Brazil Bans Asbestos!

by Laurie Kazan-Allen, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

A majority verdict of the Federal Supreme Court (STF) handed down in Brasilia on Wednesday, November 29, 2017, prohibited the mining, processing, marketing and distribution of chrysotile (white) asbestos in Brazil – currently the world’s third largest producer of chrysotile asbestos.1 Concluding that there were no safe levels of exposure, the Court ruled its use should be banned and declared article 2 of federal law 9.055/90, which allowed the “controlled use of asbestos,” unconstitutional. The emphatic STF verdict – which was approved by 7 out of 9 Ministers [Justices]2 – was binding on all jurisdictions and on the national congress which is, said the Ministers, barred from enacting new legislation authorizing the use of asbestos.3

In August, 2017, the Court had already ruled that a São Paulo ban asbestos law was valid and comments by Ministers upheld the “constitutional value of health”4 and the “constitutional precepts of protection of life, human health and the environment.”5 Numerous delays and legal manoeuvrings resulted in the disposition of two lawsuits filed by the pro-asbestos National Confederation of Industry Workers against the Rio de Janeiro asbestos ban being deferred for a further three months. In the intervening weeks, much had changed with continuing pressure being exerted on asbestos companies by lawsuits on behalf of injured workers and the imposition of substantial sanctions and financial penalties. News of discussions regarding civil actions on behalf of asbestos-exposed workers and family members in the states of Bahia, São Paulo and Paraná6made manifest the increasing mobilization of victims and their families; the bad old days when the asbestos-injured were part of an “invisible epidemic” were long gone. Judgments such as those handed down in October in Vitória da Conquista, Bahia awarding medical costs and lifetime pensions to former employees of the mining company Sama Minera Associadas7 and in November by the Rio de Janerio Regional Labor Court increasing collective moral damages owed to former Eternit workers from R$30 million to R$50m (US$15.3m)8 highlighted the impossibility of the industry continuing business “as usual.” Perhaps hoping to buy just a little bit more time, on November 28, 2017 – the day before the Supreme Court decision – Eternit announced it would be phasing out the use of chrysotile asbestos in its production of cement roofing tiles by the end of next year (2018). This last-ditch ploy was unsuccessful and it is likely that it will be in a matter of weeks not months that the company will have to transition its production to safer technologies.

The Supreme Court’s decision is a testament to the decades of hard work by victims, trade unionists, campaigners, medical and legal experts who have worked so assiduously to expose the lies and dirty tricks of the industry. Commenting on the implications of this verdict Brazilian engineer Fernanda Giannasi, who was been at the forefront of the campaign to ban asbestos in Brazil for 30 years and is a leading light of the global ban asbestos movement, said: “If an asbestos producer country like Brazil is able to make such a decision, why wouldn’t consumer countries do the same?” Why indeed!