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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le cancer du bitume : en route vers un scandale

by Laurence Mauriaucourt

Asphalt Cancer: New Scandal Breaking

Occupational Disease

Translated Tuesday 29 March 2011, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Henry Crapo

A highway worker has died of skin cancer at age 56. Eurovia Co., which belongs to the Vinci group, has appealed the court ruling of an “inexcusable error.” The hearing was held in Lyons on Friday.

On May 10, 2010, the court for social security cases (TASS) in Bourg-en-Bresse found Eurovia, a subsidiary of the Vinci group, guilty of an “inexcusable error” following the death from skin cancer at age 56 of José-Francisco Serrano-Andrade, who had worked on the highways for 20 years, beginning in 1986.

His employer, Eurovia, continues to deny all responsibility. The appeals court hearing was held in Lyons on Friday, March 11. Splatters and vapors from burning-hot asphalt and liquefying additives, which at times force unprotected workers to wash themselves with fuel or white spirit, are held to be responsible. The exploitation at all costs of human beings by the big highway companies is on trial in full view of everyone.

The culture of the workers themselves, which includes fatalism about illness and early death and “fear of losing one’s job” is also being questioned, “thanks to the courage of one family” which is hailed by the CGT building trades federation. The CGT has come forward to bear witness at the trial “in the name of the collective interest” via its lawyer, Jean-Paul Teissonnière. In the asphalt trial, Teissonnière has come up against all of the ingredients found in the asbestos cases, in which he played a big role – the law of silence, scientific experts who are questionable and subjected to pressure, and the absence of official statistics.

“Profits first and foremost”

At the witness box, Eurovia’s lawyers, Mr. Dana and Mr. Dremaux, notably orient the debate exclusively around the “natural risks” due to exposure to the sun or incurred off the job, since “the company furnished a helmet to Mr. Serrano!” – whereas his cancer has been recognized as an “occupational disease” by the social security administration.

But the argument that Mr. Serrano did not come into direct contact with asphalt and that he only worked “intermittently” does not bear up in the presence of Mr. Serrano’s widow and three children. Every day, this husband and father, who left Portugal with his family to find work, manipulated a nozzle or a filling valve on a machine, which were located exactly at face level, working up to 13 consecutive hours.

For his part, the lawyer for the family, Mr. Jean-Jacques Rinck, identifies this case as “in line with the course of history.” On the one hand, “profits first and foremost,” on the other “the [absence of] individual protection of those who generate those profits,” by doing “thankless, dangerous and extremely hard jobs.”

According to the CGT, 85,000 workers are concerned in France. Denouncing the withholding of information on the chemical and petroleum-based products that are used on the highways, the lawyer repeats that “the social, political and financial stakes are very high.” And he persists, saying: “The employer has failed in his on-the-job health and safety obligations.” This, all the more so as the occupational doctor himself had recommended that the company not have Mr. Serrano work around asphalt.

The court decision is to be handed down on May 10, 2011. Other victims of asphalt are now coming forward and suits for “poisoning” have been filed in the criminal courts.

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