Health

Published — April 14, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Activist asbestos inspector faces threats, industry backlash

Introduction

Tangling with the asbestos industry in Brazil is not for the faint of heart.

Federal labor inspector Fernanda Giannasi knows this better than anyone, having endured threats, professional ostracism, and other hardships during her quarter-century fight against mining, manufacturing, and shipping interests in Brazil, the world’s third-largest asbestos producer.

Now, the industry has upped the ante. Giannasi, profiled last year in a joint International Consortium of Investigative Journalists-BBC series on the asbestos trade, is fighting charges leveled in two court cases.

In one case, a mining company, SAMA, whose raw asbestos was held up in port by Giannasi, is asking a federal court to prohibit herfrom inspecting its operations because of her affiliation with a victims’ advocacy group, Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto (ABREA) — the Brazilian Association of People Exposed to Asbestos. SAMA is demanding that the government pay 5,000 reais ($3,000) every time Giannasi shows up to inspect. (On March 15, the court denied SAMA’s request to remove her from inspections immediately, pending trial).

In an interview with ICIJ, Elio Antonio Martins, CEO of SAMA’s parent, Eternit S.A., said Giannasi “can’t be one day an activist and another day inspecting the very companies she demonstrated against.”

In the other case, asbestos exporter Cortes Transportation filed a criminal complaint against Giannasi with federal police, alleging she abused her authority while halting shipments at the port of Santos. Cortes wants Giannasi barred from further contact with the company. Cortes officials could not be reached for comment.

Since joining the Ministry of Labor and Employment in 1983, Giannasi has cited countless workplaces for illegally using the toxic, fire-resistant mineral, long tied to cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos products arebanned in São Paulo state, where Giannasi is based, and three other states in Brazil, but they remain legal in the rest of the country. Giannasi has called for a nationwide ban; the Brazilian Congress may vote on such a ban this year.

Giannasi insists that she can keep her advocacy separate from her official duties. “I don’t make any value judgment,” she said. “I enforce the law.” By her reasoning, asbestos cannot be shipped from the port of Santos, where SAMA’s shipments were halted, because the port is in Sao Paulo, where asbestos is illegal.

Giannasialso recently received a threatening letter, postmarked from Berlin. Written in ungrammatical, profanity-laced English, the anonymous writer condemns Giannasi’s “ignorant campain [sic] to ban asbestos” and asserts, “No one will ever win against ‘King Asbestos!’ Impossible! It is forever!”

The one-page, typewritten letter, which bears a stamp depicting a swastika, accuses Giannasi of racism “like the Nazies [sic]” — the implication being that it’s racist to deprive people in developing nations of cheap, reliable asbestos building products. “The sooner You go to Hell (without Asbestos Clothes), the better it will be,” the letter reads. “By the last Breath of the 4-winds that blow, Your words and Deeds will have Revenge on Your Body one Day. That is our promise for You! Your Hate on Asbestos and Your Greed for Money and Your Blindness will be deadly for Your whole Person!”

She turned the letter over to Interpol and asked for an investigation. At least two other anti-asbestos activists, in England and Japan, received similar letters. The two activists also were mentioned in the ICIJ stories.

Although the letter mentions Eternit, the company in a statement denied knowledge of it. Eternit “acts with full transparency” in arguing for the continued, controlled use of white, or chrysotile, asbestos — the type mined in Brazil — the company said, insisting that “Eternit doesn’t need subterfuges like anonymous letters to express its opinion about asbestos.”

Martins, the Eternit CEO, said the unfair condemnation of his company’s products “comes from second- and third-rank governmental authorities, NGOs and the Saint-Gobain group,” which was part-owner, with Eternit, of the Minaçu asbestos mine in central Brazil from 1967 to 1999.

Martins said he has grown accustomed to criticism from public officials — Giannasi included — and advocacy groups, but finds it ironic that Saint-Gobain, a French conglomerate that switched to making non-asbestos building products more than a decade ago, has joined the chorus.

“Before they sold us their share of the mine … they strongly supported asbestos,” he said. “This is like a baker who broke partnership with another baker and spreads rumors that there are cockroach wings on his former partner’s bread.”

Still, as a possible sign of increasing pressure on the asbestos industry, Eternit also is investing more heavily in non-asbestos products even as it tries to neutralize Giannasi. This isn’t a retreat, Martins insisted; it’s merely a reflection of customer demand.

Although 52 countries have banned or sharply restricted use of the fibrous mineral, Brazil remains the world’s third-largest exporter of chrysotile asbestos, sending it to Asia and nations such as Mexico and Colombia. It is also the world’s fifth-largest asbestos user. An industry-funded group called the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute promotes the “controlled use” of asbestos in building materials, water pipes and other products in high demand in India, China, and other countries. Bodies such as the World Health Organization, however, say that no form or quantity of asbestos — which some experts believe will take 10 million lives by 2030 — can be used safely.

While Eternit claims in court filings that Giannasi’s inspections have hurt the company’s bottom line, that’s not evident from its financial reports. In 2010, Eternit had record revenues of 759 million reais ($454 million). Its sales of chrysotile grew from 291,000 metric tons in 2009 to 306,000 last year, with nearly 143,000 metric tons shipped abroad.

The pending court cases, Giannasi believes, are acts of desperation by the asbestos lobby, whose members expressed outrage over the publication of the ICIJ profile in Folha ,Brazil’s biggest newspaper. “If they take me out of the picture, a new inspector would take a lot of time to learn the ropes,” she said.

Giannasi sees the letter from Berlin as someone’s attempt at intimidation.“That will not keep me from doing my work,” she said.

“Twenty-five years is a tumultuous marriage,” Giannasi said of her long sparring match with the industry. “Someday I will retire, but I want to finish my career [by upholding] a different standard. I want to bring some degree of change to society.”

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