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Asbestos, a deadly and invisible fiber

Asbestos, a deadly and invisible fiber

By Paco Puche

The harmful impact of asbestos on health has been known since the beginning of the last century, despite which it has been used ubiquitously in a large number of applications. The article also emphasizes the strong links of some supposedly philanthropic foundations, such as Avina and Ashoka, with the asbestos industry.


When we reflect on our twentieth century, we will not find the misdeeds of the wicked the worst, but the scandalous silence of good people. Martin Luther King

The tragedy of asbestos or asbestos is, perhaps, the most serious case in the history of mankind in which the health and lives of millions of people have been gambled [1], for the benefit and with knowledge of the facts, for a hundred years.

Not in vain, and according to the always prudent official figures, the magnitude of the catastrophe is such that "currently more than 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos in their workplace" [2]. As a consequence, there are more than 100,000 deaths each year from this cause.

The number of diseases continues to rise even in countries where this material was banned in the 1990s due to the long latency of these ailments; and “even if its use is immediately prohibited, the death toll it causes will only begin to decline within several decades” [2].

In short, every five minutes a person dies from an asbestos disease and will continue to do so for many years.

In the case of Spain, although its use has been prohibited since 2002, in the previous thirty years the number of workers employed in companies with asbestos has been around 100,000; companies that have been distributed throughout the geography and have covered many industrial branches, from construction, to the Uralita fiber cement factories, through the naval, automobile, water, Renfe industry and a long etcetera, up to a total of 1,100 companies. Not in vain are calculated in more than 3,000 different products derived from asbestos.

It should be added that since they are especially small fibers (they are measured in angstrom, which is one millimeter divided into 10 million parts) they are easily inserted into the interior of the organs, something for which the body has few defenses and, at the same time, long, they produce several diseases, including cancer and mesothelioma.

This has also meant that not only company workers have contracted diseases, but also people who have lived in the factory environment, as is the case of Cerdanyola [3].

When in the year 2000 Joaquín Nieto, from CC OO, wrote an article for Ecologista on the same subject [4], its use was still prohibited except in a few European countries, so the fight had only just begun . To date, there are 52 states in which the prohibition is in force and in about 150 in which its extraction and use is still allowed. These countries are almost all belonging to those with the lowest incomes, so the tragedy is still alive in the workers and families of the poorest. One more case of relocation.

Nieto said in his article: "perhaps the greatest danger to public health and the environment comes from the public water and irrigation pipes since most were made of asbestos-cement based on crocidolite", or blue asbestos, the most dangerous from the range. “It has been shown that water can exert a dragging action on asbestos particles of up to tens of millions per liter, depending on the degree of acidity of the water and whether it is more or less calcareous.

Already in 1981 CC OO had more than 500 bibliographic references on the relationship asbestos-water-cancer ”[5]. In Spain, thousands of kilometers of pipes, hundreds of thousands of square meters of roofs, roofs, tanks, etc., are installed and dispersed throughout the geography, up to about three million tons in total. Therefore, there is a long battle for the deamiantization of the country, under adequate labor and social conditions.

Ángel Cárcoba, from CC OO, in his magnificent statement entitled "I accuse", pointed out many of those responsible and concluded in this way: "Given this situation, I call for the creation of an International Labor Criminal Court where they appear and resolve the responsibilities of those who turn the workplace into places of violence, illness and death ”[6].

Eternit, the asbestos multinational

Why are victims' associations accusing the Eternit company? Because until the end of the 20th century, and for almost the entire period, it was a few European families that had dominated the asbestos business in the world. Especially three: the Swiss Schmidheiny -the most important-, the Belgian Emsens and the French Cuvelier. And they, along with other British, Italian and Spanish magnates, have formed the cartel and lobby since 1929, under the acronym SAIAC, and have exploited the integral business in the last century, preferably under the name of Eternit (Uralita in Spain) .
Around the world, at the time of the euphoria of the Eternit empire, between 1950 and 1989, the Swiss family had companies in 16 countries with more than 23,000 workers. With the rest of the families, they have controlled the extraction and production of asbestos-cement in 44 countries on the four largest continents.
For example, in 1985, it is estimated that the Swiss and Belgian families controlled 25% of all the world's asbestos-cement.

