The battle for an asbestos-free Colombia

By November 15, 2019Blog, Heroes in LatAm
Picture from TV where news about the prohibition of asbesto was being reported

‘The mission is accomplished’, said Daniel Pineda in front of the Congress of the Republic, located in the heart of Bogotá. Daniel fought alongside his wife, Ana Cecilia Niño, for more than 5 years to get Colombian legislators to approve the bill that today prohibits the use of asbestos in Colombia.

Exploited and used since the nineteenth century, asbestos, a fibre composed of small particles of minerals, soon became an important natural resource for the development of infrastructure and transport in many countries around the world – especially since the early 20th century where its use in building insulation, dresses, paintings, ships and automobiles was widespread.

Although in Colombia there were very meticulous records of the use of this fibre in construction projects, great doubts and concerns regarding its use burst into public consciousness when the case of Ana Cecilia Niño was known, who for more than 20 years was exposed to asbestos, a situation which resulted  in her developing a type of cancer called pleural mesothelioma.

But the lack of concrete figures on damage to human health, shy testimonies and scientific doubts about the effects of exposure to this material were until May 2019 the main arguments against prohibition of asbestos use in Colombia. This was despite 68 of the 194 countries globally had totally outlawed use of asbestos, including regional neighbours like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Honduras

Even now, in the 21st century, it’s still a key fibre for certain industries that defend its use and are reliant on it to sustain production, but at the same time it is a silent but lethal enemy harming those who inadvertently inhale it where it remains, in very small amounts, in our respiratory system, eventually causing a malignant lung tumour – which can lead to a premature death.

Ana Cecilia Niño was a victim of this mineral fibre and since 2014, when her mesothelioma was diagnosed, she started knocking on doors and contacting journalists to raise awareness of the situation she and others like her were facing. A difficult path full of challenges at social, economic and political levels followed, but in the end it paid off.

Amid a struggle that seemed to have no echo, Ana Cecilia and her husband, Daniel Pineda, met in 2015 with Marcela Pulido, a journalist and researcher at Noticias Caracol, one of the most watched newscasts in Colombia in recent years.

It was not pure coincidence. Marcela had already reported in news segment of the story of an asbestos victim, desperate to tell her story before she died “so that no more people die for this reason”, she told the journalist.


Raising awareness across the population

Marcela, who knew from the beginning that through her work as a journalist, she had the ability to give exposure to an issue that should be on the agenda of the National Government and Congress because of the gravity it represented, but she had a complicated path in the beginning of his field work: the victims did not want to talk, they felt fear, they did not want to show their face or their stories; so the testimonies were a few and their journalistic investigations were dilated without being able on air in the TV shows.

In addition, Marcela knew that it was more than 25 cases of asbestos victims who claimed to have a voice and opinion, but with fear that the powerful would always silence them at any time. Faced with this, Marcela decided to draw two lines of investigation and social denunciation through her work as a reporter.

The first and most important is the purpose of showing the plights of individual cases on mass media, empowering those affected – once public, the ‘court of public opinion’ gives victims real power to ask questions of those companies who manufactured products with serious unreported health risks to the public. With the backing of Caracol, it became possible for the victims to lobby for a full official investigation by the government into asbestos use in Colombia.

Picture of Marcela Pulido and 6 victims of diseases caused by asbestos.In the first reports, no company was mentioned, however there were explanations on typical products containing asbestos for its manufacture, and at the same time families start campaigning harder and harder despite resistance from the industry.

While the journalists at Caracol TV were investigating and the families campaigning, a startling bit of research came to light within the framework of the International Conference on Environmental and Occupational Health. In Italy alone up to 2014, as a result of asbestos exposure there had been a staggering 1,000 deaths from mesothelioma and 2,000 from asbestos-related lung cancer.

Research findings like this along with increasing public scrutiny is starting to put pressure on the government to change regulations on asbestos use, however at this point there still was a long way to go yet.


The snowball grows

With this international research in the hands of the biggest media outlet in the country, Marcela asks Noticias Caracol to allow her to disclose the names of the companies asbestos-using in each article she writes, the TV channel accepts and with this the whole industry is exposed, against which companies like Eternit (active for 75 years in Colombia) began to lobby in the Congress of the Republic, supported by their wealth and influence in an effort to stall any regulation change.

Between 2015 and 2016, as Marcela’s campaign rises in profile, more and more victims and their families support the accelerating campaign – even international NGOs such as Greenpeace pick up on the campaign, all uniting under one slogan: ‘Colombia Sin Asbesto’ (Colombia without asbestos).

In the midst of this fight, asbestos related illnesses begin to claim the lives of some of the first campaigners who did so much to kick-start the cause. Many of those interviewed by Noticias Caracol eventually lose their battle with asbestos, however the campaign continues to grow in the memory of those passed.

‘In the wake of further academic papers from academics at both The National University and the University of the Andes also supporting the campaign for an asbestos-free Colombia, Marcela Pulido managed to secure an interview with the then Minister of Health, Alejandro Gaviria, on the subject of the asbestos issue and how to deal with it. At this point the social and media pressure was much too high for industry lobbying to have any effect, and the political appetite of the time was strongly in support of the movement.

Mission Accomplished

With the death of Ana Cecilia Niño (the figurehead of the campaign) in August 2017, came the groundwork for a bill that, along with the ‘hug your lungs’ campaign, was signed into law by the new president Iván Duque. The long road for an asbestos ban was complete.

‘So what next? As a result of the new ‘Ana Cecilia Niño Law’, regulatory bodies will outlaw the extraction and use of asbestos in Colombia from January 2021, and over time existing asbestos will be gradually removed – hopefully preventing more needless victims from asbestos-related illnesses. The high profile campaign has also illustrated to the public about the dangers of asbestos, and with this law Colombia will be a better place as a result.

“I feel full and satisfied because I never imagined that a journalistic obsession was going to take us so high and allowed me to understand that journalism has not only the capacity to inform, but also to contribute to society and the entire world,” concludes Marcela Pulido.

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