All posts by Rory O'Neill

Campaigners inflict major blow on asbestos trade in Asia as investment bank acts

After many years of campaigning, the global ban asbestos campaign has chalked up a major win as a major funder of infrastructure work said no to the fatal fibre.

The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has amended its Environmental and Social Framework to exclude asbestos containing materials from AIIB-financed projects. The bank has an annual spend of US$3.3 billion on infrastructure across Asia.

The campaign to eliminate asbestos related diseases by global and national trade unions and asbestos ban groups and victims has been targeting multilateral banks for many years, including AIIB, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank Group.

The AIIB has now published the updated exclusion policy which now includes the “production of, trade in, or use of asbestos fibres, whether or not bonded”.

The ‘Not Here Not Anywhere’ asbestos campaign is now seeking the same urgent exclusion by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).  Phillip Hazelton, coordinator of the Australian union backed global justice group APHEDA, commented: “This is an overdue but an important step by the AIIB. We call on all multilateral investment banks and international financial institutions to quickly do the same and exclude asbestos containing materials from any investments they support.”

Apolinar Tolentino Jr, the Asia-Pacific regional representative of the global construction union BWI, added: “We expect the ADB to follow suit to this long awaited policy to ensure that working families and their communities are not exposed to this highly dangerous industrial substance.”

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UK unions press case for school asbestos removal

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) has launched a new campaigning website to press the case for the removal of asbestos from UK schools.

Announcing the initiative on 17 June – Clean Air Day 2021 – JUAC said latest UK government Department for Education (DfE) figures estimate 83.5 per cent of schools in England contain asbestos. It noted official ONS figures show that since 2001 at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died from the asbestos related cancer mesothelioma.

JUAC is calling for an independent review of the government’s current policy of managing asbestos in-situ instead of removing it. The campaign is also pressing for funded programme for the phased removal of all asbestos, starting with the most dangerous, with completion no later than 2028. It also wants the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to undertake proactive inspections to ensure that educational establishments are managing asbestos effectively.

John McClean, chair of JUAC, said: “The continuing presence of asbestos in so many of our schools is a disgrace, when the risks to children and adults are so well known. Effective government action to tackle this is long overdue. A phased programme of removal, starting with the most dangerous first, is the only way forward.”

The national trade unions that form JUAC are ASCL, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON, Unite, UCU and Voice.

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Fears about hidden toll from deadly silica

Workers at risk of developing an incurable, progressive and fatal lung disease caused by silica dust need greater protections across a range of workplaces, Australian unions have warned. The warning comes after a spate of cases of the lung-scarring disease silicosis affecting young workers.

The disease can progress even after exposure has ended, and is also linked to lung cancer and kidney damage and other diseases.

Joanna McNeill, a 34-year-old mother of two, was diagnosed with silicosis last year after returning from maternity leave. She worked in an administrative role at a quarry and was exposed to dust as her office close to the main blast site. “At the moment I am feeling healthy, but I don’t know if that will be the case in one year, let alone five or 10 years and as a mum of two young daughters that terrifies me,” she said.

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is leading a push for tougher national regulations to protect all workers exposed to deadly silica dust, with fears Australia could be hit with a “tsunami” of deaths in the coming decades. AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said preliminary reforms recommended by the country’s National Dust Disease Taskforce would only provide extra protection for stonemasons, leaving the construction industry, miners, quarry workers and tunnellers “out in the cold”.

He said the federal government must not “tinker around the edges” or compromise the health and safety of Australian workers. “It’s an outrage that a country like Mexico has stricter laws in relation to workplace silica dust exposure than Australia,” he said.

The UK exposure standard is more lax still.

Sydney Morning Herald.
ACTION: Send an e-postcard to HSE demanding it introduce a more protective UK silica standard no higher than 0.05mg/m³ and with a phased move to 0.025mg/m³. www.hazards.org/HSEstopkillingus. More on work-related dust diseases.

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Union launches UK firefighter cancer and disease registry

UK firefighters’ union FBU has launched a new nationwide database to assess the potential link between exposure to fire toxicants and the increased occurrence of cancers and other diseases among firefighters.

The union, which has developed the registry with researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), is calling on every current and former UK firefighter suffering from a serious or chronic illness to add their name to the registry, a move it says will help save firefighters’ lives in the future.

