Issue 29: Autumn/Winter 1997
Table of Contents:
1. Rearguard Action By Asbestos Interests
2. Asbestos Production
3. Asbestos Contamination in South Africa
4. News Round-up
1. Rearguard Action By Asbestos Interests
Throughout 1997 asbestos interests kept up the pressure on national governments and international bodies in an effort to stave off further bans on the use of chrysotile. Canadian representatives, in particular, have been active in lobbying ministers and civil servants in the UK, France and European Union. Last year Canada, the worlds second largest producer of asbestos, also continued to press for a reversal of the French ban on chrysotile at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Over the last three years, the WTO has emerged as a convenient forum in which occupational and environmental health regulations of member states can be contested. With the globalization of trade and information, the scope of the WTO is likely to expand. Simultaneously, pronouncements by international health organizations such as the International Labour Office (ILO) take on added significance as ammunition in future disputes. Recent developments have forced the ILO to consider the threat posed to its credibility and reputation by business interests. The efforts of Canadian government officials are continually being reinforced by asbestos industry personnel, including staff and consultants of the Asbestos Institute, a body which was formed in the mid-1980s to maximise the use of existing resources in a concerted effort to defend and promote the safe use of asbestos on a global scale.
In June, Prime Minister Jean Chretien approached Tony Blair at the Summit of Eight meeting in Denver to raise Canadian concerns about the British governments intention to ban the use of asbestos. Following this encounter, a meeting was organized in London to enable Canadian technical and scientific experts... (to meet) with their British counterparts to discuss and answer questions on the specific properties of Canadian-mined chrysotile fibre. On September 30, Professor Corbett McDonald, Drs. Graham Gibbs, Andrew Churg, Jack Siemiatycki and John Davis explained why the risk from Canadian chrysotile at present control limits is very small and probably undetectable. Minutes released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the six hour discussion between British and Canadian experts note that there was an overall consensus that sufficient exposure to commercial Canadian chrysotile can be a cause of the three asbestos diseases - asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. At about the same time that the scientists were listening to the Canadian presentations in London, a senior official was starting a new job in Brussels at the European Commission; Nick Burge had been seconded by the HSE to Directorate General III for three years to work on legislation which would be needed for a Europe-wide ban on chrysotile.
On June 20, the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) of the WTO was informed by the Canadian committee member that data previously submitted by the European Commission to justify the French ban were inadequate. France was requested to withdraw a scientifically unjustifiable ban which restricted world trade. The Canadian position was supported by committee members from Columbia, Mexico and South Africa. The European Commission responded by asking the objectors to provide information about the quantity of asbestos and asbestos-containing goods produced, used or exported by their countries. No decision was taken by the committee which will meet again on March 27. In early January, 1998 a WTO spokesperson confirmed that Canada has not indicated whether or not this matter will be brought before the WTO dispute settlement body.
Last Summer, a monograph entitled: Exposure to Natural and Synthetic Fibres was sent out by the ILO for scientific review. The covering letter noted that the Scientific Committee on Fibres of the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) had been prominent in the drafting of this work. Asbestos experts Professors J. Dement and W. Nicholson and Dr. M. Greenberg refused to review this work on the grounds that it was an unbalanced presentation containing a number of critical scientific inaccuracies. The asbestos chapter, written by Jacques Dunnigan formerly the Director for Health and Environment at the Asbestos Institute in Quebec, concluded that: there is no undue risk to workers handling chrysotile asbestos at todays controlled exposure levels [<1f/cc]. Dr. Graham Gibbs, known to have strong links to the Canadian asbestos industry, was the editor-in-chief of this publication and coincidentally the chair of ICOHs Scientific Committee on Fibres. In a published letter Robert Wages, President of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, criticized the ILO saying: For the ILO to engage recognized industry spokespersons such as Dunnigan and Gibbs for the purpose of furthering their interests of minimizing the health consequences (of) chrysotile asbestos under the guise of scientific review is unconscionable. At the end of November, Dr. Takala, head of Occupational Safety and Health at the ILO, stated that the technical evaluation and assessment prepared by the ICOH would not be published by the ILO.
