Asbestos Bans

The only way to assure an end to the asbestos cancer epidemic is to ban asbestos mining and to ban all asbestos manufacture. This approach, which has been taken in many developed countries, is even more necessary in developing countries, where enforcement of health and safety regulations is not a viable alternative to a ban. Some further examples of industry manipulation will demonstrate how the ban movement has been successfully opposed for many years.

An international meeting was held in 1994 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Its organizer was the courageous Brazilian labor inspector Fernanda Giannasi, a woman who was charged with “criminal defamation” by the Brazilian subsidiary of the multinational Saint-Gobain Corporation in a vain effort to silence her objections to the asbestos industry. The meeting called for a global asbestos ban. The conference was held in a very tense atmosphere. The Canadian government, the French Asbestos Committee, and Brazilian asbestos manufacturers were outspoken in their opposition to the meeting. Events leading up to the meeting explain why.

The ILO had been approached in 1993 by the International Fiber Safety Group (IFSG) to hold training workshops in Brazil and Mexico to train specialists in the reading of chest X-ray films. The IFSG offered to bear most of the cost of the Latin American workshops (Giannasi and Thebaud-Mony 1997). The IFSG’s representative was Scott Houston, who actually worked in Quebec as the director of the Asbestos Institute, an industry association. The IFSG was created as a result of agreements within the international asbestos industry, although its exclusive representation of asbestos interests was obscured by its name. Inside the ILO, agreements with the IFSG were handled by longtime asbestos industry representative Michel Lesage (Giannasi and Thebaud-Mony 1997).

Lesage, introduced at the Brazil conference as a medical expert from the ILO, was also a member of the board of directors of the ICOH and a spokesman for the asbestos industry. Lesage had previously been an official of the Quebec Asbestos Mining Association and has since returned to Canada. He spoke against the proposed asbestos bah (Castleman 2000). His statements at the conference surprised the other participants, who had expected the ILO to have a position distinct from that of the asbestos industry. Lesage advanced the concept of “controlled use” of asbestos, “sale” practices that are a fiction in the developing countries where regulations is seldom enforced and voluntary standards are almost never implemented of monitored (Castleman 2003; Egilman and Roberts 2004). The strictest occupational exposure limit in the world for chrysotile asbestos (0.1 fiber/cc) is estimated to be associated with lifetime risks of 5/1,000 for lung cancer and 2/1,000 for asbestosis (Stayner et al. 1997). This exposure limit can be technically achieved in the United States and in a few other highly industrialized countries, but the residual risks still are too high to be acceptable. In newly industrializing countries engaged in mining, manufacturing, and construction, asbestos exposures are often much higher, and the potential for epidemics of asbestos-related disease is greatly increased (Giannasi and Thebaud-Mony 1997; Izmerov et al. 1998).

Marianne Saux, also an ICOH board member, was introduced in Brazil as a labor expert representing the French Ministry of Labor. She was actually an employee of asbestos manufacturer Saint-Gobain, a fact known to her ICOH colleagues but made public only after an investigative journalist wrote a book in France about the asbestos industry and its international dimensions (Malye 1996). The meeting was followed within months by a meeting jointly sponsored by the ILO and the asbestos industry (represented by the IFSG).

A monograph on fibrous materials was prepared for the ILO by the ICOH Scientific Committee on Fibers (Castleman 1999). The monograph was distributed by the ILO to scientific reviewers in August 1997. Experts on asbestos (among them, William Nicholson, Morris Greenberg, and John Dement) noted with dismay that the asbestos chapter had been written by Jacques Dunnigan, Director for Health and Environment for the Asbestos Institute, and that the editor-in-chief was Graham Gibbs, another member of the ICOH board of directors and perennial representative of the Canadian asbestos industry. Nicholson, Greenberg, and Dement declined to review chapters of the draft ILO report, not wanting to have their names associated with it (Castleman 1999; Castleman and Lemen 1998b). Strong protests from unions in the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, and the United States followed, along with criticism from scientists. The ILO judiciously withdrew the report from consideration as an ILO publication.

ICOH Vice President Bengt Knave expressed surprise to learn of the asbestos controversy in January 1998, then refused to discuss the matter. In an effort to understand how the ILO had come to believe that the draft fibers report was being prepared by the ILO “in cooperation with” the ICOH, the ILO was asked to provide a copy of the cover letter that accompanied the monograph when it was delivered to the ILO by the ICOH Scientific Committee on Fibers (Ashford et al. 2002). Jukka Takala, chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Branch, Working Conditions and Environment Department at the ILO, has denied all efforts to obtain the document (Ashford et al. 2002).

ICOH President Jean-Francois Caillard presided over an ICOH meeting in Nice, France. He introduced and praised J.P. Beffa, President of Saint-Gobain, in gratitude for support to the ICOH meeting given by the asbestos company. When the ICOH officers and board members later met in Paris, they convened in the Saint-Gobain boardroom, as did the officers of all the scientific committees. Later, at an address before the French Society for Occupational Medicine, Caillard said that asbestos, which was responsible for an estimated 2,000 deaths annually, had been a “health catastrophe” for France (Caillard 1997). Caillard defended French occupational physicians from criticism of their failure to recognize and to properly report the asbestos cancer epidemic. Caillard did not mention his own close ties to the asbestos industry, or those of many of his French colleagues (Thebaud-Mony 2003).

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