Thursday, January 27, 2011

How the anti-asbestos lobby manipulates public opinion

Eco-terrorism as a social phenomenon and a method of a competitive struggle did not appear yesterday. Playing on fears has always been an excellent means of manipulating public opinion, and the environmental topics have paved the way for all possible speculations. Therefore today we can make out commercial “ears” behind public actions of many organizations for environmental protection more and more often.

In our country a growing threat posed by pseudo-environmentalists has been already evaluated on the highest level. The Chairman of the Russian Government was the first to speak publicly about the things everybody knew but tried hard not to notice. When talking to journalists during his recent car tour around Russia, the head of the government said openly that the government regularly came across the manipulation with environmental issues in the competitive struggle. “Sometimes an environmental problem is used for political purposes, and the Nord Stream is the example”, Mr. Putin noted.

According to the Prime Minister, things got to direct blackmail. “We faced with a situation when they came and said: “Nothing personal. Its business. Youll have to pay. Youd better do it right away.” They even specified amounts”, the Prime Minister said.

It is important that the concern of the Chairman of the Russian government on this matter is not limited by frameworks of such megaprojects as the Nord Stream. Already in April 2009 activities of the international lobby were discussed in detail at the meeting of the Russian Prime Minister with trade union leaders. “We cannot and must not allow anybody to take advantage of difficulties to press on us even harder. I’m not talking about politics now. I mean, to restrain us in the competition in world markets”, - Vladimir Putin indicated the position of the authorities.

Actions of the international anti-asbestos lobby are, perhaps, one of the brightest examples of the effective work of pseudo-environmentalists serving the business. The starting point of our investigation was the sensational article “Asbestos Turnabout” published in the Wall Street Journal that revealed cases of fraudulent asbestos lawsuits in the USA. Billions of dollars are made on the imaginary asbestos problem. Due to the existing legal precedents money is virtually made out of thin air. A slight contact with asbestos is sufficient to have an opportunity to sue several companies. And even if a man smokes and suddenly develops lung cancer, then asbestos is to blame, not smoking. And if he can prove that he has been exposed to asbestos fibers, he can count on a considerable compensation.

According to the report of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy published in May 2008 the losses from asbestos lawsuits in the U.S. exceeded 70 billion dollars. At the same time, according to the Wall Street Journal, the race for excess asbestos profits resulted in several lawsuits for one and the same case.

How is Russia related to this story? The thing is that Russia is the largest producer and consumer of chrysotile asbestos. Behind the name that says nothing to the ordinary man there stands a strategic product, a mineral that is widely used in different spheres of human activities. It is used for the production of building materials, e.g. slate and water pipes, brakes, etc. Chrysotile asbestos is safe in case of its controlled use, and this has been proved by many reports of respected scientific institutions. Yet, until 1970s people in Western countries used an absolutely different, health-damaging mineral called amphibole that has a common commercial name “asbestos” with Russian chrysotile. These minerals are different in their structure and even look different; yet, the powerful industry of the international anti-asbestos lobby is now operating based on this confusion.
In the current epoch of the “free market” chrysotile is an “inconvenient” competitor for its many substitutes. Its cheapness, availability and durability are unequivocally in favor of chrysotile. However various public organizations strive for “closing” national markets to this product. This is the ecological terrorism. Behind the pseudo-environmentalists there stands a whole supranational industry of money-pumping. This international association of lawyers, politicians, and businessmen are headed by law firms that have built their empire on asbestos cases. Since 1970s this lobby have filed and won thousands of lawsuits, thus paralyzing whole industries.

The leader of the international trade union movement “For Chrysotile” Andrey Kholzakov states that the law firms have a direct link to public organizations advocating the chrysotile ban. According to him, the head of one of such firms finances the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) that promotes the anti-asbestos lobby from the “public position”. His sister, in her turn, manages the Secretariat. Thus, the link between the lobby and the “public” organization is obvious, Mr. Kholzakov says. Aside from the Secretariat, the expert continues, huge financial flows are also sent to political and commercial organizations under the guise of grants and sponsorship to doctors or of donations.

We should admit that the anti-asbestos lobby has already achieved “impressive” results in Europe. Ignoring scientific evidence of safety of the controlled use of chrysotile, governments of some European countries have banned the use of all types of asbestos on their territory.

Some people also try to do the same in Russia. At present there exist some nongovernmental organizations, public actions of which allow us to suggest their connection with the international anti-asbestos lobby.

