CANADA Vs. FRANCE:
The Asbestos Conspiracy
Even though it is nearly 40 years since asbestos was scientifically
shown to cause cancer and it has now claimed thousands of lives, the WTO
is examining a complaint by Canada, which exports 99% of its output, against
France, which banned it in 1997. The WTO's Dispute Settlement Body is
quite capable of finding in favor of the purveyors of death and the governments
that so shamelessly support them, since it habitually puts "freedom" for
trade before any other consideration. Since the outrageous ruling on hormone-treated
beef, anything seems possible.
By Patrick Herman and Annie Thebaud-Mony*
Journalist and research director at the French National Institute for
Health and Medical Research (Inserm) respectively, and coordinators of
the international Ban Asbestos Network.
The World Trade Organization's Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), the source
of its strong arm tactics, operates anonymously, in secret and behind
closed doors. The WTO first came to prominence for its regrettable judgment
against the European Union for refusing to import hormone-treated meat
from the United States into France. The ruling provoked a chain reaction
starting with initiatives by the Roquefort cheese producers of Aveyron
in France. Now, with no more publicity, the DSB is preparing to rule on
a Canadian complaint challenging the French decision to ban asbestos,
in force since 1 January 1997. Again, it is acting in the name of freedom
for international trade.
It was on 28 May 1998 that Ottawa initiated dispute proceedings against
France. That was when the battle of experts began. It is taking place
far away from the countless victims who have already experienced the effects
of asbestos first hand. On the one hand, we have Canada, Zimbabwe and
Russia, producers for whom asbestos is a strategic industry. On the other,
stands France, backed by the EU, which adopted a directive banning the
trade in and use of asbestos in July 1999, although it will not become
effective everywhere until 2005 (at the latest). Now, only three member
states, Spain, Greece and Portugal, have still to implement it. Paris
has the support of the US, which considers all types of asbestos carcinogenic.
What is at stake with the DSB's "judgment" has to be understood in the
light of the war that has set the asbestos industry lobby against the
deadly fibre's millions of victims for the last hundred years.
Between 1930 and 1960, manufacturers did all they could to prevent the
link between asbestos and respiratory diseases, including cancer, becoming
known, so they could avoid prosecution. American workers had in fact sued
the Johns Manville company as far back as 1932, but it was not until 1962
that epidemiologists finally established beyond any doubt what company
bosses had known for a long time - asbestos causes cancer (1). That was
when the conspiracy of silence began all round the world. In South Africa,
researcher Christopher Wagner was unable to find a publisher for his work
on mesothelioma and in the end published his findings in Great Britain
(2). In 1987 Dr Bogden Przygocki posted information about the dangers
of asbestos at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland. He did so without permission
and was sacked from the shipyard's clinic. During the 1980s and 1990s,
the polemic shifted to the international organizations. In the guise of
"official" reports by the World Health Organization and the International
Labour Office, industry "experts" tried to get two messages endorsed as
scientific truth: first that white asbestos (chrysotile) is not very toxic,
if at all (3), and secondly that its "controlled use" is possible. These
attempts failed, thanks to pressure from researchers unconnected with
the manufacturers, who denounced the way international organizations were
being used by the lobbies (4). But the said "experts" nevertheless still
enjoyed some legitimacy and continued to spread their message in order
to "reassure" the expanding markets in the countries of the South, carefully
avoiding any confrontation with the victims, who were never asked for
their side of the story.
Governments and public opinion were also manipulated in other ways.
In Brazil, for example, academics, who also acted as medical consultants
to the firms concerned, carried out epidemiological studies under conditions
incompatible with the demands of scientific rigour (5). This was true
of the identification of former workers exposed to asbestos (60% of Brazilian
workers are unregistered), diagnosis (a third of the population has no
access to health care) or measuring the relationship between dose and
effect (without knowing precisely how much people were exposed to). In
this way, Brazilian chrysotile was "proved" to be harmless.
