Thousands take to streets to demand asbestos justice

A campaign to bring those responsible for asbestos-related deaths to justice is gathering pace in France, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Paris to demand a criminal process.

Protesters marched past the asbestos-laden Tour Montparnasse in Paris

Protesters marched past the asbestos-laden Tour Montparnasse in Paris

The protests, organised by pressure group Andeva (National association for the defence of asbestos victims), closely follow a successful prosecution of the company Alstom Power Boilers, ordered to pay 75,000 euros for knowingly exposing workers to asbestos and causing at least ten deaths to date. The process was closely watched by France's many asbestos victims' groups.

France completely banned the use of asbestos in 1997 but exposure to the material still causes around 3000 deaths per year, mostly from lung cancer after breathing in asbestos fibres. The number of asbestos-related deaths between now and 2025 could reach 100,000, Andeva estimates.

Andeva argues that a criminal process is needed to learn from the mistakes behind the current situation. It calls for an "educational" criminal process exposing the deeper causes of the asbestos tragedy. "Today it is asbestos, tomorrow it will be pesticides, ceramic fibres or sanitary products," said the organisation's lawyer Michel Ledoux, arguing that lessons need to be learnt. Others have argued that the tiny particles involved in nano-technology could have similar effects to asbestos fibres (see related story).

Michel Parigot, vice-president of Andeva, told edie: "We can draw consequences from our experiences with asbestos when it comes to risk prevention, which had malfunctioned in many countries but particularly in France.

"This is because we chose a policy of controlled use. Meanwhile, we know that controlled use of a product that is known to be carcinogenic cannot work when the product is widely present in the public domain," he said.

Asbestos - mostly used as a fireproofing construction material - can now be found in most buildings constructed or refurbished between the 1950s and the mid-1980s. While the health effects of extensive asbestos exposure have been known for over a century, the scientific link to cancer was only fully established in 1960. Britain banned most uses of asbestos in the 1980s - slightly before France did. Both countries only banned all uses of the material in the late 1990s.

Michel Parigot believes that it was the multinationals that produced asbestos, and not the small construction companies that used it, that benefited from the continued use of asbestos even once its fatal effects were fully known.

"The big international companies organised themselves on the international arena since the 1960s and lobbied extensively on this issue. In particular during a conference in London in 1971 they set out their strategy country by country," he said.

"These are the companies that were making a profit from asbestos - and not the small construction companies that were using it, which often didn't know about the risks involved because they had not been informed," he said.

For further information on the activities of Andeva see

For more information on asbestos see the Health and Safety Executive website.

Goska Romanowicz



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