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Asbestos in Brazil

Asbestos reveals the effects of globalization from an unusual perspective. The health hazards associated with the use of asbestos are acknowledged throughout the West. Many countries have already prohibited the material, including most European ones in anticipation of an EC measure imposing a deadline of 1 January 2005.

Asbestos consumption highlights the differences between the developed nations and the Third World. Its use averaged 100 grams per capita in the United States, 500 grams in Canada and 1,400 grams in Brazil (figures from 1995). Brazil is among the major producers, although its extraction is controlled by non-Brazilian firms, such as Saint-Gobain in France. Between 1980 and 2000, when asbestos was banned in the United States, Canada and Europe, consumption in Brazil increased at an annual rate of 7 percent. Asbestos is used in Brazil to produce cement and roofing materials. It is still used extensively in car manufacturing and car maintenance as well.

While getting mesothelioma and asbestosis recognized in the developed world as occupational diseases was difficult in the developed nations, it was even harder in Brazil, where records of occupational diseases are rather scarce. In addition, the high turnover of asbestos-processing industries complicates attributing subsequent diseases to asbestos exposure at any specific company. Despite these problems, the Brazilian victims spoke out. In 1994 the Ban Asbestos Network (BAN) was founded in Sao Paulo, and asbestos exposure victims organized ABREA (Brazilian Association of Workers Exposed to Asbestos) in 1995. These movements have been established despite overt resistance from parts of the trade union movement in Brazil in some cases, where short-term interests prevail. The successes that ABREA has nevertheless achieved are also attributable to the compensation obtained for exposure victims. Brazil will prohibit the use of asbestos in new products from 25 May 2005. Until then, asbestos may continue to be used in Brazil, albeit subject to restrictions.

The photographs in this collection were taken in August 2001 by Fernanda Ginannasi, the labour inspector for the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. This one stems from her visit to the Chapex firm, where about 5 workers are manufacturing asbestos burners. The workstations are surrounded by small piles of asbestos shavings. The dust masks do not filter out asbestos fibres. The workers are dressed not in protective clothing but in their regular trousers and shirts, which, if brought home, expose their families to asbestos as well. Forcing the firm to close yielded an irate entrepreneur and stoic workers. Chapex has switched to a new product without asbestos, which is a fortunate outcome from a small incident in a long struggle for healthy working conditions that should apply in Canada, France and Brazil alike.

Fernanda Ginannasi donated the accompanying photographs and other materials concerning BAN and ABREA to the Institute:

  • 40 photo's made by labour inspector in asbestos factory Chapex (call number BG CD 1/290)
  • The fight to ban asbestos in Brazil by Fernanda Giannasi (call number BG CD1/376)