Asbestos: chronicle of an announced tragedy

Asbestos: chronicle of an announced tragedy

By Francisco Puche

Asbestos, asbestos or, as it is popularly known in Spain, uralite, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths throughout the 20th century and will continue to be so for the next few years. Behind the asbestos, profiting without shame, are several of the best European families.

Asbestos: chronicle of an announced tragedy

With the exception of gunpowder, asbestos is the most immoral substance with which people have been made to work; sinister forces that profit from asbestos (…) willingly sacrifice workers' health in exchange for corporate profits. (Remi Poppe, former MEP of the Low PP)

Hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths will occur in the coming decades as a result of asbestos exposures at work, at home, and in the environment. (CCOO Andalucía, 2007. "Asbestos: impact on health and the environment")

The number of people who die each year in the world as a result of exposure to asbestos is estimated at 100,000. (ILO, 2006)

The extraction, transformation and handling of products containing asbestos (or asbestos) has caused, in the past 20th century, tens of thousands of illnesses and premature deaths and it is expected that in the next fifty years there will be hundreds of thousands, taking into account that there is a lag between exposure to lethal fiber and the manifestations of the disease of up to 30 years and, because even though its harmfulness is clear and definitive, in about 150 countries its extraction, transformation and use.

In industrialized countries it is the main cause of occupational diseases and, after tobacco, the first deadliest environmental carcinogen known today. For this reason, this tragedy has been called "the asbestos genocide."

Asbestos is extracted from serpentine and amphibole mines, crystalline silicates composed of microscopic fibers, of which the most important today are in Canada, Russia, Kasakhstan, China and Brazil, and from which more than two million tons per year. There are different types of asbestos, but the one that has been used the most (and is still used) is chrysotile or white asbestos, which of all the modalities is the least virulent, but like the other carcinogens and pathogens. The contamination continues.

Asbestos has been applied in up to 3,000 different products, but the most abundant and well-known is fiber cement used in construction and in water pipes. The discovery of this asbestos-cement (fiber cement) combination took place in 1900 by the Austrian Hatschek, who died prematurely, possibly as the first victim of its discovery. Due to the “eternal” nature that he suspected the product would have, he called the companies that manufactured it “Eternit”. As it only gave one license per country, from the beginning, a group of four Central European families was formed that would go on to dominate the production of this patent: the Schmidheiny, the Emsens, the Hatscheks and the Cuveliers. The early cartel constituted under the hegemony of the first two families (Swiss and Belgian), as well as the multiple corporate relationships between them, allows us to speak of the multinational Eternit, an asbestos empire that lasted in Europe until 2004, when Eternit -Belgium stops manufacturing it, and it has spread to more than 25 countries around the world. Together with the English company Turner & Nevall, in 1929 they formed the cartel called SAIAC, based on coordination, price and purchase agreements, expansion outside of Europe, functioning as a lobby to fight against the prohibition or strict regulation and to generate opinion publishes.

The use of asbestos in this work focuses on fiber cement because these products absorb the largest amount of asbestos extracted from mines in the world and because it has been controlled by a single multinational: Eternit.

1. The “killer” fiber

The discovery of the many properties of asbestos makes it come to be called the "miracle mineral". Its combination with cement and water due to its indestructibility, its resistance to fire and its low cost make it a great substitute as a construction material. But very soon its lethal character appears and the history of its harmfulness takes hold throughout the 20th century, with the appearance of prestigious medical publications, despite the concealment and discrediting maneuvers to which the Eternit cartel subjects them.

In 1900 the existence of abestosis, a disease related to asbestos dust, was confirmed. In 1930 the relationship between inhalation of asbestos fibers and abestosis was definitely established. In 1955 the inhalation of asbestos and lung cancer is demonstrated. In 1959 Wagner's works discovered the appearance of cancer (mesothelioma) in the miners and in the surrounding towns, in Johannnesburg. In 1964-65 the work of the team of the American Selikoff achieved the recognition of the scientific community of its harmfulness. In 1973 the WHO recognized that exposure to asbestos caused mesothieloma and lung cancer. In 1978 the European Parliament declared asbestos as a labor carcinogen, but as CCOO says (cited work) many states were anesthetized by industrial and financial lobbies and until 25 years later, in 1999, it was not banned in Europe, entering into force only in 2005.

