“Chrysotile asbestos is not magically different to other forms of asbestos and saying so doesn’t make is so” – Brian Kohler of the global union IndustriALL calling for an end to chrysotile asbestos use at a 12 May 2015 demonstration at thes Place des Nations in Geneva.
Kohler was critical of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention process, underway this week, which allows asbestos-supporting governments to veto listing of chrysotile under the convention’s ‘prior informed consent’ provisions.
Because of this, the industry doesn’t even have to own up that it is exporting one of the most potent human carcinogens ever encountered. Conservative estimates put the annual death toll from asbestos at in excess of 100,000 victims.
A global trade union campaign to stop the deadly trade in chrysotile asbestos is underway as the United Nations prepares to vote on whether to add the toxic mineral to a list of dangerous substances. Global union federation IndustriALL and its affiliate, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), are mounting pressure on countries preparing to vote on listing chrysotile asbestos under the Rotterdam Convention at a UN conference in Geneva, Switzerland from 11 to 14 May.
The Convention lists other types of asbestos, but not chrysotile, which is just as deadly and the only type of asbestos still in commercial use. All forms of asbestos cause cancers and lung diseases such as asbestosis. The World Health Organisation estimates that 100,000 people a year die from exposure to asbestos.
A powerful advertising campaign on trams and buses running through the heart of Geneva is set to remind residents and conference visitors about the alarming dangers of asbestos. Beginning on 6 May, it will run for two weeks.
And yet 2 million tonnes of chrysotile asbestos are still traded every year without any international regulation. Although banned in 50 nations, in countries such as India and Indonesia, consumption is increasing. Major asbestos exporters – Russia, Brazil and Kazakhstan, as well as India, are set to veto restrictions on exporting chrysotile asbestos under the Convention.
Jyrki Raina, IndustriALL’s general secretary, said: “The sickening trade in asbestos has to end. All asbestos kills. These countries need to take responsibility and stop mining asbestos and stop using it.”
A number of trade union affiliates have responded to the call from IndustriALL and written to their governments, demanding that they support the listing of chrysotile under the Convention at the Geneva conference next week. IndustriALL has also been working with the Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) global union in the campaign.
One in three people in Europe are at risk from asbestos exposures, with the deadly fibre claiming thousands of lives in the region each year, a United Nations (UN) report has warned. A high-level meeting on environment and health in Europe on 30 April appealed urgently to all European countries to eliminate asbestos-related diseases.
The report showed that one third of the 900 million people living in the region are potentially exposed to asbestos at work and in the environment. “We cannot afford losing almost 15,000 lives a year in Europe, especially workers, from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, of the World Health Organisation’s Europe office. “Every death from asbestos-related diseases is avoidable,” added the UN agency’s regional director.
The report presented at the meeting indicated that asbestos is responsible for about half of all deaths from cancers developed at work. According to new estimates, deaths from mesothelioma in 15 European countries cost society more than 1.5 billion euros annually.
While 38 of the 53 member states in the region have banned the use of all forms of asbestos, the remaining 15 countries still use asbestos, especially for building materials, and some continue to produce and export it. Two of these producer nations, Russia and Kazakhstan, are spearheading efforts to resist further controls on asbestos trade. According to the WHO news release, even after its use has ceased, asbestos lingers in the environment, so it needs to be safely removed and disposed without delay.
* WHO guidelines on elimination of asbestos related diseases.
In April 2015, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4,585 people in the country were killed at work in 2013. Experts say, however, that the death toll from occupational disease in America may be 10 or more times higher. Workers in developing nations almost certainly have it worse.
For this reason, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the organisation representing 176 million workers belonging to 328 national union affiliates, is campaigning for the removal of exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace, with a special focus on cancer.
“Chemicals we would have imagined by now would be globally banned keep popping up,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow told reporters from the US Center for Public Integrity. “We see emerging fears around some of the new technological issues such as nanotechnology… it’s extraordinary, really. There’s a lot of fear amongst workers.”
Anabella Rosemberg, ITUC’s policy adviser on occupational health, safety and environment and the author of a new guide to help workers ‘stop deadly exposures’, added: “The reality is, workers have very little capacity today to track exposures in their careers. When workers change sectors or companies very often, we don’t have health systems that allow them to know what substances they’ve been exposed to.” The burden is on the worker to prove harm, Rosemberg said. “This needs to change.”
ITUC ‘stop deadly exposures’ guides.
The food system must be ‘transformed’ to keep deadly pesticides out of the workplace and the food chain, the global farm and food union federation IUF has said.
The union body was speaking out in the wake of a 20 March 2015 online report in the journal Lancet Oncology, which revealed the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) new classification of glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the world’s most widely-used herbicide – as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” IARC, a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), cites evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers’ occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to IUF: “With this report, the WHO explicitly recognises the importance of independent research on the impact of pesticides on human health and the food chain – a field long dominated by pesticide manufacturers. And it gives advocates of food rights and a safer, saner food system an important opportunity to push for action.”
Monsanto, which sold US$5bn worth of glyphosate last year, immediately attacked the credibility of the report. According to IUF: “Will the WHO withstand the pressure of the pesticide lobby? Much depends on the public response, which also means defeating moves to lower regulatory standards through agreements like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).”
The global union concludes: “The sudden spotlight on glyphosate, and growing awareness of the threat to food safety contained in TTIP and similar trade and investment agreements, can help catalyse a broader movement to fundamentally transform the food system. Unions should be at the head of the movement.”
