Global Policy Forum

The Asbestos Conspiracy


By Patrick Herman & Annie Thébaud-Mony

Le Monde Diplomatique
July 15, 2000

Even though it is nearly 40 years since asbestos was scientifically shown to cause cancer and it has now claimed thousands of lives, the WTO is examining a complaint by Canada, which exports 99% of its output, against France, which banned it in 1997. The WTO's Dispute Settlement Body is quite capable of finding in favour of the purveyors of death and the governments that so shamelessly support them, since it habitually puts "freedom" for trade before any other consideration. Since the outrageous ruling on hormone-treated beef, anything seems possible.

The World Trade Organisation's Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), the source of its strong arm tactics, operates anonymously, in secret and behind closed doors. The WTO first came to prominence for its regrettable judgement against the European Union for refusing to import hormone-treated meat from the United States into France. The ruling provoked a chain reaction starting with initiatives by the roquefort cheese producers of Aveyron in France. Now, with no more publicity, the DSB is preparing to rule on a Canadian complaint challenging the French decision to ban asbestos, in force since 1 January 1997. Again, it is acting in the name of freedom for international trade.

It was on 28 May 1998 that Ottawa initiated dispute proceedings against France. That was when the battle of experts began. It is taking place far away from the countless victims who have already experienced the effects of asbestos first hand. On the one hand, we have Canada, Zimbabwe and Russia, producers for whom asbestos is a strategic industry. On the other, stands France, backed by the EU, which adopted a directive banning the trade in and use of asbestos in July 1999, although it will not become effective everywhere until 2005 (at the latest). Now, only three member states, Spain, Greece and Portugal, have still to implement it. Paris has the support of the US, which considers all types of asbestos carcinogenic. What is at stake with the DSB's "judgement" has to be understood in the light of the war that has set the asbestos industry lobby against the deadly fibre's millions of victims for the last hundred years.

Between 1930 and 1960, manufacturers did all they could to prevent the link between asbestos and respiratory diseases, including cancer, becoming known, so they could avoid prosecution. American workers had in fact sued the Johns Manville company as far back as 1932, but it was not until 1962 that epidemiologists finally established beyond any doubt what company bosses had known for a long time - asbestos causes cancer (1). That was when the conspiracy of silence began all round the world. In South Africa, researcher Christopher Wagner was unable to find a publisher for his work on mesothelioma and in the end published his findings in Great Britain (2). In 1987 Dr Bogden Przygocki posted information about the dangers of asbestos at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland. He did so without permission and was sacked from the shipyard's clinic.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the polemic shifted to the international organisations. In the guise of "official" reports by the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Office, industry "experts" tried to get two messages endorsed as scientific truth: first that white asbestos (chrysotile) is not very toxic, if at all (3), and secondly that its "controlled use" is possible. These attempts failed, thanks to pressure from researchers unconnected with the manufacturers, who denounced the way international organisations were being used by the lobbies (4). But the said "experts" nevertheless still enjoyed some legitimacy and continued to spread their message in order to "reassure" the expanding markets in the countries of the South, carefully avoiding any confrontation with the victims, who were never asked for their side of the story.

Governments and public opinion were also manipulated in other ways. In Brazil, for example, academics, who also acted as medical consultants to the firms concerned, carried out epidemiological studies under conditions incompatible with the demands of scientific rigour (5). This was true of the identification of former workers exposed to asbestos (60% of Brazilian workers are unregistered), diagnosis (a third of the population has no access to health care) or measuring the relationship between dose and effect (without knowing precisely how much people were exposed to). In this way, Brazilian chrysotile was "proved" to be harmless.

These supposedly "scientific" practices went hand in hand with a world media offensive. In France, the Standing Committee on Asbestos (CPA), an informal body formed by a media consultancy in 1982, brought together manufacturers, scientists, public authorities and trade unions (6). The press consulted the CPA before anyone else, since it was the "expert" that could not be ignored, constantly singing the praises of the "controlled use of asbestos". It was not until 1995 (7) that the scandal broke and the CPA vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. But that did not prevent Claude Allí¨gre, the French minister for education, research and technology, from denouncing the "intellectual terrorism" he claimed held sway on the Jussieu university campus in Paris, from which all asbestos was ordered to be removed. His conclusion was that "some kind of mass psychosis had transformed a minor problem into a major hazard" (8).

The Canadian government and manufacturers, for their part, offered foreign journalists and trade unionists trips to the Thetford Mines in Quebec - tourist trips to the land of no-risk asbestos. There was humanitarian aid as well. The 1976 Guatemala earthquake gave Eternit's local subsidiary, Duralit, the opportunity to supply asbestos cement roofing, paid for out of charity collections. In 1991 a memorandum of understanding was even signed between the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Belgian multinational Etex. The first "customers" were not slow in coming: Croatia, Guatemala and Rwanda-Burundi.

The asbestos victims' counterattack took place before the law. Legal proceedings uncovered the tragedies of victims and their families, the criminal practices of employers, and the authorities' culpable failure to act. All this gave the scandal a real political dimension.

In the US, the "trial of the century", with nearly 300,000 complaints filed, ended abruptly: Johns Mansville declared itself bankrupt in August 1982 and set up a compensation fund, followed by other manufacturers and their insurance companies. But the number of victims was so great that the fund was quickly exhausted.