In public documents of such organizations nothings indicates their affiliation with the Secretariat or other international organizations; yet, Western governmental and commercial structures, which interests must logically be far from the Russian boundaries, act as sponsors of some actions.

Nowadays backroom games of lobby structures are opposed to by a number of public organizations. And the most categorical position in relation to the lobbyists is that of the Trade Union of Russian Builders that already in 2007 proclaimed the opposition to the international anti-asbestos lobby as one of its priority goals. And for that very purpose the Alliance of trade unions of chrysotile asbestos miners and millers has been founded.

At the same time the goals of pseudo-environmentalists are quite transparent. “They need to adopt a public resolution about the harm of chrysotile by all means”, Mr. Kholzakov, the Chairman of the trade union of the Joint-Stock Company “Uralasbest”, the Head of the international trade union movement “For Chrysotile”, says. According to him, their activities come down to a narrow practical task, that is, development of the necessary document reflecting a “change” in the public opinion with respect to the use of chrysotile asbestos in Russia.

In 2011 yet the 5th Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention will be held and the issue of including chrysotile in the list of dangerous substances is again in its agenda.

For many years the main obstacle here has been the firm position adopted by Russia and some other countries in support of chrysotile. The desired document might become an instrument of pressure on the position of the Russian delegation at the Conference.

The struggle of trade unions has continued for some years at all fronts of the information war. Thus, the trade unions were the first to reveal the links between the anti-asbestos lobby and the allegedly independent International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. The Chrysotile Association reported that in 2008 at the World Congress on Safety and Heath at Work in Seoul, Korea, organized by the International Labor Organization (ILO) its delegates presented with facts proving that activities of the Secretariat were sponsored by the Law Firm Kazan, McClain, Abrams, Lyons, Greenwood & Harley, PLC. The coordinator of the Secretariat Laurie Kazan-Allen personally admitted the fact of sponsorship of IBAS by companies of the anti-asbestos lobby.

In their time the Russian trade unions acted as a unifying force joining efforts of organizations from chrysotile-producing countries in a single international public force – the International Trade Union Movement “For Chrysotile” comprising trade unions of the chrysotile industry from Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico, Colombia, Kazakhstan, and other countries.

International trade unions have stood in the way of the anti-asbestos lobby. Before that large-scale information campaigns had often failed to allow national governments to protect their industry and workplaces of hundreds of thousands of people employed by the industry. Nowadays the active trade union and international movement lets researchers and experts present results of independent expert examinations to the public.

The trade union movement actively opposed the ban in international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and led the WHO to the decision about a differentiated approach to regulating different types of asbestos fibers. This was fiercely counteracted by the anti-asbestos lobby that insisted on the review of this decision through affiliated officials. Quite often some WHO officials related to the lobby directly sabotage resolutions of their own organization by ignoring the decision about the differentiated approach to different types of asbestos made by the World Health Assembly. It should be noted that thanks to the trade unions such cases received wide publicity, thus saving the delegations from chrysotile-producing countries from undue pressure.

According to Andrey Kholzakov, today it is most important not to allow the lobbying structures to manipulate the public opinion. The scientific judgment on chrysotile is as follows: its controlled use poses no health risk. Risks for health of workers and population are present only if the established safety rules are broken, as is the case in the use of any other building materials. This is the official position of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. And nobody is going to review this assessment. No grounds.

Source: Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Monday, January 24, 2011

SC refuses to ban asbestos in the country

The Supreme Court today refused to ban asbestos, considered a health hazard, but directed the Union and state governments to put in place a body to regulate its use and manufacturing.

A bench of Chief Justice S H Kapadia also asked various state governments to follow a 1995 ruling of the apex court, spelling out the guidelines and frameworks for the use of the building material, generally used for erecting temporary shades and walls.

The bench, which also included justices K S Panicker Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar, gave the order while dismissing a public interest lawsuit filed by NGO Kalyaneshwari, which had moved the court in 2004 seeking its ban on the grounds that it poses serious health problems for the people living under roofs made up of asbestos.