The table of main diseases caused by inhalation of asbestos is currently established as follows:

Abestosis, which affects the lung, with a latency period of about 10 years, which kills by asphyxia.

Lung cancer, with a latency of 10 to 20 years until its appearance.

Cancer of the pleura, mesothelioma, specific to asbestos, with a 20-40 year latency.

Asbestos turns out to be a perfidious and fearsome toxin, since long latency periods allow tumors to be attributed to tobacco, for example; they do not provide precursor clinical symptoms and the microscopic fibers shed from asbestos-cement are only visible under the electron microscope. Throughout the life cycle of asbestos-cement, from extraction to disposal of waste through its use, significant amounts of fibers are released, which are not fixed and thus expose professionals and many people.

In the attached graph we can see that throughout the twentieth century, in Switzerland, the years 1955 to 1982 have been the years with the most transformation of asbestos-cement, and that with a lag of 30 years, occupational diseases began to occur, which will have their highlight around 2010.

As stated by the ISSA (International Social Security Association, founded in 1927), in a 2006 document: “There is a clear international scientific consensus according to which asbestos, whatever its nature, is a carcinogenic product for even man. in low quantities. There is no good asbestos. The current use of asbestos penalizes the economy of a country for more than 30 years. As for the existing asbestos, although it implies additional costs, the total elimination is the only perennial and realistic solution, if not, the maintenance operations will always be dangerous. Asbestos replacement can be done in all cases. For both human and economic reasons, the prohibition of the production and use of asbestos is unavoidable ”.

2. The victims, their associations and demands. The case of Turin

Those affected have taken more than 70 years to organize and fight for their rights to see justice done, but things are changing rapidly.

The reasons for this late mobilization (let's not forget that asbestos-cement has been produced for over a hundred years) are due to its perfidious nature (the several decades it takes the disease to show its face), to the little that the administrations have done and company doctors, as Ángel Cárcoba relentlessly denounces (“not a single case is known in the entire judicial history in which a company or mutual doctor has testified on behalf of the victims”) and the lobby-cartel set up by Eternit for more than 50 years. As R. Sopoor says, in May 2002, in the Tribune of the Dutch Socialist Party, “if you attack the Eternit companies, country by country, they will slip through your fingers. They are nothing more than subsidiaries of multinationals, it is a typical case of offshoring. The victims will chase shadows, and the country in question will be left with vast environmental pollution.

But from the end of the seventies, the victims organized in Australia and the US, followed in Japan, in 1987, with the Network for the prohibition of asbestos; In 1989, the Association for those exposed to asbestos was established in Italy, and resistance organizations appeared in Brazil against Eternit (1995), in Nicaragua and Peru (1998), in Belgium (2000), in India (2002). … And since 1991 the international meetings began, starting with the one held in the European Parliament, followed by the constitution, in 1992, of the BAN Network (for the prohibition of asbestos in the world) and the IBAS association (International Ban Abestos Secretariat) promoted together with the European left group in Parliament the Conference entitled "Asbestos, the cost of corporate greed", in September 2006. In February 2008, the International Trade Union Conference on Asbestos was held in Vienna.

Things have changed. In Spain, it is above all the CCOO union that champions the struggles and, according to themselves, from the underground they are already making complaints, which culminated in 2000 and 2007 with the publication of the books "El asianto en España" and "El asianto : impact on health and the environment ”, as well as organization of the victims and pressure on the administration. Asbestos has been banned in Spain since 2002.

