SÃO PAULO — Inching along at rush hour in her battered black Chevrolet Corsa, Fernanda Giannasi joked about the pariah status she’s attained with the Brazilian asbestos industry. “I have no name,” she said. “I’m just ‘That woman.’”
No wonder. Giannasi, an inspector with the federal Ministry of Labor and Employment, has been trying to shut down the industry for the past quarter-century. She says that white asbestos — mined in the central Brazilian state of Goiás, turned into cement and other domestic products and increasingly sent abroad — has taken countless lives and will take countless more unless it is banned nationwide. The idea that it can be used safely, she says, is “a fiction.”
The 52-year-old Giannasi has many admirers in the global public health community. One local doctor calls her the “Brockovich of Brazil,” a nod to Erin Brockovich, the California file clerk who blew the whistle on water pollution by Pacific Gas & Electric and inspired a feature film. Giannasi’s true constituency, however, lies in places like Osasco, a graffiti-scarred, blue-collar city west of São Paulo and home to Brazil’s most notorious asbestos cement factory for 54 years.
The factory, owned by a company called Eternit, opened in 1939 and was, for most of its existence, thick with asbestos fibers, former workers say. Eliezer João de Souza, 68, worked there from 1968 to 1981, cutting asbestos sheets and corrugated tiles into various sizes. “It was full of dust everywhere,” de Souza says. “You could see it through the sunlight.” Workers had no respiratory protection until 1977, when they were given cheap paper masks, says de Souza, who had small tumors removed from his pleura — the thin membrane that covers the lungs and lines the chest cavity — in 2000. At one point “they called the workers in and took X-rays, but they never showed us the results,” he says. “It was always a game of lies.”