Governments backing the asbestos industry have derailed attempts to require mandatory warnings on all its cancer-causing exports.
Russia and Kazakhstan – the world’s biggest asbestos exporters – headed a group of just four governments that refused to allow chrysotile asbestos to be put on the Rotterdam Convention’s list of hazardous substances for which ‘prior informed consent’ is required by importers. These two asbestos exporters were joined by Zimbabwe – which wants to re-open its mothballed asbestos mines – and Russia’s ally, Kyrgyzstan.
The group of four blocked the recommendation of the scientific committee to the United Nation’s convention, and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the 160-plus countries participating in the May conference assessing substances for inclusion on the list. The system requires a unanimous vote.
The International Chrysotile Association (ICA), the asbestos industry’s global lobby organisation, was jubilant. “For the fifth time, inclusion of chrysotile has not been agreed. It is historical and without precedent. The policy of controlled use promoted by ICA still is the responsible accepted approach,” an ICA statement said.
Prominent anti-asbestos campaign Kathleen Ruff retorted: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the corrupt information and the immoral conduct of the tiny number of countries who are sabotaging the Convention in order to protect their asbestos profits was condemned by the overwhelming majority of countries attending the conference.”
UK union Unite, Australian unions AMWU and CFMEU, and global unions BWI and IndustriALL protested outside the United Nations building on 12 May, as the convention conference started. IndustriALL ran a two-week long publicity campaign on Geneva transport to remind conference participants and the wider public that asbestos is still in production and responsible for killing at least 100,000 people a year.
Less than 10 per cent of people diagnosed with occupational cancer in Australia get any compensation, a report has revealed.
Occupational Cancer Costs, a new review of workers’ compensation claims undertaken by Cancer Council Australia, found an average of 395 claims a year were made nationwide for work-related cancers, resulting in payouts of Aus$30 million (£15m), but that was a fraction of those who could possibly apply.
The council says a recent analysis suggests exposure to known cancer-causing agents at work such as dust, chemicals and diesel exhaust could cause up to 5,000 new cases a year in Australia. This meant more than 90 per cent of people diagnosed with a work-related cancer had not received compensation.
Report author Terry Slevin, chairman of Cancer Council Australia’s occupational and environmental cancers committee, said: “Workers who develop cancer because of workplace exposures should receive adequate compensation – but a much better approach for everyone is to ensure appropriate protection is in place to prevent the cancer. If they don’t act, employers and regulators will be sitting on a cancer time bomb.”
He added: “Australian businesses learnt their lesson the hard way when it came to the impact of asbestos and many Australians are still paying the price. We should be able to carry out a day’s work, and go about our working lives without putting themselves at risk of developing cancer. We also need to make sure those who are affected are properly compensated.”
The findings echo those in the UK, where hardly any non-asbestos cancers are compensated, and only a minority of even these asbestos cancers result in payouts. A TUC-backed report published in Hazards magazine in 2013, revealed for most occupational cancers the chances of getting any compensation is below 1 in 50.
UK union body TUC is calling for union safety reps to ensure workers are not exposed to a cancer-causing pesticide. A new briefing says because of the unquestionable risks posed by glyphosate, which can also cause short- and long-term skin, eye and respiratory problems and serious liver and kidney damage, it is “necessary to try to prevent any workers coming into contact with glyphosate.”
The TUC briefing comes in the wake of a March 2015 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 the TUC: “No workers should be put at risk of exposure to any substance that can lead to cancer. Many employers will not know about the risks from glyphosate, especially as the manufacturers still continue to insist there is no risk, despite the evidence.”
It adds: “Health and safety representatives should make sure they bring the information to their attention. Safety representatives must ensure that their employer reviews their risk assessments and share the results with them.” Safety reps have a right to see this information, the TUC said.
“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.
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.”
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.”