The case of the United States is special because all matters have to be claimed in court, by litigation. Well, if in 1982 there were 21,000 lawsuits, in 2000 they rose to 600,000 and the defendant companies went from 300 to 6,000. This situation has led a Supreme Court magistrate to say that such "elephantiasis" was better managed by legal means than by jurisdiction.

But all this movement has culminated, for the moment, in the Turin trial that began on April 9 and in the closure of AVINA, a philanthropic entity of the asbestos magnate S. Schmihheiny, founded in 1994, and financially refloated in 2003 , dedicated to washing the image of the Swiss, to continue doing business and to confuse the social movements of resistance to capitalism with financing and penetration in them.

In the Turin trial the main defendants are S. Schmidheiny and J.L. de Cartier, managers and owners of Eternit Switzerland and Belgium, one from 1973 to 1986, and the other in 1972. It is therefore a retroactive judgment, in a way against the cartel that has dominated, in the 20th century, the production of asbestos in the world. It has been spoken of as the "Nuremberg" of the environment. Eternit is accused of failure to prevent and damage due to asbestos that has caused the death of 2,619 employees, and Schmidheiny is asked for a million euros in compensation for each victim and 13 years in prison.

“Who could have known?” Luisa Minazzi now asks herself, who as a child played in the yard among the eternit powder that her father brought from the factory as if it were something wonderful. Luisa says that those responsible "should be tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity", and one wonders what will happen to all the uralita that is in the towns of Europe, which is still in the same place where it was placed 30 or 40 ago. years ”(Rossend Doménech, Rome, 2008).

While Sthepan Schmidheiny put part of his fortune into safekeeping (by way of an asset hoist, so he knew it would come to him to repair some of the damage inflicted on the tens of thousands of asbestos victims) and with great fanfare , in Costa Rica in 2003, in the presence of the North American ambassador and that of the president of the World Bank, among others, constituted a fund called Viva Trust to finance the now defunct AVINA Foundation, a former worker of its factory in Brazil, who had worked For thirty-eight years, I wrote to him for Christmas of that same year, and he said:

“We, the ex-collaborators of Eternit Osasco, have worked ignoring the risks of asbestos, with self-denial and pride in building the empire of asbestos-cement for your Schmidheiny family. But what have we received in return? A delayed-effect pump implanted in our lungs.

I enclose a photograph of the survivors of Osasco to see if your heart is moved contemplating these human remains that your old collaborators from the golden times of Eternit have become.

We ask that, since you have donated 2.2 billion dollars for philanthropic works, if you would be willing to donate only a few million for the Brazilian Association of Asbestos Victims. (Signed Joao Francisco Grabenweger) ”.

This trust with which Avina has been financing, in turn took financing from, among other companies, a company called AMANCO, dedicated to manufacturing water pipes, especially in Latin America. This is one of the reasons why AVINA has been so interested in water issues and in denouncing the lack of sanitation for hundreds of millions of people in the world: as in many countries it was not prohibited, it has obviously used in facilities , fiber cement for water installations (also PVC) and the leaders of the social movements that it has financed have never promoted dry sanitation, without the need for pipes, which are in many cases viable and ecologically more recommendable alternatives ( they do not need purification, they do not pollute, the compost is used).

3. The families responsible for Eternit: Schmidheiny and Emsens

We have already seen how the lobby, multinational and cartel called Eternit, has dominated the production of asbestos in the world for nearly 100 years. As a result of this monopoly, which had its period of maximum splendor between the sixties and eighties of the twentieth century, two families mainly (the Swiss Schmidheiny and the Belgian Emsens) were placed at the head of the world's magnates.

The Eternit lobby, as Remi Poppi says, “the sinister force that profits from asbestos, does not think twice when it comes to resorting to blackmail, deception and dishonest practices to protect (…) the profits of companies ”.

In the case of Nicaragua, they settled under the name of Nicalit, sharing ownership with the dictator Somoza (40% stake) and they were producing asbestos-cement from 1967 to 1993. The victims are also organized for their defense.

