A growing death toll in Mexico

Asbestos casualties mount amid weak enforcement and a powerful lobby

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 Updated:

MEXICO CITY — The American Roll factory is not a welcoming place.

Situated among homes and schools in Barrio de San Lucas, a working-class neighborhood in the Mexico City suburb of Iztapalapa, the fortress-like brick building emits a pungent, scorched-rubber odor that makes the eyes water and the head throb. It’s impossible to see inside. A maker of asbestos brake linings, American Roll SA de CV has been at odds with its neighbors since 2001. Anxious residents say that their complaints about pollution from the factory go unanswered and suspect that the company has co-opted environmental regulators. They worry that they will meet the same fate as Jaime Carbajal.

Born and raised in the neighborhood, Carbajal lived a mere 150 meters from the factory. On March 4, 2008, he arrived at the emergency room in Hospital General de Iztapalapa with sharp back pain and breathing difficulties. The doctor speculated that Carbajal had been exposed to asbestos, even though he had never worked with the material, and noted the proximity of his house to the factory. A month later, a specialist at the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases in Mexico City wrote that tomography had detected “dense spots” in Carbajal’s lungs suggestive of asbestos exposure. Again, the location of the patient’s house was highlighted.

On May 11, 2008, Carbajal died at 58 of mesothelioma, a rare cancer triggered in almost all cases by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. For Berenice Martínez, another resident of Barrio de San Lucas, his death was confirmation that American Roll poses a threat to the neighborhood — in particular, to its 300 or so children. Martínez and a few others, including some teachers, had pressured authorities to close the factory for years, succeeding only once, in January 2004. It quickly reopened and its opponents gave up, one by one. “After all our claims were rejected, and finding myself sitting there alone, I just quit,” Martínez says. “They took advantage of our fatigue and they won.”

American Roll refused to admit a reporter when she asked to enter the plant in March. In an e-mailed statement weeks later, the company said its emissions are always far below Mexican federal limits and it bears no blame for residents’ illnesses. “If this were the case, we don’t think that any authority could let that situation continue,” Maria de la Luz Martínez Ávila, American Roll’s legal representative, said in the statement.

3,000 deaths per year

American Roll is one of nearly 2,000 Mexican companies that use asbestos in an array of products — including brakes, boilers, roofing, pipes and wires — sold throughout the hemisphere. Valued for its heat and fire resistance, asbestos was once widely used worldwide but is now banned or restricted by 52 countries, including Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Its use is forbidden in the European Union and limited in the United States to a handful of products, such as automobile brakes and gaskets. Fueled by an aggressive industry campaign, however, asbestos use has grown markedly in the developing world, led by such countries as China, India, and Mexico. With its new life in emerging markets, the cumulative death toll from asbestos may reach 10 million by 2030, according to Dr. James Leigh, the retired director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the Sydney School of Public Health in Australia.

Thousands of those deaths are expected in Mexico, which used 17,000 metric tons of asbestos in 2007 — ten times the amount used in the United States that year. Mexico ramped up imports of asbestos in the 1970s, largely from Canada; today its manufacturers buy most of their supplies from Canada and Brazil. According to the country’s Economy Secretariat, 1,881 companies use raw asbestos. These companies employ 8,000 people, the National Workers Confederation says.

Dr. Guadalupe Aguilar Madrid, a physician and researcher with the Mexican Social Security Institute, which oversees public health under the federal Secretariat of Health, says that the country’s weak worker protection laws have allowed dangerous conditions to proliferate and the human costs are going to rise sharply. “The epidemic can grow like it grew in the countries that started to work with asbestos after the Second World War,” says Aguilar. She predicts that the annual death toll from mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancer could reach 3,000 to 5,000, up from the current 1,500, and stresses that the epidemic won't stop until the country bans asbestos.

Mexico’s asbestos lobby

Aguilar’s nemesis is Luis Cejudo Alva, founder and president of the Instituto Mexicano de Fibro Industrias (IMFI), an asbestos trade group that enjoys a warm relationship with the government. A tall, thin man in his 70s, he insists that the IMFI has collaborated with regulators to improve workplace conditions. “We are close to the government authorities,” he says. “It has been arduous and constant work. We held meetings with them, we have participated in creating the regulations, and invited them to the factories.”

