Thursday, September 30, 2004

As-best-os or As-worst-os

Mesothelioma is inevitably fatal. It is a disease that takes a long time to develop, 20, 30, 40 years. It is solely attributable to exposure to asbestos. It affects not just the miners of & the workers in asbestos but their partners – through exposure to clothing that carries particles or fibres – those who have lived near mines or asbestos-related industries & those who have been exposed to products such as cement/asbestos building products that have become damaged or have started to break down.

The building products that used it were relatively cheap so its use in schools, other public buildings, for roofs & fences or as insulation in private homes was quite widespread. Its dangers have been known for 70-80 years, but have only been widely publicised in the last two decades as people began to die or, perhaps more precisely, the cause of a number of deaths became known & people began to take legal action against companies that had either lied to them or failed to provide adequate protection for their workers. The similarities with the lies of the tobacco manufacturers are obvious.

James Hardie was an Australian company that both mined & used asbestos in its building products. It created a trust fund in the early 90s, a few hundred million dollars, which it stated would be adequate to meet all future claims against it. But apparently its actuaries knew differently for almost overnight Hardie moved itself offshore to The Netherlands & set up a separate parent company that it believed would protect it from future litigation.
Although the dangers of asbestos were known as far back as the 1930s, Hardie continued to manufacture asbestos products until the mid-'80s. While rival manufacturer CSR capitulated to legal and public pressure in the '90s and opted to meet victims' claims as they arose, Hardie pursued a different route.
In early 2001, it hived off its asbestos liabilities into a foundation, the MRCF. Hardie funded the MRCF with $293 million.
However, in the past three years these asbestos liabilities ballooned by more than $1 billion, leaving the MRCF with a funding shortfall of $800 million.
Meanwhile, James Hardie and its lawyers Allens, through a bewilderingly complex series of corporate transactions, shifted the Hardie head office to the Netherlands and then claimed the company had no lingering exposure to the problem. It bamboozled the media and the stock market in the process
Corporate greed or conscience-lessness or protecting the interests of its shareholders? Or criminal deceit? That it is the subject of an enquiry currently going on. & the liabilities are now estimated to be closer to $2 billion.

I caught part of a tv documentary last night shown on the ABC (not the U.S. corporation but Australia's public broadcaster) on asbestos in Canada. A news item on the same subject.
Ottawa, March 25 -- Canada is starting work this summer on a billion dollar project to renovate its parliamentary buildings and cleanse them of asbestos, which has been found to cause cancer.
The project will take six years to complete but, in the meantime, Canadian government agents are still pushing exports of the fibre. Canada even has gone so far as to argue a challenge at the World Trade Organization that a proposed French ban on asbestos imports would be an illegal trade practice.
Despite recent warnings that asbestos was the cause of 500,000 cancer victims in western Europe alone, Canadian asbestos producers continue to promote and sell their fibre worldwide - especially to developing nations.
Simply put, commercial interests, with the support & protection of both the Canadian & the Quebec Provincial Legislature, are continuing to export asbestos fibre with minimal hazard warnings knowing it will be used in workplaces where protection is almost non-existant. After all, what are a few deaths in the under-developed countries when it comes to protecting the dubious economic benefits of a few Canadian companies with a disproportionate amount of political clout?

A couple of other sites that give some more information:

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