At the Asbestos Conference held in Vienna in February 2008, organized by the International Trade Unions, María Roselli presented her book entitled "The Asbestos Lie", in which she revealed the many lies to which the people have been subjected by the companies in relation to asbestos and declared having found a living Latvian victim, a witness to the slave labor that Eternit subjected some workers to in Germany during the Second World War. The Schmiheiny admit that they had to do some kind of collaboration with Nazism, although they deny the slavery thing. The Turin summary also includes Italians deported to Germany during the Second World War, forced to work with asbestos.

The magnitude of the responsibility of these tycoons has to do with the amount of asbestos moved in the more than one hundred years of use. It is known that more than 200 million tons of asbestos have been used in the world, of which 80 million are installed in Europe and 2.6 million in Spain. And it is known that the risk of inhalation of fibers is present in the entire process: extraction, preparation, transport, transformation, application, use, storage, destruction and waste management.

“Currently some 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos in their workplace. Global estimates show that every year at least 90,000 people die of lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis due to occupational exposure to asbestos. In addition, it is estimated that several thousand additional deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases and non-occupational exposures to asbestos ”(WHO, Sept. 2006).

And as the Committee for Aid and Orientation to Asbestos Victims (CAOVA, 2006) says, the responsibility of these families “towards the victims of asbestos in the world is tailored to their fortunes and the world empire they have built in the course of of the 20th century on secrecy, lies, and the manipulation of public opinion ”.

These historical families stopped production in 2004, at least in Europe, which by that time, in most countries, their production and use were prohibited. But countries like Canada, Russia, etc. have taken over. about 2.5 million tonnes are still extracted each year and are still used in the more than 140 countries where asbestos is not yet banned, with the long-term health consequences described here.

There are many voices that think that those most responsible should be tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

4. The case of Spain: Uralita, Eternit and the March

In Spain, asbestos is better known by its trade name, uralita, than by its proper name. Indeed, in 1903 the company with that name was founded and in 1920 it began to manufacture fiber cement. It is in 1959 when Eternit buys a significant package of shares and Uralita SA becomes part of the asbestos multinational that dominates the world.

In the 70s of the last century, the March Group was the main shareholder and Juan March its president. J. Fortuny said about this character in the Avui newspaper, in 2001, that this and other companies obtained them from the Franco regime as "part of a war booty", because not in vain this tycoon who got rich from smuggling "supported financially the 1936 military rebellion against the republican government ”. As asbestos made a lot of money, the March empire became the world's seventh fortune; this reminds us of the Swiss and Belgians in getting rich quick on the basis of the health of workers and citizens.

The Uralita company has declared for many years net profits of billions of old pesetas and hundreds of millions of euros. For example, between January and September 2007 it obtained a net profit of 70.9 million euros. Thus, while the “producers and importers of this‘ murderous ’mineral increase their profits, millions of workers and citizens die of cancer” (Cárcoba, 2008).

In Spain it has been taking place until 2002 in different localities. As a result of all this production, it has been calculated by the Asbestos Victims Association (AVIDA) that “until 2010 there will be about 1,500 annual deaths of people exposed to asbestos between 1960 and 1975. Between 2010 and 2025 this rate will increase to 2,300 deaths between that exposed until 1990. From 2025 to 2040 it will begin to decrease, reaching 700 deaths per year among those exposed after 90 ”.

In January 1999 the European Commission commissioned a report in which it was concluded that “in the first three decades of 2000 there will be 500,000 deaths in Europe due to asbestos, of which between 40,000 and 56,000 will occur in the Spanish state concentrated in Catalonia , Galicia, Madrid, Andalusia, the Basque Country, Valencia and Asturias ”.

The Col-lectiu Ronda, a cooperative of lawyers that has been defending asbestos victims for thirty years, maintains that the “irresponsible attitude of Uralita SA affected their families, their workers and all the residents of Cerdanyola… And the chain of nonsense (deception, silences and denial of reality) constitute the elements of a drama that one day many will have to answer ”.