The UK Firefighters Cancer and Disease Registry (FCDR) will collect information on firefighters’ work routines, exposure to fire effluents, lifestyle and health. The FBU says this will “enable scientists to identify and recognise most common cancers and diseases related to firefighters’ work, and, in the future, offer preventive health screening, education and support that is specifically designed to protect firefighter’s health.”

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “Every current and former firefighter who has suffered a serious or chronic illness needs to add their name to this register so we can further expose the shocking numbers of firefighters suffering from cancer and other diseases.”

Anna Stec, professor in fire chemistry and toxicity at UCLan, said: “The UK’s National Cancer Registry and Analysis Service is currently not able to provide any reliable data on cancer incidence or mortality amongst firefighters. Setting up the UK Firefighters Cancer and Disease Registry will enable us to identify and keep track of all firefighters who have been diagnosed with the diseases and cancers, as well as identify any association between firefighter’s occupation and exposure to fire carcinogens.”

The register covers cancers, nervous, circulatory and respiratory diseases, liver and kidney disorders and ‘other’ ailments potentially related to work.

Report calls for urgent action on firefighter cancers

Firefighters risk their lives to save ours. But work-related cancers caused by routine toxic exposures, both at incidents and in training, could be a far bigger risk to their health, warns a report in Hazards magazine.

Sid McNally joined Essex County Fire and Rescue Service in southern England in January 1995. In 2012, when he was 48, his wife noticed a lump on his neck and insisted he go to his GP, who referred him to the hospital. The hospital took a biopsy of his neck and decided to remove the lump.

After surgery, Sid was diagnosed with cancer of the base of the tongue. The consultant asked how many cigarettes he smoked per day. He had never smoked.

Sid recovered. But not all are so lucky, and the cancer risk faced by firefighters is worryingly high. This is the conclusion of a University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) independent report, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and described as a ‘UK first’.

UCLan’s report includes a summary of over 10,000 responses to a national survey of currently-serving firefighters run jointly with FBU. It indicates working firefighters are diagnosed with cancer at four times the expected rate, with 4.1 per cent of firefighter respondents affected. Threequarters had served for at least 10 years before receiving their diagnosis; more than half were under the age of 50 and a fifth were under 40.

Commenting on its findings, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Firefighters risk their lives every day to keep their communities safe. But it’s clear that the risk to their health doesn’t stop when the fire has been extinguished. Sadly we often see serving and former firefighters suffer from cancer and other illnesses.”

Full story: Smoking gun: Report calls for urgent action on firefighter cancers, Hazards magazine, December 2020.

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Japan’s government must compensate site asbestos victims, says country’s top court

Japan’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to pay more than 22 million dollars (£16.2m) in compensation to former construction workers who developed lung diseases caused by asbestos.

The ruling is the first holding the government responsible in lawsuits filed by former construction workers and bereaved families. The plaintiffs say former workers developed lung cancer and other illnesses after inhaling asbestos at construction sites. They have demanded that the state and manufacturers of the materials pay damages.

The award to a group of about 350 workers was first made by a court two years go. The Supreme Court rejected the government’s appeal in December. The ruling also acknowledged the government’s responsibility for health problems developed by self-employed construction workers, but dismissed a call for the compensation to be increased.

An appeal by the former construction workers regarding a Tokyo High Court ruling that asbestos product manufacturers were not liable will be heard on 25 February 2021.

Asahi Shimbun. NHK World.

Victims call on asbestos frontman to resign

A lawyer heading up the asbestos industry’s global lobbying efforts has been urged to resign by asbestos disease victims.

In a 27 November 2020 letter sent to Emiliano Alonso, the president of the International Chrysotile Association (ICA), asbestos victims’ organisations in Belgium, France, Italy and the UK call on Alonso to respect the overwhelming scientific evidence that all forms of asbestos should be banned. It urges the ICA head to stop promoting the use of asbestos in developing countries and to resign immediately from his leadership role.

The ICA is funded by asbestos mining companies in Russia, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe and asbestos dealers in India and Mexico. It lobbies to block and defeat bans on asbestos in developing countries, as well as efforts at the United Nations to secure safety protections regarding asbestos.

Emiliano Alonso is a Spanish lawyer whose consulting company, Alonso y Asociados, lobbies on behalf of clients at the United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere. Before taking up the position of president, he had been paid by the ICA for many years to promote the interests of the asbestos industry.

