Europe's asbestos legacy is a complex problem which will not be easily or cheaply solved

October 10, 2006 20:05 | by Kartika Liotard, MEP

At the beginning of October, Kartika Liotard, was invited to give the opening address to the European Conference on Asbestos Removal held in Amsterdam. This is what she had to say.

My colleague, former SP parliamentarian and environmental researcher Remi Poppe starts all his speeches on asbestos with a quote I can't improve. He says "Aside from gunpowder, asbestos is the most scandalous substance people have had to work with. The dark forces which profit from asbestos think little of using blackmail, deceit and unscrupulous practices to protect the bottom line: they willingly sacrifice worker's health for corporate profits"

Or to put this in my own words: Asbestos remains the primary carcinogenic toxin affecting workers. Outside the workplace, asbestos is second only to tobacco as an environmental source of cancer. Asbestos products in European homes and commercial buildings, as well as asbestos waste in our environment, continue to cause unprecedented levels of disease and death in Member States of the European Union.
In my own country, the Netherlands, we are, sadly enough, all too familiar with the human repercussions of widespread asbestos use. Thousands of Dutch citizens have paid the price for our society's uncontrolled use of asbestos: from the shipyards to the asbestos-cement factories, from the farmyards to the hospitals, asbestos disease has contaminated the lungs of our workers and the environment in which we live.
In communities such as Goor, 10 kms from my home, where asbestos companies such as Eternit were major employers, there was a true conspiracy of silence -- people who worked at these factories, their relatives and neighbours got sick and died, end of story. Asbestos-related disease was a dirty secret. There was little support and no compensation for the asbestos-injured. Fortunately, this abysmal situation was changed by the determined efforts of a group of committed individuals. Working together, they formed the Dutch Asbestos Victims' Committee; in their campaign to revolutionize the treatment of our asbestos victims, they were joined by members of the Dutch Socialist Party. Nowadays, many of the asbestos injured in the Netherlands receive appropriate medical treatment and financial compensation. Unfortunately, others do not. Neighbourhoods remain contaminated and workers continue to be exposed to asbestos products hidden within our infrastructure.
So in 2005 I decided to organize a conference in EP which was especially meant as a platform for the victims of asbestos. The main issues to discussed were: How can we improve the situation for ALL asbestos victims? How can we prevent future generations from contracting these deadly diseases?
More than twenty-five countries were represented at this Asbestos Conference in the European Parliament on the 22nd and 23rd September 2005. Participants included workers affected by asbestos and their relatives, asbestos victim support workers, public health activists, medical professionals, legal personnel, journalists, civil servants, factory inspectors, asbestos removal experts and academics. Probably some of you present today were there as well, or else you should have been.
During this conference, we examined the EU asbestos policy, pinpointing its successes and exposing its failures. Delegates described national asbestos experiences in new EU Member States and highlighted the problems they faced. The purpose was to find answers to questions such as how can we improve the situation for all asbestos victims? How can we prevent future generations from contracting these deadly diseases?
At the end of the conference, we adopted the European Asbestos Action Plan for 2005 - 2006. It calls on the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council to support an international ban on asbestos. EU legislation should ban the use of asbestos by EU-based companies anywhere in the world. The transfer of asbestos production and contaminated products from Europe to developing countries should be rendered impossible.
In this plan for action are some measuresto prevent future hazardous exposures, amongst those the following: mandatory asbestos audits of public buildings, labelling of all asbestos products, guidelines for measuring asbestos soil contamination and research on safe methods for treating asbestos waste. Europe's use of asbestos has caused unprecedented levels of disease and death; asbestos remains the primary carcinogenic toxin affecting European workers. Asbestos products in European homes and commercial and public buildings as well as asbestos waste in the environment constitute a clear and present threat to public health and safety. The difficulties of ridding our society of this hazard were detailed at the conference. Speakers from new and old European Union member states confirmed the tragic reality: Europe's asbestos legacy is a complex problem which will not be easily or cheaply solved; hundreds of thousands of Europeans will succumb to asbestos deaths before we are able to undo the contamination caused by the widespread use of asbestos throughout the 20th century. If a substance such as chrysotile is too hazardous to be used by industrialized countries, it should not be exported; if it is exported, then full disclosure of the hazards must be made mandatory.
As to human rights, the action plan states that there should at least be a reclassification of pleural plaques and some other asbestos conditions currently listed as "non-malignant diseases" to the deadly diseases they really are, the recognition of all work related asbestos diseases as occupational diseases, preventing the relocation of non-EU companies to the EU to escape asbestos liabilities in their home countries, the setting up of specific European or national funds and a European research centre for the investigation and implementation of safe technology for the removal/cleaning of asbestos contaminated areas which are high risk activities. As to the need for reclassification: the battle over the categorization of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical under the terms of the Rotterdam Convention continues to rage. While the inclusion of chrysotile on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list of the Rotterdam Convention does not constitute a ban on global sales, it should enable developing economies to make informed decisions on whether they wish to import a chemical that has been found to be carcinogenic by the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the International Programme on Chemical Safety, the Collegium Ramazzini and the World Trade Organization. These international bodies agree that all types of asbestos are deadly and should not be used
Double standards on asbestos should disappear and therefore Europe should support an international ban on asbestos by an ILO Convention or other global instrument and a just transition in developing countries. Horrific scandals of ship-breaking of asbestos-contaminated vessels such as the Otopan last month should stop immediately and the Basel Convention should be upheld.
A conference, be it in Brussels or Amsterdam, will not end the struggle for an asbestos-free world. We have seen the incidence of asbestos-related forms of cancer rise in the Netherlands for years now, and I'm sorry to say the end is not near. There will be a rise in these figures for some years to come, as we all know that the incubation period of asbestosis can be up to thirty years. And even then, death by asbestos will not vanish, for contamination is still going on - not on the scale of some decades ago, but with all the knowledge we have today and all the possibilities to prevent further contamination, people who contract asbestosis today are more than ever unnecessary victims.

