Sociologist, specialist in public health, Annie Thébaud-Mony is honorary research director at Inserm, spokesperson of the association against asbestos Ban Asbestos France and president of the association Henri-Pézerat (from name of his late companion, toxicologist and whistleblower, who helped to ban asbestos in France in 1997).
Read also : Asbestos at school: "a time bomb"
What is the extent of the sanitary drama of asbestos?
In France, today, there are 3,000 deaths per year due to asbestos-related cancers. Especially mesotheliomas, cancers of the pleura, very serious. But also bronchopulmonary cancers, pharynx and larynx. This is a minimum estimate because it does not include other cancers associated with the ingestion of asbestos fibers (stomach, esophagus, intestines), or ovarian cancer related to use, by the past, from talc to asbestos. Unfortunately, we do not identify in France asbestos-related cancers: we gave ourselves the means to not know precisely.
Why is asbestos so dangerous?
There is no threshold below which asbestos is not carcinogenic. Very many victims have been exposed only "slightly". We have not yet reached the peak of annual deaths. We continue to see an increase in the number of annual deaths by mesothelioma. For this cancer, the average latency period between exposure and the onset of symptoms is forty years, but in young people the delay can be much shorter.
Are children very at risk?
Yes, because their cells are in formation, so more vulnerable. The endangerment of children, teachers, all staff working in schools is extremely negligent negligence on the part of the public authorities. Let's have asbestos flocking on a teacher's desk one morning, and teachers having to fight to get governments to enforce the regulation, as was the case case at the Georges-Brassens high school in Villeneuve-le-Roi (read our article), it's criminal. And I weigh my words. More than twenty years after the ban on asbestos, the continued exposure to this killer fiber in schools, hospitals or construction workers is very worrying.
Buildings age, so asbestos crumbles and danger increases?
Of course. I visited Toulouse University Hospital. In one corner, a pipe with asbestos insulation was breaking down. Same for floor slabs containing asbestos fibers, used in a room where children were lying on the floor. This is one of the worst exposures because they are short and thin fibers. It is unacceptable. Nothing has been put in place by the public authorities to prevent this. The strategy was to act as if there was no problem. This illustrates the French mismanagement of public health. The disaster of asbestos, but also that of pesticides, should have led the government to establish a cancer registry by department to reconstruct the career pathways of patients. I have pleaded several times in this direction with the Ministry of Health, to no avail.
Henri Pézerat asked for a census of all the schools in which there was asbestos. Professor Claude Got had proposed that technical asbestos diagnoses (DTA) be registered in the cadastre for public and private buildings. These proposals have not been followed up. Such records would have made prevention possible, compelling employers to take the necessary precautions.
How to explain this inaction?
What happens for asbestos is what happens for all carcinogens. These are in many production processes, it is a major industrial risk, and if the public authorities are mobilized, they will have the lobbies on the back. Watch the debate around glyphosate, very revealing. In construction, there is permissiveness vis-à-vis the employers, especially those who decide the sites. They should be responsible for ensuring the safety of the places where people work. But if we, the associations, do not intervene, nothing happens. It is true that the sites would be much more expensive if, with each intervention, one referred to the DTA to see where the asbestos is and to take the necessary precautions.
How to assume the cost of a massive asbestos removal?
For more than twenty years, Ban Asbestos has been asking for the creation of a fund, probably at European level, fed by multinationals who have made billions of profits thanks to asbestos, to ensure the safety of public buildings, especially educational buildings. But we have failed to interest a single French MEP in this claim. Yet between 100,000 and 130,000 people a year die in Europe due to work-related cancers, perhaps half of which are related to asbestos. This represents between 200 and 600 billion euros per year for the community. In addition to the dramatic human costs, the cost of asbestos damage is astronomical.