It has been estimated that in Western Europe alone "asbestos will cause the death of 500,000 people in the first thirty years" [5]. As in this area and at this time the three families have dominated, the Schmidheiny can be awarded more than a third of the massacre, and even more because the lobby turned them into a single company (quasi-monopoly) that determined places of production, prices, imports and masking maneuvers of the lethality of the mineral.


As Alejandro Teitelbaum maintains, “Article 7 (crimes against humanity) of the Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome 1998) can be invoked before the courts as current law against leaders of transnational companies, in particular subsection 1, section k): ' other inhuman acts that cause great suffering or seriously threaten physical integrity or mental or physical health '[…] or Article II, paragraph c) of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:' intentional submission of the group to conditions of existence that will lead to their physical destruction, total or partial ”[7]. This could be the case for the Schmidheiny and other families who could be considered as suspected genocidaires because the lethality of asbestos has been known since the beginning of the 20th century [8].

At this moment the criminal trial is taking place, which has aroused enormous interest around the world, against the owners of the asbestos companies established in the Turin region. Initiated on December 10, 2009 against Stephan Schmidheiny and the Belgian Baron De Cartier, they are accused of permanent environmental catastrophe and intentional omission of workplace safety rules (willful crime).

They are asking for 13 years in prison and compensation that can reach five billion euros! A fabulous figure only in this trial, in which they are tried for the death of two thousand people and a thousand sick from asbestos in the aforementioned region .

A trial that is a first in the world because the owners had never been tried, since it was the top executives of Eternit's companies who were the accused.

In addition, it is verified that the Swiss family has collaborated with the Nazi regime, with South African apartheid and with the Latin American dictatorships in favor of the business, hence the double allegation of the victims: as such and because of the company's history. It is not surprising that one of the living heirs, Stephan Schmidheiny, is one of the richest men in the world (354 in the Forbes 2010 list), and that until 2003 he was a director and shareholder of Nestlé, one of the companies most questioned on the planet for the competition it exercises against breastfeeding.

Stephan Schmidheiny and the Avina Foundation

What may seem strange is that in 1994 he created a philanthropic foundation called Avina and that in 2003 he made it a beneficiary of the businesses it has in Latin America.

He already pointed out, because in 1991 he was one of the managers of the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) "in order to provide a business perspective on sustainable development during the Rio Summit", which today brings together the 170 most important and polluting the world, "united by a shared vision about sustainable development […] The Council intends to promote business leadership as a catalyst for change towards sustainable development, based on eco-efficiency, innovation and corporate social responsibility" , as he himself tells on his website.

It is therefore one of the fathers of greenwashing companies and of that privatization of public control of them called "corporate social responsibility, CSR" [9].

But Avina aims further, not only creates ad hoc NGOs or finances others with similar objectives, but also intends to turn every NGO into a company that collaborates with other existing ones in favor of development, or as they say, also in doing business with the poor they are "the business of business." This carries with it “the legitimate right of the rich to get even richer”, which some of its leading partners proclaim. "Our mission is to contribute to the sustainable development of Latin America, fostering the construction of bonds of trust and fruitful alliances between social and business leaders, and articulating consensual action agendas", as they say of themselves.
Schmidheiny says in his autobiography [10] that in order to help "the initiative presented must include a business plan and very specific objectives and criteria, which allow us to evaluate its viability and its chances of success."

Although it seems surreal, it aims to turn social movements and NGOs into companies and their leaders into entrepreneurs, of course capitalists. For example, it has among its leading partners Gustavo Grobocopatel, the so-called king of transgenic soy in Argentina, and has alliances with the largest companies and foundations in the world such as: Ashoka, Melinda and Bill Gates, Rockefeller Foundation, Coca-Cola Brazil and others. . Schmidheiny has also partnered with the Catholic Church through the Society of Jesus (Centro Magis and Fe y Alegría, among others).

The Ashoka Foundation Since its founding, Avina connects with Ashoka, another large capital foundation linked to J.P. Morgan and the neoliberal consultancy McKinsey. Also with relations with the US Departments of State and Defense [11].

