Global Asbestos Awareness Week brings together experts such as IOSH alongside victims of asbestos-related diseases, to share, learn and take action.
Each year, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) dedicates 1-7 April to increase awareness of asbestos and prevent exposure to the carcinogenic substance, the cause of several fatal diseases; lung cancer and mesothelioma being among them.
2022’s virtual event, which kicks off this week, provides a platform for its international collaborators, including IOSH, the Mavis Nye Foundation, the Environmental Information Association (EIA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Africa Foundation, to continue a campaign to ban asbestos in countries that still permit the material’s use.
As one of ADAO’s co-founders Linda Reinstein estimates that only about 30% of the world has introduced any restrictions or outright bans on asbestos.
Education is critical to making that first step towards achieving this goal and as the largest asbestos victims’ organisation in the United States, ADAO has produced a wealth of resources for others to use on its ‘Know Asbestos’ website.
Like many involved in the global event, Linda has her own personal tragedy; her husband Alan, who helped her set ADAO up in 2004 with the late Doug Larkin, died from mesothelioma on 22 May 2006.
When Alan was diagnosed a year earlier, she’d never heard of the disease before but soon learned with her then 10-year-old daughter that it was an aggressive, fatal cancer.
As a family they began to publicise his condition and ‘realised that sharing our story meant that somebody else connected to us,’ she says. ‘There were many people who had been silenced by asbestos.’
Having undertaken some research into the carcinogenic material, she wrote to President George Bush in 2003 and asked him to issue a proclamation about asbestos awareness so that other families could find out what they had learned and help others to prevent exposure. Disappointingly, her request was turned down two years in a row.
On a trip to Washington DC in 2004 to drum up support among senators, however, Linda met Doug Larkin, whose father-in-law also had mesothelioma. Their meeting led to the formation of ADAO, the organisers of an annual event that has become Global Asbestos Awareness Week.
'I said 1 April because I want to be able to tell everyone that it’s no joke that asbestos kills'
‘We had no proper funding and we paid for the first two years,’ she says. ‘We knew what we needed to do, that if we could prevent exposure we could eliminate the disease. That principle was simple but the big question was how?’
Senator Harry Reid provided the breakthrough they were looking for; his office said it was willing to champion the resolution.
As requested, Linda produced a resolution that detailed all the facts she had gathered over the previous two years about why asbestos was so dangerous. She confides that Reid’s office was bemused when they asked her what day in 2005 she would like the senator to introduce the resolution into the US Senate. She had responded with April fool’s day.
‘I said 1 April because I want to be able to tell everyone that it’s no joke that asbestos kills,’ she explains.
‘At the time, I wasn’t thinking that the annual event would go on for 18 years and move from being one day to covering a week.’
When the US Senate passed the resolution unanimously, Linda realised she had hit on something much larger and significant.
‘If there is a resolution that raises awareness, that awareness can lead to prevention but it also leads to collaboration,’ she says. ‘Hopefully, it eventually leads to advocacy to ban asbestos.’
However, she understood clearly that ADAO’s long-term aim would be an uphill battle. In 1989, the US Environmental Protection Agency had successfully secured a ban on the carcinogenic material only for the powerful asbestos lobby to overturn it two years later.
Even so, ADAO’s first national awareness asbestos day on 1 April 2005, a press conference proved a resounding success. In particular, Linda was struck by how many people wanted to share their experiences and collaborate on future events.
'Because the latency is so long, it’s a perfect disease and white collar crime'
It took another two years for the now annual education event to be held over a week. That same year, ADAO also changed the resolution’s wording urging the US Surgeon General to issue a warning about asbestos. In 2009, ADAO finally achieved this ambition and since then it has secured a further seven US Surgeon General asbestos warnings.
Over the same period, they have also worked with the US Senate to unanimously pass 16 Asbestos Awareness Week Resolutions.
From her 18 years of work, Linda says that ignorance is still the main challenge in the US, with nine in 10 Americans still unaware that asbestos hasn’t been banned.
‘If you can use doubt, misinformation and disinformation, you can blur all the lines,’ she says.
‘Most people in the US don’t know that 40,000 people die every year of preventable asbestos-causing diseases. Imports continue and so does use because we don’t have a ban. Asbestos can be found in homes, in schools, workplaces and on consumer shelves.’
The long latency period of diseases linked to asbestos is another reason why resistance to bans has endured. It is usually after about 10 to 15 years from exposure to asbestos materials that sufferers are diagnosed with mesothelioma, which makes it difficult for campaigners to prove a direct link.
‘Because the latency is so long, it’s a perfect disease and white collar crime,’ she says. ‘Also, you can’t see the fibres. They are nearly invisible. When you get sick, you get sick so quickly.’
The international dimension to the week came about in 2010 when Dr Mavis Nye, president and co-founder of the Mavis Nye Foundation got in touch to see how she could set a similar event up in the UK.
‘I said, “How about, instead of starting your own week, why don’t we turn this event into a global one and we all share?”’
Over the years, Linda has built the event’s programme as a collaborative week to raise global awareness, with the long-term aim of preventing the material’s use and eliminating all asbestos-related diseases.
‘If you write a story and it can’t be heard, felt, shared and remembered, you are wasting your time'
She has produced six videos, including five in different languages – French, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish to expand the week’s global reach. She also creates press releases in these languages and posts the videos alongside them, together with graphics, to reinforce the messages.
‘If you write a story and it can’t be heard, felt, shared and remembered, you are wasting your time,’ she says. ‘I do a lot of art and advocacy through 60-second videos, which is a really powerful tool for me.’
During the event ADAO will share resources from the World Health Organization as well as case studies from partnering organisations, including associations, institutions and trade unions. This year includes a presentation from the Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto, a non-profit organisation based in Osasco, Brazil.
IOSH and its No Time to Lose campaign has partnered with the Global Asbestos Awareness Week for a number of years to promote prevention of exposure to asbestos and Louise Hosking, IOSH’s president, is advocating support for the week. IOSH will also promote the week through its social media channels and share a feature in the latest edition of IOSH magazine.
For Linda, the event provides an opportunity to present a strong call to action in the US. ‘Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition online urging the Environmental Protection Agency to ban asbestos in the United States without any loopholes,’ she says.
Globally, she plans to expand the week’s social media reach and build collaboration with other partners like OSH Africa and others in the developing world. In the future, this will become an increasingly important audience.
‘If you look at Asia, Africa and South America, those continents often have limited resources to prevent asbestos exposure,’ she says.
‘It’s very convenient. If you hide the information about asbestos – what is it? Where is it? What do I do and how do I get help? If you hide the fact that asbestos kills and no-one has access to a community. That’s what makes ADAO different. We are dedicated to prevention and that enables us to connect and share with other countries.’
To get involved in this year’s Global Asbestos Awareness Week, join on social media using
#2022GAAW @Linda_ADAO #asbestos