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Brazil Supreme Court bans asbestos use and sale

18 December, 2017Workers in Brazil have won a major victory: the Supreme Court of Brazil has banned the use and sale of asbestos.

“All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs)”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO says that exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of factories handling asbestos and indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable asbestos materials.

More than 100,000 people die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Millions of tonnes of asbestos are mined and sold every year. Most exports go to developing countries.

A study by Francisco Pedra of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation found that 3,718 people died from mesothelioma in Brazil, a cancer caused by asbestos, between 1980 and 2010. The court’s ruling on 29 November was therefore crucial for both workers and communities that live close to factories in Brazil.

The Supreme Court decided that the federal law allowing the “safe” use of asbestos is unconstitutional because it violates fundamental health and environmental rights. The ruling banned the mining, use in manufacturing and sale of the product in any state of the federation.

Asbestos has been banned in more than 70 countries, including Germany, Argentina, Chile, Spain, France, the United Kingdom and Uruguay because of the threat it poses to life. Brazil now joins that list after a long legal debate even though Brazil is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of asbestos.

Two of the largest trade union centres in Brazil, CUT and Força Sindical (IndustriALL Global Union affiliates in Brazil belong to either one or the other of these centres), celebrated the ban. They issued press releases describing it as a major victory for the trade union movement, which has campaigned against asbestos, in defence of workers’ health and lives.

IndustriALL Global Union has a global campaign against asbestos. IndustriALL executive committee, composed of IndustriALL affiliates, this year decided to take immediate steps to develop national action programmes for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases following the guidance of the International Labour Office and the World Health Organization, in all countries, whether or not they already have a ban. 

Asbestos is used in the manufacture of more than 3,000 products, including construction materials (tiles, water tanks, panels) and motor vehicle parts (brakes, clutch housings). It is also used for thermal insulation. 

IndustriALL’s Regional Officer, Marino Vani, comments on the court’s ruling,

“Unfortunately, justice has been done only after many years and many deaths. This is a trade union victory and a step forward for Brazilian society. We hope Brazilian government and governments of other countries in the region develop alternative jobs and incomes for workers employed in the mining of asbestos and ensure health care for all those who suffer from asbestos-related diseases and those who contract them in the future".