Asbestos is a pathogenic fiber that has been recognized as a carcinogen by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Widely used in Europe from the 1970s to the 1990s, asbestos is now banned in over 50 countries. One of its main uses was to make fiber cement (asbestos cement), which is commonly used in the construction industry for fiber cement roofing, for instance.
In 1999, a European directive prohibited the extraction, commercialization and use of asbestos in new materials and established January 1, 2005 as the deadline for implementing the ban in member countries. According to this directive, it is mandatory for employers to identify the existence of asbestos in buildings, facilities, and infrastructure (public and private), verify its level of degradation and monitor it. The European Parliament recommended that the Portuguese government implement measures to take an inventory of all public buildings containing asbestos and develop a timetable for the implementation of risk prevention actions.
In 2005, Fenprof, the national teachers union, submitted an official request to access the government databases in order to determine the number of school buildings containing asbestos. This led to the approval of a law that stipulated that asbestos had to be removed from all buildings, facilities, and public infrastructure within one year. It also ordered a list containing this information to be elaborated and made public, and the government to take action to ensure that hazardous materials are being monitored and (or) removed.
At the end of the one-year period, some schools issued statements denouncing the existence of asbestos in their buildings and the advanced stage of degradation. In March 2013, a list of 52 schools enlisted in the Ministry of Education and Science’s (MEC) program for the removal of asbestos was released; the full list, however, was not made public.
The Portuguese NGO Quercus filed a complaint with the European Commission to denounce Portugal for not making information on the risks of exposure to asbestos public.
In early 2014, Fenprof delivered a formal request to the MEC to insist that it urgently provide the full list of schools whose buildings contain asbestos. Over the past few years, the federation has submitted several complaints against the government and the MEC to national and international bodies such as the International Labor Organization and the Attorney General's Office.
The Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses (CGTP, or the Confederation of Portuguese Workers) issued a press release in which it stated that the deadline for compiling the list of buildings containing asbestos had already expired two years ago and that the government's failure to comply with the law was worsening a public health problem.
Although MEC statements indicate that asbestos has been withdrawn from more than 100 schools and they expect to remove it in over a hundred more, the government's slowness and inaction on the issue has led to protests by students, parents and teachers to demand the removal of asbestos. Quercus and Fenprof have also met several times to discuss the government's inaction, as well as strategies to demand the removal of asbestos from schools.
In 2014, the government released a list of 2,015 buildings, facilities, and other public structures that might contain asbestos, most of which were MEC buildings. It is said, however, that there are over 600,000 buildings with fiber cement roofing in the whole country. The institutions involved demanded a quick removal of the fiber. One of these institutions is the CGTP-IN, which has identified the presence of asbestos in many buildings, such as those of the Directorate-General for Energy and the National Library. Another was Quercus, which proposed a national strategy on asbestos.
In November 2016, CGTP-IN, Quercus and construction workers’ trade unions organized a vigil in front of the Novinco factory in Matosinhos, the Cimianto factory in Alhandra, and the Lusalite factory in Cruz Quebrada (Oeiras) in memory of the asbestos victims. Over 1,000 people worked in the three large fiber-cement factories in Portugal. There are 39 reported deaths from causes related to asbestos exposure.
In October 2017, the Portuguese parliament ordered the asbestos that is still present in private buildings and facilities (approximately 4,200 interventions), including housing, to be removed.