Labour shadow ministers Stephen Timms and Kate Green have said a future Labour government will take action to improve enforcement of safety standards, support union safety reps and will “prioritise occupational health and the prevention of occupational illnesses.”
In a Labourlist posting, they say a Labour government “will commission a proactive research programme to provide evidence for policy, including on occupational carcinogens. We will prioritise occupational health and the prevention of occupational illnesses, and establish a strategy for removing over time asbestos from the built environment.”
Occupational cancers kill at a rate of more than once a minute worldwide, according to a comprehensive review of the evidence by the ITUC.
The global union body, speaking out ahead of the 28 April International Workers’ Memorial Day, says this preventable waste of life must end and has a stern warning for rogue employers: “If you expose us, we’ll expose you.”
Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said: “Even conservative estimates put the annual occupational cancer toll at 660,000 deaths a year. A poisonous cocktail of toxic marketing and regulatory failure has already condemned another generation to an early grave. As long as there’s money to be made, industry will retain its fatal attachment to some of the most potent killers in history.”
This year on 28 April, the international campaign day when unions pledge to “remember the dead, and fight for the living”, the harm caused by workplace toxins is being put under the spotlight. A new ITUC guide, ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’, sets out how to remove toxic exposures from the workplace. At the centre of the union strategy is active, union-supported workforce participation, in finding problems and implementing solutions.
According to Burrow: “Some of the world’s most profitable companies are not just defending their toxic products, they are defending weak exposure standards that mean they profit and you pay. It is not ethical, it is not healthy and it is not what we bargained for. We make this pledge: if they expose us, we will expose them.”
- Statistics are included in a new ITUC-supported workplace cancer website, www.cancerhazards.org, which provides union representatives and others with the latest news on occupational cancer, including emerging scientific evidence and union initiatives to combat occupational causes of cancer.
2. Online campaign resources are available: ITUC occupational health and safety and 28 April activities. ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’.
On April 28, European Trade unions will commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day – remembering the 150,000 people who have died in the EU from occupational cancers since the European Commission suspended work on legislation protecting workers from chemicals that cause cancer. Every year 100,000 people in the EU die from occupational cancers. In October 2013 the European Commission stopped developing exposure limits for chemicals that cause cancer because it is reviewing ‘red tape’ – with the result that only 3 cancer-causing chemicals have European exposure limits!
Now the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is demanding:
- Legally enforceable exposure limits for the for a priority list of the 50 most toxic chemicals for causing cancer, and for male and female fertility.
- Progress on the revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens at work to expand the number of chemicals with binding exposure limits
“Measures to protect workers from cancer and fertility difficulties, are being treated as ‘red tape’ and a so-called ‘unnecessary burden’ on industry” said Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “It is shameful.”
“I am all in favour of ‘better regulation’ but this is treating human life like another line in the balance sheet, like the cost of raw materials or energy. The ETUC is calling on the European Commission agree legally binding exposure limits for 50 of the most harmful chemicals.” She added: “The Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans recently said that better regulation does not mean deregulation and lowering standards* so I hope he is willing to take action to protect workers from cancer.”
The owners of a Taiwan-based electronics firm have been ordered to pay millions in compensation to workers who developed liver, lung and other cancers after working on its production lines. On 17 April, a Taiwan district court ordered the parent firms of Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to pay US$18 million in damages to the former workers and their families, who the court heard were the victims of worst work-related health scandal in the country’s history. More than 200 former workers at an RCA plant in Taoyuan have died of liver and lung cancers since the 1990s.
The plant in the northern county of Taoyuan (now Taoyuan City) shut down in 1992, a few years after RCA’s takeover by General Electric, an American multinational conglomerate, and its subsequent sale to the French owned Thomson Consumer Electronics. The court ruled that RCA and four related companies’ usage of chemicals including the solvents trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethene and dichloromethane, had a direct correlation to many of the former employees’ cancer diagnoses.
“The workers have a partial victory today but this is belated justice,” said Joseph Lin, the lead lawyer with the plaintiffs’ legal team. “We hope this case will set up a precedent against irresponsible international and Taiwanese corporations and help protect workers.” RCA set up the factory in 1970. It was later acquired by US firm General Electronics (GE) and then France’s Thomson Consumer Electronics (Bermuda) Ltd (TCEB) before closing in 1992. TCEB was also held liable for compensation. Around 80 former RCA workers and their families gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Taipei after the ruling, displaying a white banner reading ‘poisoned workers, immediate compensation’.
Imagine a killer that strikes more than once every minute. Most of these deaths could be stopped with minimal effort, but preventive measures are being blocked. Well, warns ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow, that killer is occupational cancer and a mixture of toxic marketing and regulatory failure has already condemned another generation to an early grave.
Occupational cancer isn’t a mystery disease. There’s decades of evidence about the causes, and enough early warnings to avoid introducing a new generation of killers. But instead of prevention, we are facing a toxic cocktail of denial and deceit that means more people than at any time in history will develop tumours caused by their job. The reason is as straightforward as it is shocking. As long as there’s money to be made, industry will retain its fatal attachment to some of the most potent killers in history.
A new ITUC guide, ‘Toxic work – stop deadly exposures today’, sets out why we want to remove toxic exposures from the workplace and how. At the centre of the union strategy is active, union-supported workforce participation, in finding problems and implementing solutions. And a ITUC-supported workplace cancer website, www.cancerhazards.org, now provides union representatives with the latest news on occupational cancer, including emerging scientific evidence and union initiatives to combat this workplace scourge.