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  Brazil's asbestos victims gasp for justice
the Dutch Magazine Ode on asbestos

By Gibby Zobel in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Monday 20 October 2003, 9:25 Makka Time, 6:25 GMT

Victims and families demonstrate outside Saint-Gobain's factory in Sao Paulo

Joao Baptista Momi was a loyal factory worker for 32 years.

"I was proud of the company, they paid a good salary," he says of his bosses
at Eternit.

But the company was using asbestos in its products. Now aged 71, Joao is
debilitated by asbestosis, the disease caused by toxic fibres blocking his

"The company never warned me that the powder was harmful; I did not wear
any masks. I was deceived," he says.

Joao is one of Brazil's estimated 2500 asbestos victims - and the numbers
are set to grow. The country is home to one of the largest asbestos mines in
the world.

French and Swiss-based companies continue wide-scale mining of chysotile,
or 'white' asbestos in Brazil, despite a prohibition on its use in their own
countries. Its use in new buildings was also banned in the UK in 1999.

Unlike the world's leading exporter, Canada, most of Brazil's asbestos
remains in the country, and can be found in 60% of houses despite being a
grade one carcinogen with no safe limit of exposure.

Joao's fight for compensation was taken up by factory inspector Fernanda
Giannasi, 45, who has gained international fame by waging a fierce campaign
to ban the toxic substance.


Giannasi says she has been investigated by the Brazilian FBI, blackmailed by
her government bosses, received death threats and suffered court writs by
international asbestos companies. In 2001, she was nominated Woman of the
Year in Brazil.

Fernanda Giannasi has brought the issue to prominence.

"Until 1993, I believed that the fibre could be used safely. Then I realised
it was not feasible, and began to widen this discussion in society for the
replacement of asbestos. Today I am certain that it is a just and necessary
fight," Giannasi told Aljazeera.net.

Asbestos exposure can cause respiratory diseases, lung cancer and

A survey in August this year by ABREA, the national association of asbestos
victims, involving 1022 former cement industry workers at the Eternit plant
in Osasco, Sao Paulo, found 24 had died from asbestos-related diseases.
Another 25 fatalities were not officially recognised as asbestos-related

It also found 223 cases of respiratory disorders, 192 cases of pleura
plaques (a thickening of the membrane covering the lungs), 109 cases of
asbestosis and two surviving lung cancer victims.

Rising death rate

Asbestosis can take 30 to 40 years to appear and kill.

Giannasi thinks that from 2005, the greatest number of life-threatening
cases will begin to appear as a result of the wide-scale mining, which began
under the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

"The big boom was in the 70s when there was large-scale construction of
cheap housing made from asbestos," says Giannasi.

"It's insane, especially as the material is unsuitable for Brazil's hot and
humid climate. The fibres begin to disintegrate after five years," she says.

Only two of Brazil's 28 states, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul, have
banned the trade in asbestos. Rio's law goes further than banning - it
covers compensation to victims.

Rio de Janeiro State Deputy Carlos Minc introduced the bill as a direct
result of Giannasi's tireless work.

"She drew our attention to the asbestos problem just as (legendary
campaigner) Chico Mendes did regarding the rubber-tapper issue," he says.

Funeral meetings

Encouraged by Giannasi, the pioneers in the fight against asbestos exposure
were former workers of the now-defunct Eternit company (owned by Saint
Gobain) in Osasco, Sao Paulo.

In 1995, they created the national association, ABREA. Many of the victims
were first contacted at the funerals of others.

Protestors target multinationals who exploit Brazil's lax laws.

The organisation carries out medical tests on victims and has over 500 cases
in the Brazilian courts, seeking compensation for its members who have
refused settlements.

Precedent across the Atlantic suggests that any victory will be hard-won.

It took five years of legal battles to secure a landmark $30 million
settlement between the Cape asbestos mines group and South African
communities, and a further year for the firm to pay out.

"Central to the Cape case was that multinational companies undertaking
hazardous operations overseas should be held accountable for resultant
injuries," says Cecil Skeffers of the South African-based NGO Concerned
People Against Asbestos.

The Cape claimants' solicitor, Richard Spoor, is now chasing other mining
companies, including Eternit, for their operations in South Africa. The
uncompensated victims of! the company in Brazil will be closely watching his

The Cape workers brought a private lawsuit, which was heard in UK courts.
For Brazilians to do the same in France and Switzerland would require
financial aid and the will of victims to hold out.

Low compensation

"In Brazil, the compensation offered by the companies is ridiculously low,
typically $3000. But, some victims accept it because of their desperate need
for money, the need to address their disability and their distrust of the
judicial system.

"It wasn't until a number of companies had shut down that the workers 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 is safe
because it is white," says Giannasi.

"I have worked under every administration from the military dictatorship
until today, but still nothing changes. I am anguished by the political
situation in this country, "Fernanda Giannasi, factory inspector and anti-asbestos campaigner.

French multinational Saint Gobain employs 173,000 workers in 47 countries
and has been operating in Brazil since 1937.

Around 300,000 Brazilians have been exposed to asbestos, two-thirds in
workplaces according to Dr Rene Mendes, president of the Brazilian
Association of Occupational Medicine.

"The asbestos problem requires broad action, social mobilisation and state
intervention," says Dr Mendes.

More than 3000 products contain asbestos from roofing and insulation to
children's toys and wax crayons.

To ban asbestos would bring huge unemployment to states like Goias, where
200,000 people are involved in the production chain. Exports are worth over
$30 million to Brazil every year.

Two lines

However, campaigners insist that cheap alternatives are readily available
and even used - the car industry in Brazil continues to use asbestos for the
domestic market but not for export.

"In the same plant you can see two lines - one with asbestos and the other
asbestos-free, depending on which trademark they are going to put on the
products," says Giannasi.

As yet there are no firm plans by the ruling Worker's Party government to
ban asbestos countrywide despite innumerable bills on the issue.

"To me the most serious problem in Latin America is the social invisibility
of asbestos-related diseases and the lack of support to asbestos victims
groups by the unions and politicians. The unions are worried about
unemployment and the politicians are quiet because of their political and
financial interests," says Giannasi.

"I have worked under every administration from the military dictatorship
until today, but still nothing changes. I am anguished by the political
situation in this country."


Front Page, Week Of:

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 Fund Legislation

11/17/05: White Lung Mourns Jose Jesus Pessora

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

Jim Fite's Alerts:

Asbestos Victim's Superfund Compensation Program

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.

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.