Fernanda Giannasi of Brazil is respected around the world for her relentless work in policing the asbestos industry.
She also is despised for what she does.
It’s a balance she must face every day. Rarely has anyone been both so revered — and so reviled — for doing their job so well.
Giannasi is the top federal labor inspector in a country that has struggled with the issues surrounding asbestos, banning it in states while allowing the industry to thrive in others, which makes her job more than complex.
“Sometimes what I do is difficult,” Giannasi said during an interview last month at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) conference in Los Angeles, where she was honored for her work. “It’s harder than I would like. But it is my challenge, my duty. Someone has to do this job, to make it safer for all of us.”
Giannasi Harassed and Threatened
Since starting at the Ministry of Labor and Employment in 1983, Giannasi has cited dozens of workplaces in Brazil for illegally using asbestos. She has stopped asbestos shipments from leaving the ports, and blocked incoming deliveries, too.
She has been cheered and saluted by factory workers who applauded her efforts, advocates who stand alongside her, and families of those who have suffered the ravages of asbestos-induced diseases.
She also has been jeered and harassed and threatened — with lawsuits and physical harm — by some in the asbestos industry who are threatened by her presence and beliefs. She has cost them millions of dollars.
The mining, exportation and use of asbestos remains big business in Brazil, still the third-largest producer and fifth-biggest consumer in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey report. Although use of asbestos has declined because of her work, it continues to kill those around her as she advocates for a nationwide ban of the product.
Exposure to asbestos has been proven to cause a range of respiratory health problems, including mesothelioma. Asbestos-related health problems are responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths each year internationally, according to the World Health Organization.
Her work has been hailed by anti-asbestos groups but sharply criticized by those in Brazil who feel she has overstepped her bounds, that she is a walking conflict of interest.
One mining company in Brazil has gone to federal court, demanding she be prohibited from doing any governmental inspections of their operation. Another exporter has filed criminal charges against her for abusing her authority in stopping shipments. Both companies contend her personal work with advocacy groups should disqualify her from being objective in her governmental work.
“I help to enforce the law in my job,” Giannasi said. “I worry about my own health. After 30 years of being around the worst conditions, I am afraid of one day dying from mesothelioma.”
One doctor near her home refers to her as the “Brockovich of Brazil,” in reference to California whistle-blowing advocate Erin Brockovich, who helped stop the water contamination years ago by Pacific Gas and Electric, the inspiration for a blockbuster Hollywood movie about Brockovich.
Promising to Continue Fight against Exposure
She has lobbied across her country, before lawmakers and in factories, for the rights of workers to be protected on the job against asbestos exposure. She has toured industrial sites where asbestos hangs in the air.
She also has sat with dying mesothelioma patients and their families, promising her work would continue.
She has helped to organize anti-asbestos groups. She speaks at their rallies. Families call her asking for advice, informing her of a death caused by asbestos exposure.
At home, she has received love letters from children whose fathers have died from exposure to asbestos. She has received anonymous death threats in letters from others who support the asbestos industry.
She is outspoken, outgoing and outworking others in her field. Yet she also is thinking of retirement after close to 30 years in the field. She worries about who will replace her and who will have the commitment she has.
“I defend people who can’t defend themselves,” she said. “A lot of people are afraid to do what I do. A lot of people do not want this burden. It is too much for many. I worry about what will come next.”