In the lead-up to the 2016 Olympic games, there has been much scrutiny aimed at Brazil — everything from the country’s water pollution, economic disparity, and the threat of the Zika virus has been discussed ad nauseum. Throughout all of this, however, a major public health crisis has been dangerously overlooked.
The global community should know that Brazil is the second-largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos after Russia. The effects of this on worker health are, and have been, devastating — The Brazilian Ministry of Health has revealed that, from 2008 to 2011, the country had 25,093 recorded cases of cancer caused by asbestos. That’s an average of over 8,300 asbestos-caused cases of mesothelioma or lung cancer each and every year.
The conversation surrounding this year’s Olympic games should certainly address this major health issue. When it comes down to it, this is a global problem — and, perhaps most importantly, a completely preventable one.
Wait a Minute — Rio’s Laws Are Better Than Those in the U.S.?
Much like the U.S., Brazil is composed of separate states. As of 2014, the use of asbestos has been banned in the following Brazilian states: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul, Pernambuco, and Mato Grosso. This means that, despite the country’s long history of asbestos mining and exportation, this year’s Olympic games will be held in a state where asbestos is legally banned.
In shocking contrast to this, and counter to common myth, there are currently no areas in the United States where asbestos use is outright banned. A history of lenient laws — benefiting corrupt corporations while greatly harming the general population — has led to a seriously embarrassing lack of asbestos regulation in the U.S.
Considering Brazil’s complex history of military dictatorship and social oppression, the fact that the country’s toxic chemical and substance laws are in many ways superior to those of the U.S. should be a frightening wake-up call.
A Shameful Lack of Asbestos Regulation in the U.S.
Asbestos kills, and the use of it in manufacturing is not only unnecessary, it’s outright corrupt. Shouldn’t America’s annual asbestos death toll be enough to prompt meaningful change in legislation and practice? Simply put, it seems like pure insanity that the U.S. still allows for the use of something that domestically causes upwards of 10,000 deaths a year.
Furthermore, 1.3 million construction and general industry workers in the U.S. are currently at risk for asbestos exposure. Since the latency period for asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma can be anywhere from 20-40 years, this public health crisis doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Considering the extremely damaging, and painfully-obvious, effects of asbestos exposure, why hasn’t it been thoroughly regulated in the U.S. yet?
Again and Again, Corruption and Greed Prevent Meaningful Asbestos Regulation
By now, the story is an old and tired one. Remember, it’s not that legislators have failed to introduce comprehensive laws that would effectively address this public health crisis. In fact, well-meaning members of Congress, including Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) often do.
Let’s examine some attempts at passing legislation — and learn how positive change is often derailed by an unchecked culture of corruption and greed.
Over the years, there have been many attempts at updating the landmark, yet now outdated, Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succeeded in making asbestos illegal for a short time in 1989 — until appeals by manufacturers overturned the ruling in 1991.
Obviously, it didn’t take long for the forces of industry to invade our legislative process. Currently, many of our compromised representatives receive large campaign contributions from the chemical industry. For instance, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) received $122,925 in 2014. In case you are thinking this is an isolated incident — think again. Plenty of other senators received large contributions that year, as well.
With such corrupt influence, how can we expect the legislative process to be representative of our society’s best interest?
Did Chemical Companies Have a Hand in Writing Regulatory Legislation?
Unfortunately, industry influence has escalated to such a point that, in 2015, when lawmakers were once again trying to improve upon the outdated TSCA of 1976, it was speculated that corporations actually drafted a version of the bill that was to be voted on. Needless to say, this type of action is an affront to our representative democratic society.
Commenting on this outrageous display of corruption, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said:
“Call me old-fashioned, but a bill to protect the public from harmful chemicals should not be written by chemical industry lobbyists. The voices of our families must not be drowned out by the very industry whose documented harmful impacts must be addressed, or the whole exercise is a sham.”
While new legislation did ultimately pass, and was subsequently signed into law in June of 2016 by President Barack Obama, many environmental and health advocates believe that the new rules still fall dangerously short of truly protecting the American people.
What We Can Learn from Brazil
In 1976, when the Toxic Substances Control Act had just passed in the U.S., the problem of asbestos was not yet being addressed in Brazil. It wasn’t until 1986 — 10 years later — that the Brazilian Interinstitutional Asbestos Group, coordinated by the Labour Ministry, was created in order to explore and remedy the country’s asbestos-related health risks.
As to be expected, Brazilian advocates, victims, and labor unions soon found out that the road to justice was long and windy. Over the years, certain improvements were made, such as a decrease in the legal workplace exposure limit of asbestos — but, as we know, no amount of asbestos exposure in the workplace is ever safe.
In 1995, former workers banded together to create the Brazilian Association of People Exposed to Asbestos (ABREA). The Association had some very specific goals: to give visibility to the problem, to provide medical examinations for those exposed, to educate consumers about the risks, and to fight for the banishment of asbestos.
The U.S. may have had a head start in the fight against asbestos — but it seems Brazil has kept pace. Sadly, the continued corrupt influence of the chemical industry on the legislative process in America has driven our own progress to a relative standstill.
What can the U.S. learn from Brazil? Well, for starters, advocates and victims should not be complacent or overwhelmed. The force of corruption in Washington is strong, but, together, the people of this nation are much stronger. We must never forget that.
The Global Perspective
Currently, asbestos is entirely banned in over 50 countries. This is great news — but, even so, each year there are 120,000 deaths worldwide from asbestos exposure. Often, it is the developing countries, with little regulatory laws, that are hit the hardest.
The occasion of the 2016 Summer Olympics — a month where we come together to celebrate our different talents and strengths — seems as apt as a time as ever to address this global divide. If we don’t address it, thousands and thousands of victims will continue to be negatively affected for decades to come.
In many ways, this is the biggest global, and national, challenge we’ve faced yet. As with all challenges, however, there is hope that we can win.
The U.S. cannot continue to ignore this problem any longer. Let’s make sure to add asbestos regulation, and industry corruption, to the list of most-discussed topics this month, for the sake of the victims past, present, and future — of which there have already been far too many.