These supposedly "scientific" practices went hand in hand with a world
media offensive. In France, the Standing Committee on Asbestos (CPA),
an informal body formed by a media consultancy in 1982, brought together
manufacturers, scientists, public authorities and trade unions (6). The
press consulted the CPA before anyone else, since it was the "expert"
that could not be ignored, constantly singing the praises of the "controlled
use of asbestos". It was not until 1995 (7) that the scandal broke and
the CPA vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. But that did not
prevent Claude Allegre, the French minister for education, research and
technology, from denouncing the "intellectual terrorism" he claimed held
sway on the Jussieu university campus in Paris, from which all asbestos
was ordered to be removed. His conclusion was that "some kind of mass
psychosis had transformed a minor problem into a major hazard" (8).
The Canadian government and manufacturers, for their part, offered foreign
journalists and trade unionists trips to the Thetford Mines in Quebec
- tourist trips to the land of no-risk asbestos. There was humanitarian
aid as well. The 1976 Guatemala earthquake gave Eternit's local subsidiary,
Duralit, the opportunity to supply asbestos cement roofing, paid for out
of charity collections. In 1991 a memorandum of understanding was even
signed between the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Belgian multinational
Etex. The first "customers" were not slow in coming: Croatia, Guatemala
The asbestos victims' counterattack took place before the law. Legal
proceedings uncovered the tragedies of victims and their families, the
criminal practices of employers, and the authorities' culpable failure
to act. All this gave the scandal a real political dimension. In the US,
the "trial of the century", with nearly 300,000 complaints filed, ended
abruptly: Johns Mansville declared itself bankrupt in August 1982 and
set up a compensation fund, followed by other manufacturers and their
insurance companies. But the number of victims was so great that the fund
was quickly exhausted.
In France, the National Association for the Defense of Victims of Asbestos
(Andeva) has brought more than 1,000 civil or criminal actions from 1996
(9). Both the system for preventing or compensating for occupational diseases
and the relevant institutions, especially industrial medicine, were on
trial with them.
In Brazil, which is currently the world's fifth largest producer, Eternit
and Saint-Gobain were helped in their asbestos operations by the military
dictatorship, which censored all information about occupational health
and industrial hazards (10). At the instigation of the Brazilian Association
of Workers Exposed to Asbestos (Abrea), formed in 1997, hundreds of workers
(or families of deceased victims) went to court. In 1998, Eternit was
ordered to compensate a former employee. Eternit and Brasilit (Saint-Gobain's
Brazilian subsidiary) then offered their former employees an amicable
agreement whereby workers would refrain from bringing proceedings in exchange
for a lump sum compensation in the event of illness.
Sao Paolo labour inspector, Fernanda Giannasi, denounced these agreements
publicly and they were twice declared invalid by the Brazilian courts.
The inspector was prosecuted by Eternit for slander, provoking a massive
national and international outcry. Eternit's case was dismissed and it
decided not to appeal. Later this year, Brazil may decide to ban asbestos
with effect from the year 2005 (as under the European directive).
Last year in London, nearly 2,000 black workers from the South African
mines brought an action against their former employer, the British firm
Cape Ltd. It responded with a press campaign taken up by rightwing newspapers
denouncing the "outrageous cost" to the British taxpayer of compensating
these "foreign miners".
Canada, which exports 99% of its production, has been engaged in intensive
diplomatic activity. At an international seminar organised by the Brazilian
ministry of labour in 1994, its ambassador told seven ministers of his
government's concern over an agreement between the Brazilian state, management
and labour for the phasing out of asbestos in friction materials. In 1997
the Canadian embassy in Seoul persuaded the Korean government to withdraw
labeling drawing attention to the dangers of imported Canadian asbestos.
In Europe, Ottawa has been stepping up the pressure following the French
ban. And not without success: Anthony Blair delayed the ban recommended
by the British public health authorities for two years in return for Canada's
support in the "mad cow" crisis.
But the 1990s saw the birth of social movements against asbestos in
many countries. The diversity of their membership: associations, researchers,
lawyers, health professionals and trade unions, makes them extremely dynamic.
Their international growth is also explained by the ways in which they
cooperate. Rather than reproduce the traditional North-South relationship,
they share experiences and information and assist one another in the social
struggles in their respective countries. They make wide use of virtual
communication networks, but they are based above all on human ties of
By reducing the right to health to "technical provisions", the WTO's
arbitration shifts the legitimacy of it from the political arena to that
of scientific and technocratic expertise, beyond all democratic control.
