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interview with activist Fernanda Giannasi by Al Jazeera's correspondant in Brazil about asbestos

By Tijn Touber and Jurriaan Kamp

Fernanda Giannasi is the personification of the fight against asbestos in
Brazil. This passionate Brazilian of Italian descent only cares about one
thing: the well-being of the workers who are forced to choose between money
and their health.

Ignoring the sandwich in front of her, Fernanda Giannasi flips on her
laptop. The many PowerPoint presentations on file betray her years of
experience. The photos speak for themselves: asbestos workers covered in
dust, bare-chested lathe operators without masks, leaky pipes, little boys
playing in deserted mines and factories. When Giannasi began her
in! vestigation of security measures in the asbestos industry for the
Department of Health seventeen years ago, almost no one in Brazil realized
the dangers of asbestos: 'Even the biggest Brazilian producers had never
kept any medical files. Officially there were no asbestos-related
casualties. The whole problem was invisible.'

While asbestos has been banned in many countries, in Brazil not only are
the toxic white fibres still in use, they are still being mined on a large
scale. Asbestos production began under the military junta in the 1970s, when
it was being banned in the West. At 200 million kilos per year, Brazil is
now the fifth largest producer in the world. But unlike Canada, for example,
which exports 98% of its asbestos, 70% of Brazilian asbestos is used on the
national market. Of those 70 - 90% goes to the building industry. Over half
the production is controlled by two companies, Saint Gobain (French) and
Eternit (Swiss), both of whom would face charges if they were to take their
Brazilian operations home.

Fernanda Giannasi: 'The big boom was in the 70s, when there was large-scale
construction of cheap housing made from un-isolated asbestos. It's insane,
especially if you realize that the material is unsuitable for Brazil's hot
and humid climate. It's even worse in the North, where there's a lot of
poverty. The fibres begin to disintegrate after five years. Moreover, until
a few years ago at least 90% of all houses had asbestos rooftop water tanks,
and 60% of all houses are still fitted with asbestos tiles. Asbestos is also
widely used in the car industry, for roofing and isolation purposes, for
pots and pans, even for children's toys!'

Giannasi continues her passionate monologue: 'Research has shown that
there are unusually high cancer rates in high-exposure areas, such as places
with leaky pipelines or broken water tanks. It's an established fact that
breathing asbestos can cause lung disease and cancer. Yet Carlos William
Ferrerira [redactie: Ferreira? -- PB], senior executive to Brasilit, a major
asbestos company, still says there is no cause for alarm!' The fact that the
company had its Brazilian asbestos mine environmentally certified (ISO
XXXXX) by the Norwegian company DNV in 1998 would seem to indicate
that it was at least a little alarmed. A remarkable move, considering no other
asbestos mine in the world has such a certificate.

When Giannasi came across her first cases of asbestos poisoning the workers
were reluctant to take on their employers. 'They were scared to death of
losing their jobs. It wasn't until a number of companies had shut down that
they came to us. All of them were very ill. Nobody had ever told them that
asbestos was dangerous. If it was brought up at all, they were told "it was
safe because it's white."' She rolls her eyes and raises her fists: 'Can you
believe! it!' Today, wherever she goes, Giannasi imposes strict security
measures, including industrial masks, exhaust and climate control
installations and launderettes, to prevent the workers from carrying the
asbestos particles home with them. If necessary she personally shuts down an
operation. She resolutely points at a picture: 'I closed that factory.'
Needless to say, all of this hasn't increased her popularity with the
asbestos industry.

But her work has earned her international acclaim. Her great dedication and
expertise lay at the basis of an international conference on asbestos in San
Paulo in 1994. One result was the Ban Asbestos Network, which put
Giannasi in touch with still more workers, all of them ill. 'We used to go to
funerals, where we would meet other victims. In 1995, to join forces we
founded Abrea, a network that has at least a thousand members today. Three
hundred of those people have already filed complaints against Eternit.'
Eternit sued her for bringing its operations in discredit. 'I had compared
them to the mafia. The pressure grew, not just from Brazil, but also from
Canada, the biggest asbestos exporter in the world. I received several death
threats.' Yet there was no way to get rid of her, and her picture finally
made the cover of the popular Brazilian magazine Epoca, which has a
circulation of 500,000 copies. The magazine compared her to the famous US
activist Erin Brockovic, whose life story has been made into a successful
Hollywood movie. She was later awarded the International Prize for
Environmental Occupational Health by the American Association of Public
Health in Chicago.

