Taking on Asbestos in Chile

Pizarreño is a very well-known roofing company in the cultural history of Chile. Similarly to how tissues are colloquially referred to as “Kleenex” in the United States, in Chile, roofs are referred to as “Pizarreños.”

What’s less well known? The impact the company has had on the health and lives of many Chileans.

Meet Adrian, a founder the Maipú, Chile-based advocacy group and Global Greengrants Fund grantee, Unidos Contra el Asbesto. In Adrian’s community alone, 350 people have died from asbestos poisoning – including his father and three uncles.

Adrian – one of the founders of Unidos Contra el Asbesto


When Pizarreño opened its doors in 1937, they sold local people “the dream” of owning a cement house, and many Chileans migrated from rural to urban areas to start working for what seemed like a positive, family-friendly company. What the company did not tell the workers is that their facilities were running rampant with asbestos – a deadly carcinogen whose health risks have been known in Chile since the 1950s. The workers were not equipped with the proper gear to operate safely under these conditions. Their children would play in and around bags of asbestos near the facility. And soon enough, Pizarreño had to send workers to a company-controlled healthcare facility due to a spike in lung cancer and asbestos-related illnesses – and many people died.


A traditional cement house in Maipú, Chile


Adrian was in law school when his father became sick, and at that point he promised him he would dedicate the rest of his life to fighting asbestos. He has been fighting hard indeed: in 2013 he filed his first labor suit and won, defending his neighbor, Ernesto, who is 25% disabled because of asbestos. Pizarreño immediately offered compensation which was the first time it had settled in 20 years, and since then, Unidos Contra el Asbesto has been involved in all lawsuits filed.


Railroad tracks running through Maipú


Today, the effects of this industrial contaminant and lack of corporate responsibility are still being felt across the country – 47% of roofs in the capital city of Santiago contain asbestos. And Pizarreño still operates with complete impunity due to government support.


The Pizarreño factory


While the situation in Chile is grim, there are brave people on the frontlines who are fighting every day for justice and a healthy environment free of contamination. In the face of this public health disaster, Adrian’s story is a glimmer of hope for Maipú’s future.

With Greengrants funding, Adrian’s organization Unidos Contra el Asbesto has worked tirelessly to prevent further asbestos-related deaths in the Maipú community. Every day, Unidos Contra el Asbesto advocates for reparations for asbestos victims such as cleaning and removal of asbestos from all dwellings, as well as free, high quality health services. They are currently working on a documentary, “Unbreathable.” Watch the trailer here.

The struggle for environmental health and social justice is happening worldwide. Unfortunately, the impact felt from companies like Pizarreño is far from unique, with similar stories of unknown asbestos exposure set across the globe. The resulting health effects can take shape in a variety of ways, one of the most severe being malignant mesothelioma. This rare cancer is caused by the inhalation or ingestion of asbestos fibers, leading to irritation and eventual cancer cell growth in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and heart. Mesothelioma has an especially poor prognosis due to its tendency to remain undetected until the cancer’s final stages. Despite bans on asbestos in over 60 countries, exposure to the toxin continues to be a global issue, resulting in an estimated 43,000 deaths each year from mesothelioma alone.

Do you know anyone who has been affected by asbestos? Check out US-based organization, the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, which is a resource for people impacted by cancer after asbestos exposure.

Global Greengrants Fund envisions a world where all people have access to healthy, clean, and safe communities and ecosystems for future generations. Clean air – and the ability to breathe easily – is a fundamental human right. We will continue investing in locally-led action to monitor the cleanup of environmental contaminants and hold polluting corporations accountable for their destructive actions. And we will continue to stand in solidarity with Unidos Contra el Asbesto, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, and communities worldwide in their struggle for environmental health and social justice.

Julia Woods

Julia Woods

Julia’s passion for environmental sustainability, human rights, and mission-driven organizations led her to Global Greengrants Fund in October 2016. Prior to joining the Greengrants team, Julia worked for a renewable energy cooperative and an education-focused nonprofit in Los Angeles. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Loyola Marymount University.