A recommendation is being passed to the Governing Body of the ILO that a Committee of Experts be set up to assess the implementation of ILO Convention #162, enacted in 1986 to minimize the risks of asbestos use. The suggestion resulted from an Autumn meeting on the issue of Mineral, Synthetic and Vitreous Fibres organized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) at the request of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). There was a wide diversity of opinion expressed by the ICFTU, CLC, International Agency for Research on Cancer, the European Trade Union Technical Bureau, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Agency and other contributors at the October 15 conclave. A case study jointly presented by two Spanish trade unions illustrated that viable alternatives for asbestos are available. Supporting a world-wide ban on asbestos, the International Federation of Building and Wood Workers demanded the immediate use of substitute products. The panel of experts concluded that the use of: asbestos in all of its forms (should) ... be diminished and as much as possible, eliminated.
In issue 28, it was reported that the UK was gradually moving towards a ban on chrysotile. At the launch of the UKs European Presidency on January 21, Environment Minister Angela Eagle announced that over the next six months occupational health and safety will be a major priority. Eagle said: Exposure to asbestos is one of the principal causes (of occupational diseases). In April, the government will be promoting a major debate in the Social Affairs Council of Ministers on asbestos. During the term of the Presidency several important legislative proposals in improving the law on worker protection will also be actively pursued. In this we support the role of European legislation to create the same high standards of protection for workers across the whole of Europe.
2. Asbestos Production
Falling production levels and rising demand affected asbestos prices during 1996; even some Russian producers, notorious for their discounting policies, responded to changing market conditions by raising their prices. Sales to Thailand, Korea and Indonesia were buoyant while the construction of three asbestos cement plants fuelled demand in India. One expert feels that some sort of renaissance may be seen throughout Asia and predicts that at the very least, consumption will remain steady into the next millennium. Despite a sizeable decrease in asbestos imports, Japan remained one of the worlds most important markets absorbing 180,000 metric tons annually. Demand from Latin American countries remained firm; however, adverse exchange rates and other economic factors discouraged the import of fiber and favored the use of local product. British Geological statistics for global production of asbestos show a drop of nearly thirty per cent between 1992 (3.5 million tons) and 1996 (2.5 million tons). Production fell in Swaziland, Canada and India. By the end of 1996, South Africas two principal asbestos producers, Griqualand Exploration and Finance Co. (Gefco) and Msauli Asbestos, were both suffering from falling production levels. At the beginning of 1997, Gefco announced that it would cease production of amphibole fiber. Problems with mining and milling operations in the former Soviet Union and Kazakstan adversely affected their production levels. Declines of 4-7% in world production are predicted based on the performance of the industry over the last three years.
In 1996, just three countries accounted for sixty-five per cent of global output: Russia, Canada and China. Production levels actually rose substantially in China, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Greece. In China, some asbestos is mined at the Laogai, forced labor camps: the Xinkang mine at Simian LR General Brigade prison produces one sixth of Chinas asbestos. Canadian and Russian producers remain firmly committed to the asbestos industry. Two Quebec-based companies are expanding their operations: JM Asbestos Inc. is developing a new chrysotile mine in a three-year $C125 million project which will guarantee supplies until 2018 and in 1996 LAB Chrysotile rehired 75% of its former workforce. Russian commitment to asbestos is evinced not only by its mining interests but also by two dozen asbestos-cement plants, numerous asbestos textiles facilities and even two asbestos cardboard factories.
3. Asbestos Contamination in South Africa
Throughout much of this century, British corporations took an active part in the mining of asbestos in South Africa. The multinationals have now moved on, leaving their former employees and local residents to face the legacy of decades of occupational and environmental exposure. Areas in Mpumulanga, the Northern, Northwest and Northern Cape Provinces contain tangible reminders of their asbestos past, with tracts of asbestos waste and tailings littering the towns and countryside. The doctor charged with developing South Africas National Cancer Registry believes that when all the data have been assembled, the Northern Cape will be shown to have the worlds highest incidence of mesothelioma. Commercial mining of crocidolite began in Prieska in the Northern Cape in 1893. By 1930 the regions twenty-four crocidolite mines and small diggings produced 7,000 tons annually. Output increased after the Second World War peaking in 1977 at 200,000 tons. During the 1960s and 1970s the mines employed 12,000 to 14,000 workers. Recently people in Prieska formed a group called Concerned Persons Against Asbestos. Since last year, they have been assisted in their efforts to assess the areas level of disease by Dr. Ahmod Randeree, an occupational health specialist, who had been asked to develop a regional health and safety program. During the Autumn of 1997, teams of volunteer nursing students and medical personnel carried out a survey of 1,000 people in Prieska; 280 exhibited signs of asbestos-related lung changes. Over eighty per cent (232) of these had been occupationally exposed to asbestos; Dr. Randeree believes that the remaining twenty per cent (48) had experienced environmental exposure. No information was collected on para-occupational exposures.
