Killing for Profit

September 26, 2005 19:00 | by Steve McGiffen

Investigating the firms that are using asbestos at the expense of staff health.

Gathering this week in Brussels, groups of activists, victims, doctors, lawyers and politicians will come together to discuss the continuing problem of asbestos.

Within the European Union, the use of this deadly material is at last banned, yet much remains to be done. Asbestos is everywhere - in public buildings, office blocks, homes, roads and vehicles. Its processing and use has already cost tens of thousands of people's lives, but, in the years to come, hundreds of thousands more will be added to this toll.

Although the use of asbestos is now forbidden within the EU, it continues to rise in a number of developing countries. Two million tonnes of asbestos per year are used annually worldwide, usually without any form of protection.

Yet it was known as early as 1930 that exposure to asbestos dust was life-threatening.

Corporate power ensured that it took three-quarters of a century before most developed countries had instituted a ban.

Lobbying, cartelisation and the systematic distortion of medical findings enabled the small group of firms which dominated the industry to continue to make huge profits at the expense of their employees, their customers and the environment in general.

In industrialised countries, asbestos is the leading cause of work-related sickness and, after tobacco, the deadliest carcinogen in the environment.

By 2029, it is estimated that, in western Europe alone, over 250,000 men will have died from mesothelioma - of which asbestos is the only known cause - while at least as many again will succumb to asbestos-related lung cancer.

Although far fewer women worked with asbestos, many will die from the results of laundering the work clothes of male family members or from exposure to asbestos dust in the vicinity of factories and mines.

The long-standing practice of giving asbestos cement waste away free for the paving of paths and yards, enabling firms to avoid the costs of dumping, created swathes of victims.

In the Netherlands, where this practice was particularly persistent, numerous deaths have been traced to this - a man in his sixties who had courted his future wife in country walks over asbestos paths 40 years previously, a woman who had ridden her bicycle to school over those same paths, a woman whose farmyard in her childhood home had been paved with asbestos.

There is something particularly poignant about such stories - these people were going about their lives unaware that they were inhaling something which would eventually tear apart their lungs, propelling them towards an agonising death.

There are many poisons in our environment, but, of them all, only tobacco compares to asbestos in the damage it causes. Yet no-one has ever been forced to smoke, no-one smokes for a living and few people can now claim to have started smoking with no knowledge of the risk.

Asbestos victims can be divided between those whose livelihoods depended on a substance which they had been assured was safe and those who were entirely ignorant of its presence.

Moreover, if a person stops smoking, his or her chance of dying from tobacco-related illness begins to diminish immediately. This is not the case with asbestos, the slightest exposure to which permanently increases one's chances of developing cancer.

During the last decade, the growing movement in many countries in support of the victims of asbestos-related diseases has had notable successes. Almost yearly, more countries are forbidding its use, while actions for damages increase.

Often, however, it is difficult to establish the culpability of an individual firm. Asbestos-related diseases can take 30 years or more to appear, by which time most workers will have long moved on.

For those who did not work with the stuff, but were exposed in other ways, difficulties can be even greater. My own mother, now retired, has a letter from her former public-sector employer to the effect that she suffered exposure during the renovation of an office building.

She was fortunate in having a strong trade union and a relatively sympathetic employer, but most such victims will lack these advantages and many will die without ever seeing justice done.

In any case, the real culprits are not the building firms who used the stuff or their customers, but the asbestos corporations themselves, which knowingly sold deadly dangerous materials and used unscrupulous means to persuade governments not to institute restrictive legislation.

Even now, wherever they are allowed to, they continue to mine, manufacture and sell something that they know full well is a deadly poison.

Corporations co-operated with each other in cartels, bogus research organisations - whose true purpose was to perpetuate the myth that asbestos could somehow be rendered safe - and lobbying groups in order not only to prevent unfriendly legislation but to thwart the development and spread of safe substitute materials.

Governments, which failed to take action, must share much of the blame as well as the responsibility for putting things right.

What is needed now is a global agreement to ensure that all victims of asbestos receive just compensation.

In addition, every country should face up to the task of compiling a complete inventory of asbestos-contaminated buildings and land and of then decontaminating them or otherwise rendering them safe.

While the state should take the lead in this, it is the corporations responsible who should be forced to pay. "The polluter pays" is a principle now publicly embraced by the EU, the United Nations and many national governments.

If this cannot be applied to an industry which has systematically polluted our planet and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people's lives, then it will be seen to be no more than an empty catchphrase.

Steve McGiffen edits spectrezine and iis also the translator of a short book by two Dutch researchers, The Tragedy of Asbestos

This article first appeared in the Morning Star, Britain's socialist daily. For more information on the Morning Star, go to the website