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Poor and homeless at extreme risk of asbestos exposure

Thousands of poor and homeless people around the world have no alternative but to face the threat of asbestos on a daily basis. In many cases they are stuck in a system from which there is little chance of escape – a position which threatens their own lives and those of their families.

Living in an asbestos-filled environment, or working in one with no protection purely to provide for their families, is the reality of life for many people. Those in authority are struggling to control the situation; others appear to turn a blind eye.

Asbestos-lined aluminium boxes

One such instance is the Italian ‘container ghetto’ of Ponticelli. Lying in the eastern suburbs of Naples, aluminium boxes lined with asbestos were originally used to house the homeless following the 1980 earthquake which devastated Southern Italy.

The earthquake left 280,000 people without a home, and when factories in the area closed down, high unemployment levels caused further issues for a population already in crisis.

Some estimate as many as 60,000 ‘invisibles,’ or unregistered/illegal residents now live in Ponticelli. A proportion of the metal containers have been demolished, but one area still remains, and is known as the ‘Via Fuortes ghetto.’

Asbestos will have been used as fireproofing and insulation for these homes – it was a common substance used to manufacture hundreds of building materials and household products in the 20th century, and its legacy of ill-health and life-threatening disease continues.

The danger of fibre release is now extremely high in the Ponticelli containers – the asbestos is reported to be at its most dangerous state, i.e. deteriorating. Furthermore, cancer causes the majority of deaths in the ghetto, as asbestos particles cover the area.

Asbestos workers hired from homeless shelters in America

An investigation by the Detroit Free Press has revealed that in the US state of Michigan, unregulated and unlicensed contractors are seeking workers among the homeless to handle asbestos in return for cash payment.

One contractor set people to work without proper asbestos training or protective equipment, with some men said to have been working in flip flops and shorts. The contractor concerned received a five-year jail sentence. Assistant US attorney, Janet Parker, commented:

“The workers were people who were very desperate for a job. They were desperate for any kind of money.”

The investigation also revealed that unscrupulous contractors were hiring immigrants to carry out asbestos removal, often without telling them the type of work they were involved in.

$1.8 million fine and potential criminal charges

A similar case in Albers, Illinois, resulted in a $1.8 million fine for a local contractor, although the allegations are being contested. It is alleged the contractor hired workers from Mexico under a specific visa programme, using them to remove asbestos from a former school without the provision of protective clothing or equipment.

Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), David Michaels, said the workers had been under threat of dismissal had they talked to safety investigators.

He also described the impossible position that many vulnerable individuals are finding themselves in:

“They spoke no English. He drove them to jobs. He set up a housing camp for them. They were at his mercy.”