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Professional drivers put at greater risk of cancer

Professional drivers are facing a routine and serious health risk from diesel exhaust fume exposures at work. In what they described as “the largest real-world in-vehicle personal exposure study to date”, researchers from the MRC Centre for Environment and Health, Environmental Research Group and Imperial College London, found that professional drivers are regularly exposed to hazardous levels of diesel emissions as part of their work.

Other studies have linked diesel fume exposure at work to lung and blood cancer and heart, lung and other diseases). The new study funded by safety professionals’ organisation IOSH found that professional drivers are disproportionately affected by exposure to diesel exhaust fumes, including taxi drivers – the worst hit group – couriers, bus drivers and drivers working for the emergency services.

Dr Ian Mudway of Imperial College London, who led the DEMiSt research team, said: “We believe there are around a million people working in jobs like these in the UK alone, so this is a widespread and under-appreciated issue – indeed, it was very noticeable to us just how surprised drivers taking part in the study were at the levels of their exposure to diesel.”

In total, 11,500 hours of professional drivers’ exposure data were analysed in the baseline monitoring campaign. The results showed that, on average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) while driving, which was around four times higher than their exposure at home (1.1 µg/m3).

The levels recorded at home would be similar to levels experienced by office workers at their desks, the researchers said. The study found massive exposure spikes often occurred in congested traffic within Central London, in areas where vehicles congregate, such as in car parks or depots, as well as in tunnels and ‘street canyons’ (between high buildings).

IOSH news release and full report.
See the Hazards magazine feature Fuming, factsheet Diesel out and poster Die diesel die.

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Major EU coalition aims to stop cancer at work

A Stop Cancer at Work Campaign has been launched by coalition of professional organisations, trades unions and patient groups. The groups say their objective is to ensure that the current fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) includes groups of carcinogenic and mutagenic hazardous drugs, which cause cancer, and that have not been included by the European Commission in proposals published on 22 September 2020.

They say cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU, with over 120,000 work-related cancer cases recorded each year. A statement from the coalition notes: “In its proposal, the European Commission introduced binding occupational exposure limit values for three carcinogens, which we welcome, but the Commission also left out reprotoxins as well as carcinogenic and mutagenic hazardous drugs.

“There is a wide range of reproductive health problems caused by workplace exposure to reprotoxins including: reduced fertility or infertility, erectile dysfunction, menstrual cycle and ovulatory disorders, miscarriage, stillbirth, babies born too soon or too small, birth defects, child developmental disorders.”

The campaign will run for most of 2020 and 2021 and is urging those supporting its objectives to sign an online petition calling for the EU institutions “to take action and accept the necessary legislative changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive.”

* Cancer at Work campaign  website and petition.

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Call for UK action on deadly silica risks

MPs in the UK House of Commons are being urged to take immediate action to prevent avoidable deaths and illness caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the scientific society on workplace health exposures, has written to MPs calling for action on a dust hazard which could put over 2 million workers at risk in the construction industry alone. It warns that hundreds are dying each year from the lung-scarring disease silicosis and that those infected by Covid-19 could be especially vulnerable.

Silica is also linked to 4,000 deaths a year from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unions have also raised concerns about hundreds of preventable silica-related work cancer deaths each year and a link to serious autoimmune and other diseases.

BOHS warns: “With a shortage and ramped up costs for respiratory protection equipment (RPE) and pressures to cut costs and an over-stretched HSE [Health and Safety Executive], the Society fears the problem is about to get much worse.”

Kevin Bampton, the chief executive of BOHS, said: “Brexit is likely to dominate the parliamentary agenda, but this is literally life and death. Parliamentarians have recognised the urgency of this issue; we are now asking them to follow through on this. Action now can prevent Covid-19 deaths, but also long-term illness and disability.”

The union Unite has been at the forefront of the campaign for better controls on silica, which is a risk to its members in construction, foundries, ceramics, quarries and other sectors.

In 2019, Unite launched a silica exposure register for its members and backed a campaign to cut the current UK legal limit of 0.1 mg/m³ for respirable crystalline silica to no more than 0.05 mg/m³. It said this move would dramatically reduce the incidence of silicosis, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases and other silica-related conditions.

ACTION: Send an e-postcard to HSE demanding it introduce a more protective UK silica standard no higher than 0.05mg/m³ and with a phased move to 0.025mg/m³. www.hazards.org/HSEstopkillingus.