While dismissing Kalyaneshwari's petition, the bench also questioned its bonafide.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Very Simplistic Equation Circulated: No Asbestos = No Danger

It was thought that it would be enough to replace chrysotile fibres with other fibres.  To polish their image and avoid responsibility for their past activities, some manufacturers decided to cease using chrysotile in as many products as possible, while using substitutes that had not always been scientifically tested either for technical or medical problems.
Replacing chrysotile is a very complex operation.  The risks and dangers with many other fibres are sufficiently clear now that some legislators are starting to impose regulatory constraints on these substitutes.  The regulatory authorities are invited to apply the standards for chrysotile to all industrial fibres if they truly want to protect the health and safety of workers.
Since the main argument used to substitute chrysotile is based on the premise that its use presents a potential health risk, it is essential to ensure that the replacement products are harmless or less harmful, as indicated in Convention 162 from the ILO.
Since 1993, a group of experts convened by the WHO, stated in Environmental Health Criteria 151, that all respirable and biopersistent fibres must be tested for their toxicity and carcinogenicity.  In fact, recent studies show that many of the fibres used to replace asbestos in many products are not without potential risk.  These are primarily glass fibre, rock wool, refractory ceramic fibres, aramid fibres and cellulose fibres.  The same year, the International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) clearly recommended that “exposure to any breathable and durable fibre should be controlled in the same way as asbestos until such time as it is proven that less stringent controls would be sufficient."
We understand that Germany classifies glass wool, rock wool and slag wool substrates as carcinogenic products.  Several other countries have also taken the same approach and have adopted standards for exposure and work methods for several fibres.  However, the fact remains that to effectively protect the health of workers regulations should apply to all fibres. The European Commission further announced, in 1994, a complete study program on fibres that should make it possible to establish a new classification according to their carcinogenicity.
The scientific community agrees that in too many cases, there is no valid scientific evidence that supports the assumption that substitutes are safe.  Even the “Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM)” in France, recognizes that the scientific data is insufficient on substitute products to make a decision regarding their harmfulness. More recently, the WHO reached the same conclusion in its publication “WHO Workshop on Mechanisms of Fibre Carcinogenesis and Assessment of Chrysotile Asbestos Substitutes.”
When the Court of Appeals of the United States reversed, in 1991, the asbestos ban and phase-out rule proposed by the EPA, it did stress that national legislators should consider the cost of introducing measures to ban a product. It also stressed that substitute products for products that contain asbestos also present potential risks to human health that could be more serious than potential risks from asbestos.
This is also a rising concern among workers and regulatory agencies. The ILO adopted a Code of Practice for the use of Synthetic Fibres, which recommends the same precautionary measures as with chrysotile.  This comes as no surprise as manipulating, mixing, cutting and unprecautionary handling of all fibrous materials can generate dust.  In the case of chrysotile, international references are available for determining, what is a reasonable limit of dust exposure not to exceed. This is unfortunately not always the case for most substitute fibres. 
The prohibition of asbestos would mean substituting a known and adequately regulated product with others that are unknown and often not regulated.  Several of these products have similar effects on health without the benefits of chrysotile.  For example, recent studies show that certain types of fibres and products used to replace chrysotile are more biopersistent than chrysotile.
Because the use of substitute fibres to asbestos is relatively recent, not enough epidemiology studies are presently available that evaluates their human health effects.  With the negative publicity arising from the past uses of asbestos fibres, these new fibres were developed to take over a growing market, encouraged by political stance (like in the European Union) supporting their use.  Many scientists have raised serious concerns about possible health effects of these new materials and especially about the fact that the reliable scientific information is very meagre or non-existent. Today, it has become abundantly clear that “biopersistence” is one key parameter to take into account when comparing the toxicity of respirable fibres.
It has been confirmed by numerous scientists, in several studies, that respirable fibres have different biopersistence characteristics, which may vary according to their respective manufacturing process and chemical composition.  Current international efforts in developing standardized methodology for durability and biopersistence assessment of all industrial fibres are certainly opportune, as this parameter now appears to be an important element for carcinogenic risk evaluation and eventually occupational standards setting policy.  Indeed, the 2001 IARC Monographs Programme to re-evaluate carcinogenic risks from airborne man-made vitreous fibres reinforces the concept that “high biopersistence of inhaled fibrous materials is correlated with high carcinogenicity”.  The Monographs Working Group concluded that only the more biopersistent materials remain classified by IARC as possible human carcinogens.  As a matter of fact, the labelling regulation in the European Union states that respirable particles with very short biopersistence can be exempted from the “carcinogen” label. 
Results of the ongoing study by three laboratories in Switzerland, Germany and in the U.S.A. demonstrates that the half-time clearance for Canadian commercial chrysotile, i.e. the number of days necessary to eliminate half of the fibres remaining in the lungs after end of exposure, is about 15 days.  This number is in accordance with other data published recently about chrysotile, and in line with epidemiology studies confirming that amphiboles are more fibrogenic and carcinogenic than chrysotile (amosite asbestos has a half-time clearance of ~ 466 days).
How does chrysotile compare with the most commonly used replacement fibres?  Less durable, according to recent studies using the same methodology.  For instance, ceramic fibre (RCF 1) has a half-time clearance of 60 days, aramid fibre around 90 days and cellulose fibre over 1000 days.
Fibre-Cement Without Chrysotile
On a worldwide scale, 95 % of the chrysotile used is for the manufacturing of asbestos cement products.  This includes corrugated sheets, flat sheets, slates, pipes, etc..  Over the last decades, many materials were developed to compete with asbestos cement products (a/c), but they are not usually in the form of asbestos cement.  For example, alternative pipe products are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or ductile iron.
The characteristics of these products vary widely making it impossible to establish clear comparisons.  However, it should be noted that no single fibre can replace chrysotile in all its diversified applications.  Furthermore, their use is somewhat more limited and involves substantial economic restrictions compared to chrysotile.  These would include price, health risk, durability, energy consumption and environmental considerations that are often higher than for chrysotile.
No fibre can easily replace chrysotile for the manufacturing of pipes.  Tests were carried out with various materials, but none were satisfactory.  Natural or synthetic fibres can therefore only replace chrysotile for the manufacture of flat or corrugated slates, however for the latter, the resistance provided by substitute fibres restricts manufacturing only the thickest sheets and with the highest level of corrugation.
Chrysotile and Portland cement have a binding property that cannot be matched by many materials.  Introducing fibrous cement technology without chrysotile is therefore not easy.  Dansk Eternit in Denmark and Supradur in the United States are faced with huge lawsuits due to the fast deterioration of their fibrous cement products that do not contain chrysotile.  Similar tests on cellulose based composite products in Central America led to disastrous results and these products were quickly withdrawn from the market.  Based on experiments carried out to date, it appears that fibre-cements that do not contain chrysotile are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions, particularly in hot and humid areas and areas with frequent freezing and thawing cycles.
Although experiments were carried out with a score of natural and synthetic fibres, only two, cellulose and the polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) resulted in any kind of commercial success.  While the use of these products indoors does not seem to pose problems, their external use must be limited to areas with suitable climatic conditions.
In addition to the resistance and durability aspects, chrysotile-cement is less expensive than its competitors because chrysotile fibre is cheaper.  Cellulose costs more than chrysotile.  PVA is also very expensive.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Asbestos: The Real Story...

