With everything we know about the horrific legacy of asbestos, it is often assumed that the asbestos industry no longer exists and it certainly does not have any influence on a modern and well informed world.
Even in this day and age – with overwhelming scientific evidence to prove that asbestos is a killer – the industry is massive and still powerful. The world leaders in asbestos production include Canada, Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan. Producers from these countries are aggressively pushing asbestos as a wonder material, and playing down the dangers, in developing nations where affordable building materials are in big demand.
History is repeating itself.
From the 1940s through to the 1980s, as the medical and scientific community confirmed fears about the effects of breathing in asbestos fibres, the UK asbestos industry continued to influence government asbestos guidelines and legislation. The Asbestosis Research Council (ARC) was relied upon to help set the occupational limits of asbestos exposure in the UK. The members of the ARC included British Belting and Asbestos, Cape Industries and Turner and Newall. These companies contributed £7 million to ARC’s funding and in his paper ‘Science or Public Relations?: The Inside Story of the Asbestosis Research Council, 1957-1990’, historian, Geoffrey Tweedale, points out that the ARC was run by industrialists and not by scientists.
These occupational safety limits are used by the courts today to determine whether a company is liable at the time of the victim’s exposure to asbestos. Only last year (2014) in the cases of McCarthy v Marks & Spencer plc and McGregor v Gneco (FC) Limited the courts found against the asbestos victims and in favour of the defendants based on the occupational hygiene limits at that time. This is despite the fact that the ‘safe’ limits have since been discredited. The result of these recent cases is particularly unjust for mesothelioma sufferers and their families. Dr Robin Rudd, a leading medical expert on asbestos disease, has stated that mesothelioma ‘can occur after low level asbestos exposure and there is no threshold dose of asbestos below which there is no risk’. It may not be enough to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and to identify a time and a place when the exposure took place. It may be necessary to demonstrate that asbestos dust was inhaled above the occupational hygiene levels then in force, notwithstanding that these limits were effectively made by the rich and powerful asbestos corporations.
The lobbying tricks of the UK asbestos industry continue to come to light. In a recent article for North Ireland’s daily newspaper, News Letter, Sam McBride highlights files released by the Public Records Office in Belfast that detail pressure exerted by Turner and Newall on British government civil servants and officials. The memos and documents suggest that a government U-turn to increase the use of asbestos building materials in government projects followed complimentary meals and trips put on by Turner and Newall in 1969 for civil servants and officials. Most of the file relates to factories belonging to Turners Asbestos Cement Co Ltd in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland, and Manchester.
Fast forward nearly 50 years to the present day and the asbestos industry is still lobbying and growing.
Asia is the biggest market, and the world’s largest asbestos importer, India, has a $2 billion industry with 100 manufacturing plants, 300,000 jobs and huge annual growth. The executives from this industry gathered last year for two days in a luxury New Delhi hotel to promote a message that they are serving the nation by providing roofs, walls and pipes to some of the world’s poorest people.
The global pro-asbestos lobby strongly promote the differences between the six types of asbestos minerals. Chrysotile, also called white asbestos, is promoted as a safe form of asbestos because its fibres are curly and more flexible than the other more jagged and sharp forms of asbestos. The lobby and its supporters say the shape of its fibres makes it safe but scientists and medical professional overwhelmingly agree that inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to terminal diseases including mesothelioma and lung cancer, or other debilitating ailments such as asbestosis, pleural thickening, pulmonary fibrosis and pleural plaques.
The asbestos industry also continues to muddy the scientific and medical evidence that states asbestos is a killer at any level of exposure. The pro-lobby uses favoured consultants such as toxicologist David Bernstein to support the continued use of asbestos. Bernstein is a familiar face on the speakers’ list for asbestos lobby groups and according to Kathleen Ruff, a Canadian campaigner who has worked to expose payments to scientists, has been paid more than a million dollars to support asbestos events across the developing world. Despite the funding from the asbestos industry, Bernstein has written and published papers in medical and scientific journals about the health risks of chrysoltile asbestos without stating his conflict of interest.
If pro-asbestos lobbying is allowed to continue and nothing is done to ban asbestos worldwide, millions of hardworking and innocent people will have their lives cut short. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 125 million people around the world are annually exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and the International Labour Organisation says about 100,000 workers die each year from a related disease.