The Prieska residents need to establish that low cost decontamination is possible before the government will consider funding abatement work. Dr. Randeree believes that: If exposure to this toxic substance of future generations is to be minimized, the large mountains of asbestos tailings scattered all over the country have to be rehabilitated or encapsulated. There is not much in the literature about the technology for doing this and I would be pleased to hear from anyone with information. Dr. Randeree can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. News Round-up
A series of scientific papers on murine mesothelioma by Australian researchers appeared during 1996/7 including: Transfection of the Gene for B7-1 but not B7-2 can Induce Immunity to Murine Malignant Mesothelioma and The Induction of Immune Responses to Murine Malignant Mesothelioma by IL-2 Gene Transfer.
Launched in 1997, UK Environment News provides information on environmental legislation and emerging trends in the UK and EU. The Opinion feature in Septembers issue concluded that, at present, the ineffectiveness of the regime to decontaminate land in Britain will ultimately increase clean-up costs.
Chrysotile, Tremolite and Carcinogenicity by J.C. McDonald & A.D. McDonald appeared in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene (1997). The authors conclude that: most, if not all, asbestos-related mesotheliomas are caused by amphibole fibres... uncontaminated chrysotile carries very little risk of mesothelioma.
Fibrous Materials in the Environment: A review of asbestos and man-made mineral fibres (1997) was commissioned by the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions. The report concludes that: there does not appear to be a substantive risk to humans from ambient fibre exposure, although high peak exposures should be avoided wherever possible.
The fourth IMIG (International Mesothelioma Group) Newsletter was published in December and includes a summary of the May IMIG meeting which took place in Philadelphia.
The Control and Management of Asbestos in Buildings: A System of Local Rules by J. Claydon & J. Morgan (1997) is an excellent practical guide for managers, local government personnel, union representatives and others responsible for minimizing occupational exposure to asbestos.
The finding of asbestos fibers in the tissues and placentas of thirteen stillborn infants is documented in a paper: Is There Transplacental Transfer of Asbestos? by A.K.Haque and K.D.Burau which appeared in vol. 16 of Paediatric Pathology and Laboratory in 1996.
The paper: Introduction of a Social Work Service to Out-patients Clinics contains details of a pilot scheme run within the Oncology Directorate at Belvoir Park Hospital, Belfast. The author concludes that there should be a social work presence at all Oncology Clinics to help support patients and family.
Reconstruction of Inhalation Exposure and Uptake of Asbestos Fibres by J. W. Cherrie appeared in vol. 41, supplement 1, 1997 of the Annals of Occupational Hygiene. The author found that significant differences in breathing rates between individuals could have implications for the reliability of risk assessments based solely on estimates of cumulative exposure.
A Comparative Study of the Clearance of Respirable Para-Aramid, Chrysotile and Glass Fibres from Rat Lungs by A. Searl appeared in vol. 41, 1997 of the Annals of Occupational Hygiene. Searl reported that the retention of a large proportion of long (chrysotile) fibres with no further clearance after 6 months recovery, suggests that once any susceptible fibres have disintegrated into smaller fragments, then little further happens to the lung fibre population within the timescale of this study.
Monkey Business was the title of the Dispatches documentary broadcast on December 18. The program examined research on the links between SV40 and the occurrence of mesothelioma and other cancers.