For many people, the word "asbestos" inspires a negative reaction.  In some countries, especially in Western Europe, this is even an obsessive fear.  We all know now that the bad conditions to which workers were subjected in the past, in mines, manufacturing plants and in spraying pulverized products, are the responsible for incurable, sometimes fatal, industrial diseases. With improved scientific knowledge in toxicology and epidemiology, it is now recognized that diseases related to asbestos have a long latency period (from 20 to 40 years) and that chrysotile is much less problematic than amphiboles. It is not surprising to diagnose today diseases related to the past use of asbestos. They are the sad consequences of the past, but they have nothing to do with working conditions prevailing now, even though precautions must always be taken as it is the case for all products, substances or fibres presenting a potential health risk.
People are more influenced by alarmist views than by concrete facts.  It is easy to generate fear, to simplistically associate today's diseases with current conditions of use and to confirm without solid proof that substitute fibres are probably less harmful. This is false. In such a context, the solution also appears very simple -- ban rather than regulate.  But this is also trickery.
Reality is quite different.  Between 1950 and 1999, over 22 million tonnes of asbestos were used in the fifteen countries that formed the European Union for the construction of commercial buildings and distribution systems for drinking water and waste water.  Europe would have had a very difficult time reaching its current level of development without this considerable uses of asbestos products. Now that major infrastructure work has been completed in Europe, high-technology industries are producing expensive substitute fibres.  Finished products that contain these fibres are of equal or inferior quality than those containing chrysotile, but their prices are much higher and their lifespan is more limited. It is not surprising to see supporters of substitute products interested in feeding the current psychosis over asbestos in various countries where they wish to expand their market.
Make no mistake about it: The basis for the current debate is not only an occupational health and safety issue. We are witnessing a crusade with huge economic stakes.