Asian Asbestos Conference 2009

Plenary Session 4: Meeting the Needs of Asbestos Victims

Moderator: Sugio Furuya

Asbestos victims have many pressing needs caused by their symptoms, their incapacity to work and the marginalization which their illnesses bring them and their families. In most Asian countries, asbestos victims remain invisible and uncompensated; few of the injured have their occupational illness recognized and even fewer receive compensation. The purpose of this session was to provide a platform for victims to voice their experiences and indicate ways in which sufferers could be supported.

One of the most efficient means of delivering compensation to asbestos victims is to be found in New South Wales, Australia where the Dust Diseases Tribunal (DDT) fast-tracks asbestos litigation. Judge John O'Meally, President of the DDT, told delegates:

"The Tribunal sits at any hour on any day at any place to receive evidence from plaintiffs too ill to travel. Bedside hearings for plaintiffs who are terminally ill are also common. The legal practitioners in the Tribunal are generally skilled and experienced in handling asbestos cases. Sometimes there are cases with less than 4 hours between (the) filing of a statement of a case and a conclusion."

In order to streamline the legal process, the DDT had adopted some unusual rules:

Park Young Gu speaking

The grief and anger experienced by those who have lost a loved one to asbestos motivates many campaigners now working on behalf of victims. In her comments to the plenary session, Kazumi Yoshizaki77 eloquently explained the impact her Father's suffering had on the family; the depth of her loss fueled her determination to see a worldwide asbestos ban and to help others for whom any ban would be too late. In Japan, she said, victims had been at the forefront of a national asbestos campaign, led by the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-related Disease Victims and their Families. This group was founded in February 2004 as a result of the initial contact between two asbestos widows brought together by suffering and loneliness. Reaching out to others in similar situations, they realized the comfort which could be drawn from sharing their experiences and the improvements which could be gained for victims by raising awareness of the national asbestos epidemic. The Association - which now had 11 branches nationwide - was made up of patients suffering from asbestos-related cancers and respiratory diseases and family members who continued to support each other, lobby government for better medical care and financial support and educate the public about the reality of the asbestos tsunami which was engulfing the country. The Association had played a leading role in major asbestos events such as:

In Japan, the mobilization of the victims had made the asbestos issue front page news and ended the invisibility of the suffering caused by occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos.

The comprehension of the impact asbestos has had in Korea is a recent phenomenon which has been spurred by the work undertaken by asbestos victims. The next two speakers, members of Ban Asbestos Korea (BANKO), described the tragic human consequences and the steps taken to raise public awareness of the hazard.

Interjection by Japanese victims' representative Mrs. Kazuko Furukawa

Park Young Gu worked in the Jeil Asbestos Textile Company from 1970 to 1978; this company was founded in 1970 by Japanese investors who transferred asbestos production to Indonesia in the 1990s. At the Jeil factory in Busan where the speaker worked:

"There was so much dust I could not even see. At first we just got work clothes and simple masks. There was no dining hall, we had to carry our own lunch to the workplace…During break time or night shift, we even slept on the asbestos sheets that we made."

Among his co-workers, 33 died before the age of 60, including his wife. Among the living, 27, including Mr. Gu, had contracted asbestos-related illnesses. Residents who lived near the Jeil asbestos factory had died from the asbestos cancer, mesothelioma as had others who lived near the sites of renovation projects and asbestos mines. The number of Korea's asbestos victims was increasing.

Launch of "baby powder hotline" by KFEM

Sometimes a subject grabs the public imagination and catapults an issue out of obscurity and into the forefront of the national debate. Such were the reverberations of the "Asbestos Baby Powder Shock" in Korea which generated masses of media coverage after a TV program announced that baby powder marketed in Korea was contaminated with asbestos78. Describing the explosive effect this discovery had, speaker Ahn Jong Joo detailed the timeline for the unfolding of this scandal:

Summarizing the outcome of the baby powder scandal in Korea, the speaker said that it had awakened consumer awareness of the asbestos risk, publicized the national ban and forced the government to declare a zero asbestos standard in baby powder, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The role of the media in disseminating news of this scandal had been crucial.

Panel Discussion

The voice of the victims was clearly heard during the panel discussion moderated by Chan Kam-hong, the Chief Executive of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims (ARIAV), which featured contributions from four Hong Kong asbestos victims who spoke of hazardous exposures in the shipyard and construction industries81. While Mr. Leung Kam On recalled the provision of "basic and simple protective equipment such as masks," he still became covered in dust during the workday. Shipyard workers Tang Chun Shing and Chan Tong were never told of the risks of working with asbestos and never received any protective equipment or training. Describing everyday work tasks, Mr. Chan Tong said: "I always had to fix the pipes by hand…I slipped between the boilers. Of course I could easily inhale asbestos dust." Mr. Lai Cheong Fook, who had worked in a factory making asbestos- cement products, said:

"I worked in a rural suburban area. We did not have equipment like masks. I worked for two decades from the 1960s to 1980s. We had no protection at all. I'd be facing upwards with an electric drill, of course with lots of dust. Not even gloves. We must have inhaled a lot of dust…We drilled holes, 'eating' the dust falling from the roof every day. All our hands were dusty. We even didn't have a piece of towel."

The health of each of the participants had been affected by their illnesses; typical symptoms included loss of lung function, prolonged bouts of coughing and difficulty in walking. The perseverance of these sufferers and other Hong Kong workers similarly affected had been the driving force behind the campaigning work of ARIAV. In 1993, a major shift in government pneumoconiosis policy was brought about when one-off lump sum payments were replaced by a monthly compensation payout; in addition, the government now pays the bills for medical treatment and rehabilitation services82.

Hong Kong asbestos victims with Chan Kam-hong (center)

Notes

77. Ms. Yoshizaki is a member of the Japan Association of Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Disease Victims and Their Families.
78. As of January 1, 2009, the import, sale and use of asbestos products in Korea were banned.
79. The contamination of talc by asbestos has been known for decades and many countries in Western Europe and the U.S. have restricted the use of talc for babies. Talc has other uses including those in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, paper manufacture and ceramic industries.
80. The number of banned drugs was reduced from 1,122 to 1,080 on April 10, 2009; on April 17, KFDA decreased the number of banned drugs to 215.
81. The victims who spoke were: Mr. Tang Chun Shing - shipyard repairer (aged 86), Mr. Chan Tong - shipyard worker (aged 81) and asbestos grille wall removers Mr. Leung Kam On (62) and Mr. Lai Cheong Fook (67).