From that date they do their work together. They can be considered as an inseparable tandem: a strategic alliance as they say, in which most ideas, partners, financing, means and direction are common. "Ashoka does not have a closer or lasting ally than Avina," declared Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, on the Avina website; where, in addition, it can be read that "during the last thirteen years (1994-2007) Avina has invested more than 28 million dollars in the growth and consolidation of Ashoka". Ashoka counts among its prominent partners the Peruvian Hernando de Soto, a staunch defender of neoliberal theses, who was an advisor to Fujimori and who has been the one who has brought the Free Trade Agreement with the United States to fruition, led by Alan Garcia. In the events of Bagua, Peru [12], which amounted to dozens of murders, mainly of peasants and indigenous people, which occurred last year due to resistance to the privatization of their common goods, Mr. de Soto appeared recommending his neoliberal privatization theses .

Similarly, it works closely with the Gates Foundation to implement the AGRA program in sub-Saharan Africa [13], an initiative that Monsanto has joined to “donate drought-tolerant genes to poor African countries” [14]. In the Spanish case, it must be noted with great concern that Avina and Ashoka are having a deep penetration in social movements, including anti-capitalist, through their presence in areas such as water, rural development, CSR and alternative banking, among others.
That is why this article aims to alert social movements. The asbestos tragedy will go indelibly
associated with Eternit, Stephan Schmidheiny, his Avina foundation and the sister foundation Ashoka [15].

Paco puche, Ecologists in Action Malaga City, Spain - Published in Ecologist, nº 66, fall 2010

Notes and references:

1 "Asbestos continues to be the carcinogen that most affects workers, and outside the workplace the second environmental source of cancer, after tobacco", in CC OO Andalucía (Foundation for the prevention of occupational risks), 2007: Asbestos : Impact on health and the environment. p.8.

2 WHO (2006): Elimination of asbestos-related diseases, Geneva. pp. 1 and 2.

3 Recently (July 2010), a court has ruled that Uralita, who will appeal the sentence, must compensate 45 residents of Cerdanyola and Ripollet with 3.9 million euros for the conditions caused by the asbestos fibers that were detached from the factory located in that first town.

4 Nieto, J. (2000): "Asbestos: a murderer on the loose", in Ecologista, nº 20, spring.

5 Cárcoba, A., (2000): Asbestos in Spain, CC OO and Ediciones PyCh., P.49

6 Cárcoba, A. (2008): “I accuse”, www.salillas.net/asbestosi/yo_acuso.htm

7 Teitelbaum, A. (2010): The armor of capitalism, Icaria, p. 290

8 “Since the first description of asbestosis in an asbestos worker in 1898, in 1906 the death of 50 textile workers was reported in France and in 1907 the alteration of the lung tissue of pulmonary asbestosis was observed for the first time”. Jaume Ferrer, in CC OO Andalucía, 2007: Asbestos: Impact on health and the environment. p.34.

9 Hernández, J. and Ramiro, P. (eds.) (2009): The business of responsibility, Icaria

10 Schmidheiny, S. (2006): My vision- My trajectory. www.vivatrust.com

11 Puche, P. (2010): “Ashoka, the penetration of big capital in social movements”, in preparation.

12 “Bagua, neither forgetting nor forgiveness” ,, 6.6.10 https://www.ecoportal.net/content/view/full/93474

13 http://www.ashoka.es/comunicadosprensa (2010)

14 Shand, H. (2008): The business of killing hunger, ETC Group.

15 Puche, P. (2009): “The case of Avina, Ashoka and other philanthropic entities (Notice for social movements)”, El Observador, 12. 03, on the Internet: “The observer readings impertinent”, and Puche, P. (2010): “Dismantling S. Schmidheiny. Asbestos crimes: from the multinational Eternit to the Avina foundation "", El Observador, 18.05, on the Internet: "The observer readings impertinent" and, 26.05.10

Photo 1. Protester at the entrance of the Turin courts.

Photo 2. Dismantling an asbestos roof


Video: Asbestos Fibres - How your lungs are effected - Asian Ban Asbestos Video,English (June 2021).