As heard on the Heartland Labor Forum radio show- August 17, 2000

Safety First

by Mary Erio

The WTO Speaks: Chrysotile is Bad for You!
Within hours of the World Trade Organization issuing confidential findings in the Canadian chrysotile case, rumors encircled the globe: for the first time, the WTO had ruled in favor of public health and against free trade! The interim decision, disclosed to the litigants in June and finalized in July, will be made public in September. It is believed to be a complete vindication of the 1997 French ban on chrysotile, the only form of asbestos still legal within the European Union.  Trade officials revealed that scientists commissioned to answer questions set by the WTO's Dispute Settlement Panel had been unanimous: chrysotile is a carcinogen, the concept of “controlled use” is unrealistic and safer substitutes exist. 

Canada, currently the world's leading exporter of chrysotile, had grown used to French custom and support. France, once the third largest importer of asbestos worldwide, had been a stalwart ally within the EU.  With the ban, the dominance of asbestos cement, “the most widely used material in France in finishing works since the end of the 1960s” was over. 

The consistency of the experts' responses and their testimony in Geneva in January, 2000 reflect an international consensus that asbestos should be banned. WTO supporters told Reuters news service that the “finding disproves charges by radical environmental and human rights bodies that the organization works in favour of big business by giving free trade interests preference over other concerns.” A Brazilian article observed that the judgment demonstrates a conscious decision not to add fuel to the environmentalists' bonfire. Undoubtedly, growing distrust and anti-WTO sentiment apparent on the streets of Seattle last December have been factored into the equation. While it is likely that Canada will appeal, WTO precedents suggest that the judgment is unlikely to be reversed. 

Urging Canada to appeal, Andre Brochu, a trade unionist representing workers at the LAC Asbestos Mine, expressed concern about the loss of industry jobs.  About 2,000 jobs in Quebec are affected.

(CNN)  Am I at risk from radiation?
With the number of cell phone customers in the U.S. alone nearing 90 million and growing by 30,000 every day, that's a lot of callers waiting for an answer.

The phones in question are the hand-held variety with a built-in antenna positioned close to the user's head. Studies on whether such phones are unhealthy are plentiful—and contradictory. According to the Food and Drug Administration, which could take action if a health threat were found, the jury is still out.  In the absence of conclusive information, the FDA issued these recommendations:

Health warning on attic asbestos, reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Asbestos-contaminated vermiculite insulation in millions of homes across the country poses a “substantial health risk” to anyone who works in the houses' attics, an assistant U.S. surgeon general has warned.  The insulation comes from the now closed vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont., operated for decades by W.R. Grace & Co. 

“ Internal company documentation and recent testing of residential insulation material reveals that even minimal handling by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk,” Dr. Hugh Sloan of the U.S. Public Health Service wrote last week in a request for help from other federal health experts.

Among the documents to which Sloan referred is a risk assessment conducted by Grace health experts while the mine was still open.  The company experts estimated 30,000 additional lung cancers would result from exposure to asbestos by those “involved in the application of our products.”  Nobody is sure how many homes contain the insulation, Zonolite. Estimates range from 2.5 million to 16 million.

Sloan asked NIOSH to examine the risk to nursery, construction, insulation and other workers who use vermiculite end-products and to issue a  nationwide warning, a “hazard alert,” cautioning workers of the potential dangers of these products.  Recent investigations documented that even casual handling of the insulation can generate airborne exposures up to 150 times the level considered safe by OSHA for workers.  Tests have shown that even installing a light fixture or ceiling fan through an attic floor insulated with Zonolite can generate dangerous levels of airborne asbestos.

In November, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that hundreds of miners and members of their families were killed or sickened by asbestos contamination from the now closed Grace mine in the tiny northwestern Montana town.

Last week, William Corcoran, Grace's vice president of corporate affairs, said the company still maintains that the attic insulation and other vermiculite-based products presents no health risk to consumers.

Keep up with health and safety news, and check out an on-line labor related news digest, at