It's not the people working in asbestos mines who are killed today. It's the lumberjacks working the woods up to 6 kilometres down the road of a mine closed more then 15 years ago. The trees still carry enough asbestos fibres to kill these workers. And closer by, in the Netherlands, kilometres of roads and motorways are contaminated with asbestos. It's hard to imagine, but driving through some villages and towns like Berkelland can kill you in the long run. Dust rises in dense clouds when cars pass, spreading asbestos fibres all around. Our governments - local and provincial - have put up signs on these roads, saying: "Careful, Asbestos". But how on earth should you be 'carefully' with asbestos, driving down a road in your car or riding your bicycle? These roads, public and private, are to be cleared from asbestos in the coming years, but there seems to be a problem. Local, provincial and national authorities are arguing over who is to pay for all of this. Can you imagine that? Grown men pointing their fingers at each others' wallets while dozens of people get infected, breathe asbestos fibres on a daily basis, dying?
I know there are representatives of our local, provincial and national governments present here today. And I want to urge them to stop this childish behaviour at once. All you people in this room today, scientists, governments and asbestos-removal companies just have to work together on this one. Only if we can cooperate will we be able to end this misery of asbestos related death. Quit playing with peoples live, get together and get to work!
I'm convinced that this conference will contribute to the much needed consensus that asbestos waste removal is a top priority and that all parties involved should cooperate. The fact that waste removal companies take the lead in organising this day is inspiring. You are the fire-fighters in a world on fire. But I ask, no I urge you to take good care of the workers who do the actual work of asbestos-removal. I know there's still a lot of scepticism about the need for those men all dressed up in white overalls carrying masks and closing of complete streets when cleaning up asbestos. But there's no joke in that. Asbestos is dangerous and you are all aware of that. We can not accept careless behaviour, as we can not accept delays in your important work because of financial quarrels and bureaucracy. Care for the environment and human health are of paramount important. None of you want to be answering to a parliamentary inquire committee in ten years time, investigating how and why people still got contaminated by asbestos in the year 2006.
I encourage you to get to work.
And I will be watching you, more closely even then Big Brother.
Good luck with your conference!

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament for the Dutch Socialist Party and sits on the Parliament's Committee on the Environment and Public Health.