Theater of Cruelty

Geography of asbestos

Asbestos has long been far more dangerous in the Nordic countries than in the rest of Europe. Asbestos has gradually become equally dangerous in Europe (west of Russia), the United States and South Africa.


In the Nordic countries, the import, sale and use of asbestos was banned during the 1970s. The danger of cancer had then been known for a long time. But it took a long and persistent struggle from unions, doctors, union lawyers – and from individuals with health problems – to get through such asbestos bans.

Norway had far stricter rules on asbestos than the EU when the EEA agreement was negotiated in 1991-92. We were not required to weaken our asbestos ban, but were allowed, as a transitional arrangement, to uphold our asbestos rules, initially for four years. This transitional arrangement was then extended until it became redundant in 1999.

A quarter of a century later

From 1989, the EU developed, step by step, a law on asbestos that first in 1999 was in line with what was introduced in the Nordic countries a quarter of a century earlier. This long backlog was noticed by the Danes when in the 1980s they were not allowed to put the mark “Can lead to cancer” on building and insulation materials that contained asbestos. Then it became extra striking that the EU Commission started a total – and years-long – asbestos removal in the building where it itself lived long before it proposed a general asbestos ban in the EU.

But the risk of cancer is not over, either in Norway or in the EU, because if asbestos is banned. Cancer caused by asbestos develops slowly and can develop long after working with asbestos-containing material. The EU's own experts estimate that half a million EU citizens will die of asbestos-induced cancer by 2030. And European companies are rich and powerful in inflicting millions of people on cancer in other parts of the world.

Profit-driven double standards

In Europe, asbestos was used in building materials and as insulating material, and European capital remains behind the asbestos mines in Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Canada. Turner, Newall and Etex-Eternit are three European groups with profit-driven double standards: they operate asbestos-free in Western Europe, but produce and sell asbestos elsewhere in the world. At the same time, asbestos waste is shipped to countries in the third world because it is cheapest that such waste is handled without any regulations protecting the danger of cancer.

Two countries have dominated the production of asbestos, the Soviet Union / Russia and Canada. During the 1900s, they accounted for almost 70 percent of total asbestos production. Other countries that have had significant production of asbestos are South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, Brazil and Italy.

Putin also tough on asbestos

In 1975, the consumption of asbestos in Western Europe was 1,4 million tonnes. In 2000 it was down to 30.000 tonnes. In the US, consumption dropped from 800.000 tonnes to 3000 tonnes in 2004.

But in Russia, half a million tonnes are still used a year. There, the Putin government set up an expert panel to assess an asbestos ban in line with the EU's. Despite the majority of occupational diseases specialists being the majority in the panel, the conclusion was a strong defense of the use of asbestos. In Russian media, other countries' asbestos bans are often portrayed as a trade war against Russian asbestos exports.

Major import of cancer risk

Asia is today the most important market for asbestos – and therefore the largest importer of cancer. The international asbestos lobby therefore, or nevertheless, puts a lot of effort into preventing Asian countries from adopting a ban on asbestos.

In Asia, the use of asbestos has dropped in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. But its use is increasing sharply in China and shows no signs of sinking in major consumers such as India and Thailand. The total consumption of asbestos in Asia in 2000 was 860.000 tonnes. Nearly half fell on China, where recovery and use of asbestos takes place completely without regard to health hazards, according to a document released by Euro-LO recently (ETUI-REHS, June 2005) The citation is no better in India, Pakistan and most others Asian countries.

Asbestos corruption in Brazil

In Latin America, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Honduras have recently decided to ban the use of asbestos. But otherwise in Latin America asbestos is used as much as before.

Brazil is the major consumer with its 180.000 tonnes of asbestos a year. Until now, the Lula government has bowed to the pressure of the powerful asbestos lobby, the one behind strong European capital groups. This lobby works along several lines. It denies the health hazard, frightens that 200.000 jobs are at risk – and pays far more when it buys up MPs (also from Lula's Labor Party) than when it has to pay compensation to cancer-stricken workers.

Fernanda Giannasi, who is leading the campaign for an asbestos ban on behalf of the Labor Inspectorate, is constantly threatened with life. In a country like Brazil, such threats are not empty. In January 2004, three inspectors from the Labor Inspectorate were shot and killed on their way to work. The investigation showed that the killers were paid by long-distance transport and agricultural interests with close links at a high level in political life.

South Africa as a bright spot

South Africa is the only major producer of asbestos that has adopted a ban on the production and use of asbestos. The recovery of asbestos took place under such disruptive conditions that the fight against asbestos became part of the fight against apartheid. British-owned asbestos mines measured airborne asbestos content in the 1980s that was 260 times higher than that permitted in the United Kingdom.

In Zimbabwe, another of the traditional major producers of asbestos, the recovery is under the auspices of President Mugabe's closest friends. It causes every asbestos debate to suffocate. In June, LO leader Wellington Chibebe was accused in the media of selling himself to the imperialists when he proposed a ban on the use of asbestos. He obviously withdrew the proposal.

Frightened by compensation claims

In the United States, there is no legal ban on the use of asbestos. On the other hand, the judiciary has been used, first to ban a legal ban, and then to make the use of asbestos far too risky – for profit. The Norwegian Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started work in 1979 to get a ban on the use of asbestos. But business interests were strong enough to stop the Reagan administration from doing so. Nevertheless, the EPA continued to document the health hazards of using asbestos, and in 1989 rules were passed banning most asbestos-containing products. These regulations were declared invalid by the Federal Court of Appeal two years later.

Trade unions and environmental groups have later tried in vain to pass rules that prohibit or restrict the use of asbestos. But what succeeds is all the lawsuits that asbestos victims have filed against companies that have put them at risk of cancer. Halliburton alone – known as Vice President Dick Cheney's pet – faces 300.000 claims from asbestos victims with a total compensation amount of over four billion dollars. But companies that no longer dare to use asbestos in the United States feel safe in other parts of the world.

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