was told in February 2004 she has failed in her attempt to collect the £200,000 compensation awarded by a court - with interest, the award would be currently worth about £400,000. Brian Sim was 44 when he died from mesothelioma in 1992.

Three years later his widow Moira, from Torrance near Glasgow, won compensation from his former employer, Don (Contractors Limited) - which went out of business in 1987. But a judge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh has ruled that an insurance firm was not liable for the pay-out.

Tomorrow's epidemic

The epidemic of asbestos disease is expected to peak in the next decade. By then, though, the first signs of its successor, the asbestos epidemic designed to hit developing nations should be emerging.

History is already destined to repeat itself, as the asbestos industry's energetic sales pitch in developing nations has already ensured hundreds of thousands have been exposed to asbestos fibres without the safety precautions and training that might have reduced the risks.

The industry is fearful of the global asbestos campaign, which has gathered momentum in the last decade. Those European Union countries who haven't banned asbestos already must have bans in place by next year; Australia banned white asbestos at the start of the year.

But the trend is not all so healthy. Even some developed nations have increased imports of asbestos, improving the survival chances of an industry that should have been left to die.

Latest US Commerce Department figures show that US asbestos imports have climbed by 300 per cent over the last decade. And when the St. Louis Post- Dispatch's Pulitzer prize winning reporter Andrew Schneider examined Securities and Exchange Commission filings and press releases from the five largest asbestos targets who have filed for bankruptcy, he found most were doing rather well.

The most recent reports from Armstrong, WR Grace, Federal Mogul, Owens Corning and US Gypsum show that with a single exception, all have increased sales and have the same or a greater number of employees than before they filed for protective bankruptcy, termed a "Chapter 11" filing in US business parlance.

The supposed plight of these companies, however, has been the justification for strong pressure for new laws which could soon create a cash-limited compensation pot, a move personal injury lawyers say would save the companies billions.

The US manoeuvres are already hurting UK workers - Federal Mogul owns UK company Turner and Newall, which has frozen payouts to thousands of dying UK asbestos victims.


1. Rotterdam Convention prior informed consent system.more

2. News round-up. Asbestos poisoning was covered up by doctors, claims health team. BMJ, vol.327, page 248, 2003

3. David Egilman and others. Exposing the Myth of ABC, Anything But Chrysotile: A critique of the Canadian asbestos mining industry and McGill University chrysotile studies, AJIM, vol.44, issue 5, pages 540-557, 2003.

4. Laurie Kazan-Allen, The asbestos war, IJOEH, vol.9, no.3, pages 173-193, 2003. [pdf]

5. T Treasure, D Waller, S Swift and J Peto. Editorial. Radical surgery for mesothelioma. The epidemic is still to peak and we need more research to manage it. British Medical Journal, volume 328, pages 237-238, 31 January 2004TUC news releaseBBC News Online


International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

IBAS international listing of victim support groups

UK asbestos groups

Ban Asbestos Canada


Generations of deadly asbestos deceit

Asbestos advert imageA generation ago, the UK asbestos industry paid for full page advertisements in national newspapers and magazines.

A UK Asbestos Information Committee ad from the 2 September 1970 edition of Punch claimed we would be "in danger!" withoutasbestos, warning that without this "indispensable material" ships and buildings would be in peril from fire. In fact, fire deaths
plummeted after asbestos
lagging was banned.

Having lost the argument in the UK, the global asbestos industry is now using the same sleazy PR techniques in developing nations.

A "special sponsored feature" in the 9 January 2004 edition of India's Business Standard newspaper, looking deceptively like an ordinary feature, claims a New Delhi conference convened by Indian, Canadian and US asbestos industry bodies - including the Canadian government-funded Asbestos Institute - "had cleared the last fibres of doubt about the effect of chrysotile asbestos cement on human health and environment."

gAnother headline in the advertorial claims: "Asbestos cement used in India is free from all health risks"; another says "The last fibres of doubt disappear at the International Conference."

The industry is not relying solely on propaganda, however. A report in British Medical Journal last year said occupational health doctors complain they are under pressure from the asbestos industry to label patients with asbestos disease as having tuberculosis or bronchitis (2).

A team led by Dr Tushar Kant Joshi, head of occupational medicine at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital, New Delhi says random x-ray screening finds lung disease in about 20 per cent of asbestos-exposed workers.

Joshi has been told on several occasions he will lose his job if he continues to criticise the asbestos industry.

India is a major importer of asbestos, currently using around 125,000 tonnes of asbestos each year, most of this from Canada.

gThe global asbestos industry PR campaign was given a boost this year when both the Canadian federal and Quebec provincial governments agreed new six-figure funding for the Chrysotile Insitute, the asbestos trade's international lobbying organisation.

Subsequently the global asbestos industry escalated its massive advertising campaign in developing nations. Above, a poster from a US$1.3M advertising campaign from Crisotila Brasil.


