Following the money on asbestos

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ICIJ rolled out its biggest project in months this week: Dangers in the Dust — Inside the Global Asbestos Trade. We’ve had a half-dozen of our reporters team up with the BBC’s International News Services, and it’s been a great partnership. Together, we’ve covered eight countries in nine months, from the Russian city of Asbest to the Mexico City suburb of Iztapalapa. What we found is now getting global coverage: that the asbestos industry, now banned and restricted in 52 countries, has moved big-time to the developing world, prompting health experts to warn of new epidemics of cancer and lung disease in places like China, India and Brazil.

These kind of international investigations are a challenge. We found ourselves translating — from Gujarati — legal complaints by state Labor officials in India, wading through Portuguese company registration records in Brazil, and dealing with industry officials in a half-dozen countries who didn’t much want to talk about their business. The science was also complex. Although a strong consensus exists that asbestos in all its forms is toxic, there are debates about whether white asbestos — the only kind used today — is less hazardous than now-banned blue or brown forms. This was also a business story, with reporters trying to ferret out the dimensions of a multi-billion industry that ranges from a Russian mine half the size of Manhattan to mom-and-pop shops in India peddling asbestos-laden roof sheeting.

For ICIJ, most of all, it was a follow-the-money investigation. Led by reporter Jim Morris, our team pieced together the story of how the asbestos industry has spent nearly $100 million since the mid-1980s to keep its toxic product in commerce. Roman Shleynov, our Russian editor-in-residence, tracked ownership of the world’s largest asbestos suppliers in Russia and Kazakhstan. Marcelo Soares examined Brazil’s industry trade group, while Ana Avila looked at those in Mexico and Colombia. And Murali Krishnan and Shantanu Guha Ray dug into the finances of India’s big-spending Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association.

Most surprising to us: the role of Canada, which consumes relatively little asbestos but uses government money to export huge amounts to countries like India, where environmental and safety standards are weak. Apparently our stories — on ICIJ.org and with the BBC — have hit a nerve up north. Yesterday, Michael Ignatieff, leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, reacted to the series by saying it was time for his country to stop its controversial exports of asbestos. Stay tuned for more on this.