In a study (11) carried out for the Trade Union Technical Bureau, Saman
Zia-Zarifi and Mary Footer show that, even if the DSB's decision does
not call into question the French decision to ban asbestos, the very proceedings
are bringing human health and workplace safety within the remit of the
WTO although they had hitherto been matters for national sovereignty.
Apart from the criteria to which it refers, especially the primacy of
free trade, this procedure gives established "experts" alone the right
to tell the "truth" in the name of science. But only the victims' knowledge
of the dangers of asbestos can fully reveal the human scale of the risk.
And they are also the only ones not consulted in the WTOs' dispute settlement
If the WTO's competence is not categorically challenged in areas relating
to citizenship, or even simple dignity, then the principles of law developed
in the course of human history - the right to life and health, the right
to safety at work, the right for the natural environment to be preserved
for future generations - will themselves become subservient to the overriding
criterion of free trade. Will the strategy so cleverly and cynically followed
by the asbestos industry for a hundred years win out in this way?
(1) David Lilienfield, "The silence: the Asbestos Industry and Early
Occupational Cancer Research. A Case Study", American Journal of Public
Health, June 1991, vol. 81, No. 6.
(2) British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 17, 260-271, 1960.
(3) Chrysotile accounts for over 90% of the asbestos mined throughout
the world, the other varieties being banned in most of the major industrialized
(4) Barry Castleman, Richard Lemen, "The manipulation of the international
organizations", International Journal of Occupational and Environmental
Health, vol. 4, No. 1, January-March 1998.
(5) Estudo Epidemiologico em trabalhadores espostos ao asbesto na atividade
de fibro-cemento; NA atividade da minerac--, projects co-ordinated by
professor Ericson Bagatin, University of Campinas, Brazil, August 1996.
(6) Francois Malye, Amiante, le dossier de l'air contamine, Le Pre-aux-Clercs/
Sciences et Avenir, Paris, 1996.
(7) See "L'heritage empoisonne de l'amiante", Le Monde, 31 May 1995,
and "Mortel amiante, une epidemie qui nous concerne tous", Sciences et
Avenir, June 1995.
(8) See Claude Allegre, "Amiante, c'est le scandale?", Le Point, 19
(9) Andeva, 22, rue des Vignerons, 94686 Vincennes Cedex.
(10) Annie Thebaud-Mony, L'Envers Des societes industrielles. Approche
comparative franco-bresilienne, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1990.
(11) Saman Zia-Zarifi and Mary Footer, Report for the TUTB/ETUC on European
Communities Measures Affecting Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos,
Department of International Law/Glodis Institute, Erasmus University,
Rotterdam, December 1999.
Translated by Malcolm Greenwood
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4/16/05: Spectre to Introduce
U.S. Asbestos Bill This Week
5/22/05: Individuals Injured
by Asbestos Exposure Oppose Specter's Trust Fund Legislation
10/16/05: Victim's Organizations
Form Asbestos Victims Coalition in Opposition to Asbestos Trust
11/17/05: White Lung Mourns Jose
12/18/05: Frist Introducing Asbestos
Bill in January
12/04/06: Asbestos Watch Newsletter:
Help Celebrate the 27th Anniversary of the WHITE LUNG ASSOCIATION
Asbestos Victim's Superfund
Asbestos Watch March 14, 2005 (Maryland
chapter of the White Lung Association meetings)
Directorate of Safety, Health,
and Environment (open letter)
Joe Oliver's Alerts:
Joe Oliver, National Board Member and former President of the
White Lung Association, has issued a call to all persons to help
gather evidence on the conspiracy by asbestos trade organizations
to suppress the knowledge about the hazards of asbestos exposure.
If you know anything about this horrific history or have documents
which can be used to further prove their heinous crimes, please
contact Joe Oliver, WLA, POB 1483, Balt. MD 21203.
The White Lung Association stands
in opposition to The Specter Bill (S.852)
S.1115: Bill to amend the Toxic Substances
Control Act to reduce the health risks posed by asbestos-containing
products - This bill is supported by the WLA.
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Mark-Up on May 11th: Proposed asbestos trust fund legislation
will further penalize victims of asbestos-caused diseases
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the "Asbestos Strategies" report.
The latest issue is Spring 2005
The latest issue is January 4, 2007
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Public Health and Preventative Medicine 11th ed. (John
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