Giannasi was cleared of all charges relating to her mafia comments, and with
renewed vigor she took it on herself to convince the workers not to give in
to the outrageous buyoffs offered by the asbestos mafia to its sick
ex-employees: 'Enormous pressure was put on the workers to sign contracts
to the effect that they would refrain from taking legal action against their
companies, in exchange for a sum of 5,000 to 15,000 reals [2,000 to 5,500
euros, eds.] and lifelong medical aid. They were being used in the lobby to
keep the asbestos industry alive. There was even a clause in the contracts
that if the industry ever were to be banned from Brazil altogether, any
claims to either financial compensation or medical aid would expire!'
Giannasi waves a bunch of reports around. 'Even though these people are
terribly ill, many of the symptoms do not become apparent until years later.
Brazil now has 2,500 official cases of asbestos poisoning. Often these
involve rare and extremely aggressive, incurable tumours.'

Her attempt to ban asbestos by federal law in Brazil failed in 1993. She
changed tactics and began fighting for local bans in the cities and states
instead. At the moment there are 70 bills for a ban on Brazilian asbestos
being discussed. As for Giannasi, someone is always fighting her in court
somewhere. When she finally managed to get the hazardous mineral banned
in four states, one of the companies complained it was being discriminated
against, since asbestos is legal in the rest of Brazil. It would have to
fire 400 employees. The judge allowed the appeal, and Giannasi had to start
all over again. 'The industry always manages to find some other loophole.
Their crimes are either ignored or trivialized. Saint Gobain hides behind
the argument that they were unaware of the dangers at the time. Now they
claim the factories are totally safe, they just "happen" to shut them down
because there's no more international demand for asbestos. Whatever!'

She has to leave; another presentation. As she puts her papers away she
concludes angrily: 'These people should be tried and punished. It's just too
serious. There should be a fair hearing, like! Nuremberg or The Hague, with
judges appointed by the United Nations.' And off she goes, her laptop and
bulky documents tucked under her arms. Unbeaten, brimming with energy,
and determined to leave no stone unturned in her efforts to protect the
Brazilian workers and their fellow citizens against people who say a white
substance can never be harmful.

© 2003 Aljazeera.Net 


Front Page, Week Of:

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12/04/06: Asbestos Watch Newsletter: Help Celebrate the 27th Anniversary of the WHITE LUNG ASSOCIATION

Jim Fite's Alerts:

Asbestos Victim's Superfund Compensation Program

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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.

Leonard Makowski's Alerts:

The White Lung Association stands in opposition to The Specter Bill (S.852)

WLA Alerts & News

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.

Meet Mr. Asbestos

Proceedings of the Asbestos Symposium for the Asian Countries - now available for purchase.

Australia Bans Asbestos!



Senator Specter Breaks Promise to Mesothelioma Patient and Research Community

Senate Judiciary Committee returns to Mark-Up on May 11th: Proposed asbestos trust fund legislation will further penalize victims of asbestos-caused diseases


World Trade Center Health:

In May 2003, the Global Environment & Technology Foundation developed the "Asbestos Strategies" report.

British Asbestos Newsletter:

The latest issue is Spring 2005


News from India:

The latest issue is January 4, 2007



December 17, 2000 is Asbestos Hazard Awareness Day


Current Projects:

Asbestos Museum


Articles & Publications:

Occupational Respiratory Diseases: Asbestos Associated Disease -- Reprinted from: Maxcy-Rosenau Public Health and Preventative Medicine 11th ed. (John M. Last, Ed.) 1980, Appleton-Century-Crofts

Asbestos Victims Deserve Compensation Not Betrayal: position release by the Board of Directors, White Lung Association



In Memoria:

Paul Safchuck May 21, 2003

Dr. William Nicholson Dies at 70

Ray Sentes Brave Fighter For Asbestos Victims

For more information please contact info whitelung org.