A passionate defender of asbestos in Latin America, Cejudo insists the mineral can be used safely. He points out that IMFI members have agreed to stop selling asbestos to factories without adequate safety measures and that this has led to some plant closures. Cejudo travels frequently, his bills paid by the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute (named after chryostile, or white asbestos, the only form used today). “This doesn’t mean they pay all my expenses, or that they give me a salary,” he explains. He seems to relish his role as an asbestos evangelist. In a speech at a 2006 scientific conference sponsored by the Chrysotile Institute, he described how his organization worked with its counterparts to ring up victories: Peru had been expected to follow Chile’s lead and ban asbestos and would have done so but for the “quick actions” of the Canadian-led lobby. Colombia was “under siege” by anti-asbestos forces but the combined efforts of four groups, including his own, had held them off. In Brazil, “Attacks are there, but with the help of the Brazilian Chrysotile Institute, [asbestos producers] keep on going forward as the river flows.”

The Chilean ban still stings, Cejudo says. “I was there, but nothing could be done.” The “asbestos detractors” were simply too strong.

Aguilar dismisses Cejudo’s characterization of the IMFI as a benign, safety-oriented group. It has paid for employees of the Mexican Labor Secretariat to tour asbestos operations in Quebec, she says.“They return to Mexico with the impression that it is possible to work safely with the fiber.” It also lobbies regulators: “When we have meetings to create the regulations, they attend,” Aguilar says. Indeed, it sometimes writes the rules, she says, displaying a rule on workplace asbestos exposures that she and Cejudo agree was influenced by the IMFI.

The IMFI, Aguilar says, bears much of the blame for the looming public health disaster in Mexico. “They have dared to say that asbestos can be eaten with bread and butter,” she says, “despite all the scientific work that has been done.”

Cejudo says angrily that Aguilar is lying about his organization and the hazards of asbestos. “Why does this lady say that the dust that comes from the [asbestos] sheets kills people?” he asks. “It is only dust …. These sheets are an answer for people’s needs.”

Schools, protests, and pollution

For nearly 30 years, the brake factory in Barrio de San Lucas was owned by ITAPSA, a firm that operates a number of asbestos plants around Mexico City. ITAPSA moved to another location in the late 1990s and used the building as a warehouse. The factory reopened under the American Roll name in 2001.

The plant has 22 employees, divided into two shifts. It generally runs 15 hours a day, five days a week, though neighbors say its schedule is adjusted on occasion. “When they sense tension in the neighborhood, they work at night or on Sunday,” says Claudia Fuentes, who lives about a mile away.

At the request of Mexico City Congresswoman Alicia Téllez, the factory was toured in April by José Luis Cortés, director of surveillance for the city’s Environment Secretariat. Cortés declared everything to be in order, though he acknowledged that he was taking the company’s word when it said it properly disposes of asbestos and other hazardous waste. Téllez is dubious.

“I was in Barrio de San Lucas,” she says. “I saw the people. I talked to them, and there is a general feeling that something is wrong … If there is nothing wrong, why wasn’t I allowed to take a look at the factory?”

Barrio de San Lucas is home to seven elementary schools, two high schools, and five preschools. On Jan. 29, 2003, Berenice Martinez, mother of three children, led other parents in a protest outside American Roll, demanding that the plant be shut down. The parents met afterward with officials from the Education Secretariat, who pressured them to end the action and avoid talking to a television reporter at the scene, Martinez says. “Their intimidation was veiled, but we feared it,” she says. A Secretariat spokesman did not respond to information requests from ICIJ.

The protest had been prompted by incidents like one that occurred also in January 2003 at the Año de Juárez elementary school. A stench permeated the school’s classrooms, causing the children’s eyes and throats to burn. The Mexico City environment minister inspected the factory at the request of the undersecretary of educational services but found nothing out of the ordinary.

An employee at Año de Juárez, who asked not to be identified, says that teachers who were sympathetic to the protest were threatened with sanctions if they persisted with their complaints. “We were told we could lose our jobs,” the employee says.

Aguilar, the physician, says she sympathizes with the people of Barrio de San Lucas and the American Roll workers.

“Who is taking care of these communities?” she asks. “Who is going to take responsibility for the deaths?”

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