In France, the National Association for the Defence of Victims of Asbestos (Andeva) has brought more than 1,000 civil or criminal actions from 1996 (9). Both the system for preventing or compensating for occupational diseases and the relevant institutions, especially industrial medicine, were on trial with them.

Protest movement

In Brazil, which is currently the world's fifth largest producer, Eternit and Saint-Gobain were helped in their asbestos operations by the military dictatorship, which censored all information about occupational health and industrial hazards (10). At the instigation of the Brazilian Association of Workers Exposed to Asbestos (Abrea), formed in 1997, hundreds of workers (or families of deceased victims) went to court. In 1998, Eternit was ordered to compensate a former employee. Eternit and Brasilit (Saint-Gobain's Brazilian subsidiary) then offered their former employees an amicable agreement whereby workers would refrain from bringing proceedings in exchange for a lump sum compensation in the event of illness.

Sí£o Paolo labour inspector, Fernanda Giannasi, denounced these agreements publicly and they were twice declared invalid by the Brazilian courts. The inspector was prosecuted by Eternit for slander, provoking a massive national and international outcry. Eternit's case was dismissed and it decided not to appeal. Later this year, Brazil may decide to ban asbestos with effect from the year 2005 (as under the European directive).

Last year in London, nearly 2,000 black workers from the South African mines brought an action against their former employer, the British firm Cape Ltd. It responded with a press campaign taken up by rightwing newspapers denouncing the "outrageous cost" to the British taxpayer of compensating these "foreign miners".

Canada, which exports 99% of its production, has been engaged in intensive diplomatic activity. At an international seminar organised by the Brazilian ministry of labour in 1994, its ambassador told seven ministers of his government's concern over an agreement between the Brazilian state, management and labour for the phasing out of asbestos in friction materials. In 1997 the Canadian embassy in Seoul persuaded the Korean government to withdraw labelling drawing attention to the dangers of imported Canadian asbestos. In Europe, Ottawa has been stepping up the pressure following the French ban. And not without success: Anthony Blair delayed the ban recommended by the British public health authorities for two years in return for Canada's support in the "mad cow" crisis.

But the 1990s saw the birth of social movements against asbestos in many countries. The diversity of their membership: associations, researchers, lawyers, health professionals and trade unions, makes them extremely dynamic. Their international growth is also explained by the ways in which they cooperate. Rather than reproduce the traditional North-South relationship, they share experiences and information and assist one another in the social struggles in their respective countries. They make wide use of virtual communication networks, but they are based above all on human ties of solidarity.

By reducing the right to health to "technical provisions", the WTO's arbitration shifts the legitimacy of it from the political arena to that of scientific and technocratic expertise, beyond all democratic control. In a study (11) carried out for the Trade Union Technical Bureau, Saman Zia-Zarifi and Mary Footer show that, even if the DSB's decision does not call into question the French decision to ban asbestos, the very proceedings are bringing human health and workplace safety within the remit of the WTO although they had hitherto been matters for national sovereignty.

Apart from the criteria to which it refers, especially the primacy of free trade, this procedure gives established "experts" alone the right to tell the "truth" in the name of science. But only the victims' knowledge of the dangers of asbestos can fully reveal the human scale of the risk. And they are also the only ones not consulted in the WTOs' dispute settlement procedure.

If the WTO's competence is not categorically challenged in areas relating to citizenship, or even simple dignity, then the principles of law developed in the course of human history - the right to life and health, the right to safety at work, the right for the natural environment to be preserved for future generations - will themselves become subservient to the overriding criterion of free trade. Will the strategy so cleverly and cynically followed by the asbestos industry for a hundred years win out in this way?

The authors are a journalist and research director at the French National Institute for Health, and a research director at the French National Institute for Medical Research (Inserm) respectively, and co-ordinators of the international Ban Asbestos Network.

(1) David Lilienfield, "The silence: the Asbestos Industry and Early Occupational Cancer Research. A Case Study", American Journal of Public Health, June 1991, vol. 81, No. 6.

(2) British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 17, 260-271, 1960.

(3) Chrysotile accounts for over 90% of the asbestos mined throughout the world, the other varieties being banned in most of the major industrialised countries.

(4) Barry Castleman, Richard Lemen, "The manipulation of the international organisations", International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, vol. 4, No. 1, January-March 1998.

(5) Estudo Epidemiologico em trabalhadores espostos ao asbesto na atividade de fibro-cemento; na atividade da mineraí§í£o, projects co-ordinated by professor Ericson Bagatin, University of Campinas, Brazil, August 1996.

(6) Franí§ois Malye, Amiante, le dossier de l'air contaminé, Le Pré-aux-Clercs/ Sciences et Avenir, Paris, 1996.

(7) See "L'héritage empoisonné de l'amiante", Le Monde, 31 May 1995, and "Mortel amiante, une épidémie qui nous concerne tous", Sciences et Avenir, June 1995.

(8) See Claude Allí¨gre, "Amiante, oí¹ est le scandale?", Le Point, 19 October 1986.

(9) Andeva, 22, rue des Vignerons, 94686 Vincennes Cedex.

(10) Annie Thébaud-Mony, L'Envers des sociétés industrielles. Approche comparative franco-brésilienne, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1990.

(11) Saman Zia-Zarifi and Mary Footer, Report for the TUTB/ETUC on European Communities Measures Affecting Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos, Department of International Law/Glodis Institute, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, December 1999.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.