Deadly message

The asbestos industry has introduced a new occupational group to the hazards of asbestos - journalists. A 22 November 2003 Toronto Star article by Canadian journalist Peter Gorrie reported: "The jolt of fright came at the bottom of an information sheet sent to reporters: 'This press release is printed on chrysotile paper'...

He added: "Why should that simple statement lead to nervous tremors? Because chrysotile is not just any old ingredient in paper. It's a form of asbestos. And asbestos is a convicted mass-killer, one of the most feared substances on Earth. Over the past century, it has caused millions of deaths, and the annual toll is still at least 100,000."

And why would anyone go to these lengths? "The press release, from a Montreal-based lobby group called the Asbestos Institute, is part of an effort by the industry and the federal and Quebec governments to rehabilitate asbestos by demonstrating it can be used safely," Gorrie wrote.

Laurie Allen, editor of the British Asbestos Newsletter said the beige-coloured shiny paper looked fairly innocuous and was being promoted by the Asbestos Institute as an innovative product suitable for archival and other uses.

In January 2004, a sample of this paper was analyzed by a UKAS-accredited laboratory in England; it was found to have a surprisingly high asbestos content. A second US analysis confirmed the sample was "composed of chrysotile asbestos, cellulose and a thin layer of calcium carbonate on one side... Chrysotile is approximately 10-15 per cent by volume and approximately 60 per cent by weight."

Allen reports the paper "would, upon tearing or rough handling be almost certain to liberate fibres into the atmosphere."

Asbestos campaigners in Canada say they plan to refer the Asbestos Institute to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on the grounds that unsuspecting individuals could have faced potentially harmful exposures as a result of the lobby group's irresponsible promotion.


US study "shatters" asbestos bankruptcies myth

The first-ever analysis of US federal mortality records has found that 10,000 Americans die each year from asbestos exposure, and projects that up to 10 times that many will die in the next decade.

More Americans die each year from cancers and other illnesses caused by asbestos than from fires and drowning combined, according to the March 2004 study by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund (EWG).

It says although many Americans believe that asbestos has already been banned and its victims have been compensated by the courts, this is almost completely wrong.

The study reports that 30 million pounds of asbestos are used in the US each year, with more than one million workers exposed every year.

A new EWG website makes public decades of secret documents proving that the corporations knew asbestos was deadly but continued to poison their workers and the public for the sake of profits. EWG Action Fund researchers found that fewer than two per cent of workers exposed to asbestos have asked for help paying medical bills.

It says its research "shatters the bankruptcy myth," revealing companies tell the world they have been driven bankrupt by asbestos suits but tell their shareholders their bottom lines have not suffered.

EWG news releases and asbestos website

Unions expose Australian asbestos "corporate bastardry"

Allegations that Australian building materials giant James Hardie Industries has turned its back on tens of thousands of dying workers are to be investigated by a high-powered official inquiry.

New South Wales state premier Bob Carr bowed in March 2004 to vigorous union campaigning when he announced the probe into the failure of trusts established by James Hardie to handle its asbestos-related liabilities.

The manoeuvre was criticised by Paul Bastian of the manufacturing union AMWU as a "sham," designed to deny compensation to thousands of dying workers and their families. He accused the company of an "act of corporate bastardry."

AMWU said the company knew the effects of asbestos and profited by tens of millions of dollars from continuing production.

Unions in the state became key players in a campaign to "unmask" the truth, and last year arranged for dozens of sufferers of asbestos related illnesses to confront shareholders outside a meeting in Sydney.

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Search Hazards

Selling death


Dirty tricks
Doctoring the facts
Cancer epidemic

No justice for victims
Tomorrow's epidemic

Extra features

Generations of deadly asbestos deceit more

Deadly message more

US study "shatters" asbestos bankruptcies myth more

Unions expose Australian asbestos "corporate bastardry" more

Don't mess with the unions
A global union campaign has seen James Hardie's rapid descent from darling of the stockmarket to company in crisis, facing protests and legal action on three continents. more

Union declaration
Joint Declaration from the International Building Trade Union Federations, made at the Global Asbestos Congress, Tokyo, November 2004.
Full declaration

Asbestos interests
block global safety move
Asbestos producer nations have blocked the addition of chrysotile (white) asbestos to the UN list of highly dangerous substances that cannot be exported to developing countries without their knowledge and agreement. more

The making of
a global epidemic

Tuva: The asbestos mine - slides and video clips from one of the world's largest open cast asbestos mines, by Jonathan Smith and David Gala. more

USA: Breath Taken: The Landscape & Biography of Asbestos - an exhibition by Bill Ravanesi. pdf

South Africa: Cape dust: Forgotten South African asbestos victims demand justice - photographs by Hein du Plessis. more

Hazards webpages
AsbestosDeadly business


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