October 23: Firm Handling: The Litigation Strategies of Defence Lawyers in Personal Injury Cases was presented at the Legal Aid Board Research Unit Conference in London by Professor Robert Dingwall who touched on the diversity of defendants, the complexity of the settlement process, the introduction of legal reforms and the shift to a conditional fee system.
October 23: Over one hundred general practitioners, nurses, coroners and health workers in Leeds heard presentations by medical and legal personnel at the seminar: Mesothelioma: The Silent Epidemic. The session was organized by Irwin Mitchell Solicitors; the firm has also produced a booklet entitled Asbestos: A Guide to Your Rights which is available upon request.
October 23: Asbestos: Justice and Prevention, a Nottingham conference organized jointly by Thompsons Solicitors and the GMB Union, was attended by trade union representatives, local government officers and victim support staff
November 25: The significance of cases brought by foreign nationals against English-based trans-national corporations was examined at the Multinational Accountability Seminar in London. Solicitor Richard Meeran and barrister James Cameron discussed the use of civil legal remedies against the RTZ Corporation, Thor Chemicals and Cape plc. Further details are to be found in: Transnational Environmental Disputes by J. Cameron and R. Ramsay which appeared in the Asia Pacific Journal of Environmental Law, vol. 1, issues 1 & 2, 1996.
December 4-6: At the Asbestos Symposium for the Countries of Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest, delegates from several countries reported high levels of exposure in national asbestos industries and mesotheliomas from the use of Russian chrysotile. News on the implementation of the ban on asbestos products by the Polish Parliament in July, 1997 was provided.
February 17: An Asbestos Rally and Parliamentary Day is being held in London. For more information, contact Owen Tudor at the TUC, tel: 0171 636 4030.
March 20: A European View of Asbestos is the title of the inaugural seminar of the Pan-European Organisation of Personal Injury Lawyers, a group formed in 1997 to encourage the exchange of information across national borders. For more information, telephone Fiona Skellett at: 0115 958 0585.
June 5: An Asbestos Related Disease Seminar will be held in Rotherham General Hospital; lectures, a tour of the medical facilities and hands-on experience with diagnostic techniques will be included. Tickets are available from Anita France, tel: 01709 824 189.
In March, 1997 a Community Liaison Officer was appointed by the charity Occupational and Environmental Diseases Association (tel: 0181 360 8490) to respond to enquiries and to assist with the setting-up of local groups such as the one recently established in Northamptonshire.
The Cheshire Asbestos Victim Support Group (tel: 0151 420 1865), run entirely by volunteers, has been assisting asbestos sufferers and their families in the Widnes area since 1992. From April, 1997 a home visiting service has been in operation.
As well as offering practical help and support to asbestos victims and their families, The Sheffield and Rotherham Asbestos Group (tel: 0114 279 7283) tries to raise public awareness of the problems faced by sufferers through public events such as the Asbestos Information and Awareness Meeting it held in Sheffield on November 8.
A 24-hour asbestos helpline (tel: 0115-903 7791) was launched in Nottingham by Asbestos Diseases UK last November to provide practical support for sufferers, including help with claiming state benefits.
A council surveyor who did not identify asbestos in the boiler room at the Robert Bloomfield School in Shefford, Bedfordshire prior to the commencement of refurbishment work was fined £600 with £300 costs under Section 7(a) of the Health and Safety Act 1974 for failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and others in September, 1997 at Luton Crown Court.
Susan Delancey accepted £4,000 provisional damages from Newalls Insulation Co. Ltd. for exposure to asbestos which has resulted in asbestos-induced bilateral pleural plaques. The company failed to prevent the plaintiffs husband from returning home in his contaminated work clothing and failed to warn the plaintiff of the risk of injury to her by reason of the contamination by asbestos dust or fibres.
The Laogai Research Foundation has information on Chinese prison camps including two at which asbestos is mined: http://www.laogai.org/
The International Federation of Building and Wood Workers: www.ifbww.org/
The National Asbestos Training & Accreditation Scheme: www.NATAS.org/
Particle Analysis, a survey and testing company which specializes in asbestos work: http://www.particle-analysis.co.uk/
The National Construction Council, the institution responsible for promoting the safe use of construction materials in Tanzania: http://home.twiga.com/ncc/
Compiled by Laurie Kazan-Allen