The Tragedy of Asbestos

May 18th, 2006 • A new edition of the English language version of The Tragedy of Asbestos, by Bob Ruers and Nico Schouten, is now available on the website of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP), at https://international.sp.nl/ The new version contains all of the material included in last year’s publication, enhanced by a wealth of historical material previously available only in Dutch.

An addition to the original text now tells the detailed and horrifying story of asbestos cement, the cheap, flexible building material that turned out to be the killer dust’s most deadly form. From its invention just over a century ago by Austrian asbestos goods producer Ludwig Hatschek, through the enormous expansion of demand in the years of reconstruction following the Second World War, millions of tons of the stuff were used throughout the world in utility building, in plates to cover walls and the façades of apartment buildings, in ventilation pipes and in roofing materials. The material was particularly sought after in agriculture, where it was used in the building and roofing of sheds – but in truth its employment was ubiquitous, covering practically every sector of the economy and every country of the world. Growth reached its zenith during the 1970s, at which point the industry suffered a reversal as a public debate over the health dangers of asbestos came to prominence. This would lead, in time, to a Europe-wide ban, but asbestos cement continues to be produced and used in developing countries, including in large amounts in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Further additions give more detail on the history of the Eternit companies which dominated world asbestos production throughout the twentieth century, carving up the world market. The SAIAC cartel, in which Eternit corporations played a leading role, was just one of a range of often unscrupulous and sometimes illegal methods which those who controlled the mining, production and supply of asbestos and its products used to maintain their dominance. SAIAC’s story, essential to understanding just how this deadly industry has long operated, is also told in previously untranslated material. Claims that Eternit companies in different countries shared little more than their names are examined and effectively dismissed in these annexes, as well as the tables which accompany them showing the structure of the firms which dominated.

Finally, two new sections deal with claims that the dangers of asbestos are somehow exaggerated. Firstly, Ruers and Schouten look at the whole ‘life cycle’ of asbestos cement, from mining to final use, demonstrating just how absurd is the idea that asbestos cement renders asbestos harmless because its embedding in cement prevents the freeing of dust into the air. Mining, the production process, and preparation for final use (which often involves sawing or drilling) each involves the release of deadly asbestos fibres in huge concentrations. Other lies about asbestos are tackled in a section on ‘Canadian propaganda’ which shows how the Canadian asbestos mining industry, with the enthusiastic support of the country’s government, has consistently put its own financial interests before the health of workers, customers and the general population. As developed countries banned the use of asbestos, the Canadians turned their attention to third world countries desperate to find cheap building materials, where health and safety laws and workers’ organisations were often weak. Yet, tellingly, hardly any of the stuff is used in Canada itself.

The second, revised edition of The Tragedy of Asbestos, by Bob Ruers and Nico Schouten, is available for download free of charge.

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