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    The long road to banning asbestos in Colombia

For more than 12 years, Colombia has proposed initiatives to ban the use of asbestos in all forms and matters. The path has been packed with all types of obstacles and hindrances. In six opportunities there have been bills for this purpose, which have not passed the first debate in its respective Congress Committee.

During the second legislative period of 2017, the bill for banning asbestos in Colombia, presented by Senator Nadia Blel was approved in the Seventh Congress Committee. The next step is to pass the Congress Plenary Session and the House of Representatives.

It is important to highlight the awareness progress over the threats of asbestos in a public hearing. Greenpeace representatives as well as representatives from universities and especially from the government and Ministries such as the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, and the National Cancer Institute have supported the bill and asbestos interdiction. As expected, the asbestos industry opposes the bill.

At the beginning of the year, the Office of the Comptroller General recommended a total ban on asbestos (production, transformation, marketing, export and similar actions). On the other hand, a project carried out by the Colombian Asbestos Free Foundation, the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, the Fundación Universitaria Juan N. Corpas and Drexel University studied the effects of asbestos on 102 industry workers, and thanks to the support and experience of Arthur Frank and Gabriel Bustillo, they discovered 14 positive cases of asbestos exposure, a 13.7% rate, a figure higher than the recognized morbidity and mortality rates in Colombia; demonstrating the ignorance and inefficient management of asbestos in the country.

The tobacco industry carried out the same lobbying 

In this long process the asbestos industry, following the example of the tobacco industry, has created, advanced and funded organizations to perform lobbying to obstruct or hinder, at all levels of the government, the progress of initiatives to control and ban asbestos. These are very powerful interests.

Two examples of this in Colombia are, one, the current owner of Eternit is the Elementia Group of Mexico, where one of its major stakeholders is billionaire Carlos Slim and has hired the legal services of Colombian attorney Ramiro Bejarano. And second, Incolbestos –property of businessman Nayib Neme– has hired the services of DLA Piper Martínez Neira lawyer firm, of the current Prosecutor General of Colombia.

These and other companies are active members of Ascolfibras, a trade association in charge of lobbying asbestos with the argument that they practice “safe use” of asbestos, supposedly without consequences to the welfare of their workers. It is worthwhile mentioning that the company Skinco-Colombit –property of a Belgium conglomerate, with branches in more than 40 countries worldwide, does not use asbestos since 2002 and adopted clean technologies.

In this context, the author of this article hopes this bill to pass and turn into a law as quickly as possible, and finally placing the lives and health of people first.

Why is banning asbestos necessary?

Asbestos is the general term for a series of silicate minerals whose crystals are in form of fibers. Chrysotile asbestos is the only form of asbestos mining and mass marketing for the last two decades.

In 2013, chrysotile asbestos had a global use of close to 2,000,000 metric tons. Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Canada produce 93% of the total asbestos in the world and 90% of the production is used in asbestos-cement materials, such as floors, pipes, water tanks, paint, vehicle parts, and similar materials.

It has been proven that chrysotile asbestos produces asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung, larynx and ovary cancer among many other diseases. It has also been proven that there is no minimum safe level of exposure to any form of asbestos. There is a long list of safe substitutes to replace chrysotile asbestos.

For these reasons, many international and national organizations have requested the total ban on all forms of asbestos, including:

  • The World Trade Organization (2001)
  • The International Labor Organization (2006)
  • The International Commission on Occupational Health (2013)
  • The Joint Political Commission of Epidemiology Societies (2012)
  • The Declaration of Helsinki (2014)
  • The Collegium Ramazzini (2015)
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (2015).

The World Health Organization issued a declaration that calls on banning the use of all types of asbestos, as an effective way to eliminate the diseases produced by asbestos, and in 2012, the position was ratified and reinforced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The declarations and institutional decisions have been accompanied by public political decisions of the countries. A good part of the industrialized countries around the world have ceased using asbestos and at least 55 countries have approved laws to ban the use of all forms of the mineral; the latest being Brazil.

 

Consejo Editorial