And we must not forget that there are installed and causing asbestosis and other diseases, about three million tons of asbestos in Spain.

5. The International Criminal Court

Given the seriousness of a matter such as asbestos (and perhaps in the future, if it is not remedied and the precautionary principle is applied, the consequences of nanotechnology), different voices have been raised for an International Court to judge those responsible for this alleged crime against humanity. For example, Ángel Cárcoba, from the CCOO occupational health department, in his statement entitled “I accuse”, argues: “Asbestos was therefore, and is, an announced and foreseeable health catastrophe. But, incredibly, little or nothing has been done to prevent this catastrophe (…) As long as it is not understood that the right to health goes beyond labor negotiation, until it is based on the principles of citizenship, we will continue to attend undaunted to crimes against humanity. Faced with this situation, I am calling for the creation of an International Labor Criminal Court, where the responsibilities of those who turn work into places of violence, disease and death appear and are settled ”.

6. The International Criminal Court. Pending issues and claims

After all that has been said, it follows that the following is pending:

The total ban on asbestos (of all kinds and for all uses) worldwide. There are still more than 150 countries where its extraction, transformation and use is allowed. There are international associations that fight in this regard (International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, among others).

The attention and compensation to the victims, who have and to have. With regard to medical care, early retirement, widow's pensions and financial compensation, if possible, to all victims. According to the “polluter pays” principle, it should be the asbestos companies that bear the cost of the damage, especially the multinational Eternit, which for nearly a hundred years has enriched a few families of tycoons. It is not acceptable that Sepan Schmidheiny intends to do charity work with foundations like AVINA at the expense of the duties he has incurred with so many millions of people. And likewise, the funding that this Foundation has already deposited in other associations and in partner leaders must be returned to asbestos victims. Nor is it a receipt that these expenses are paid from the public purse, which is everyone's money.

Justice must be done and those responsible for this alleged crime, especially the families of the multinational Eternit, must be prosecuted.

The transfer of toxic asbestos waste to impoverished countries, from rich countries, should be prohibited, as was the case of the scrapping of the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which Greenpeace managed to stop in 2006.

As the ISSA said above, “as for existing asbestos, even if it involves additional costs, total elimination is the only perennial and realistic solution, otherwise maintenance operations will always be dangerous”. Similarly, applying the polluter-payer principle, it is basically the responsibility of the Eternit companies, their subsidiaries and allies to pay for the deamiantization of the planet.

Asbestos serves as a precedent for what can come with the reckless application of nanotechnologies, since there is already evidence that "carbon nanotubes can produce damage similar to those caused by asbestos fibers in the body tissues of mice" ( Riechmann, 93).

Finally, it will be difficult to separate the asbestos from the AVINA Foundation, the work of magnate Schmidheiny (see Avina report); and it will be difficult that everything that comes from the hand of leaders-partners does not bring with it the suspicion of the “averse”, that is to say the whole historical context of asbestos and all the attempts of this foundation to co-opt leaders of the movements to make them safe and to do their business more easily. In Spain and Latin America, a process of devaluation is imposed in order to regain lost confidence and to eliminate the fund of suspicion that beats with those movements and leaders who have chosen such traveling companions and such financing.

The historical memory of what this event has meant for workers, their families and for social movements cannot be lost. We must do justice, reparation and see the evidence.

Francisco Puche, Malaga, Spain. June 2009 - Published in El Observador Magazine

For more information, the following books and documents:

- Cárcoba, A., 2008, I accuse, CCOO Occupational Health Department

- CCOO, 2007, Asbestos: Impact on health and the environment, CCOO Andalusia

- Colectiu-Ronda, 2008, the killer fiber. Asbestos, Barcelona

- European Left Group, 2006, Asbestos, the cost of corporate greed. European Parliament

- Ruers, R.F. and Schouten, N., 2006, Eternit, le blanchiment de laminate sale, CAOVA, Lausanne

- Riechmann, J. 2009, Pascal's room, La Catarata, Madrid

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