Sebastiao has to speak quickly to maximise the use of the air he can still get into his shrivelled lungs. "I can speak if I take regular stops, but I can't talk for long," he explains.

He shakes my hand but there is not much force left in his grip. Sebastiao is dying and he knows it. Now 67, he has spent the past 45 days in Sao Paulo's Clinicas hospital.

"Today I've eaten half an apple and taken my medicine. I feel terrible. I can't breathe," he tells his wife, Irene, who travels four hours every day to be by his bedside.

His steely black eyes flash with anger. "You get a tumour in your lungs. First the left one, then the right. They never warned me. Never warned me," he says.

Landmark ruling

"They" are the company Brasilit, owned by French multinational Saint-Gobain, and Sebastiao is a victim of asbestosis, the disease caused by the toxic fibres blocking his lungs.

Sebastiao's wife Irene commutes
four hours every day to see him

He was a bandeira, a leader or "flag-waver", for a generation of workers who have fought a decade-long battle to bring a class action against their former negligent employers. Saint-Gobain employs 173,000 workers in 47 countries and has been operating in Brazil since 1937.

Finally in August this year Judge Teresa Rodrigues dos Santos made an unprecedented ruling that the company Eternit, also owned by Saint-Gobain until December 2003, would have to compensate the 2500 claimants by up to $160 million. The payments will be a lifetime pension and a lumpsum for moral damages.

Asbestosis can take 30 to 40 years to appear and kill. Many of those who brought the action were first contacted at the funerals of others. The legal wheels are still turning for the claims against Brasilit.

Safety adviser

The victory comes hard on the heels of Pfizer, the world's largest drug maker, agreeing to a payout of $430 million for victims of a subsidiary, Quigley, which sold products that contained asbestos in the 1970s. But it still only equates to a few thousand dollars for the 171,611 named in the lawsuit.

Families of victims march outside
Santa Marina facility in Sao Paulo

Sebastiao had always been a man of responsibility. He was once a health and safety adviser to his fellow workers and had done a course at the plant, but he says they never told him about the dangers. He became a founding member of Abrea, the victims' association.

France banned asbestos in 1997 and all production stopped. Annie Thebaud-Mony is a member of the international Ban Asbestos Network and France's National Association for the Defence of Asbestos Victims.

"We still don't have real prevention against places that still have asbestos," she says.

"There's a regulation of just a small part. We have more than 1300 cases known each year of cancers caused by asbestos, but the real figure is more like 3000.

The cases hinge on "indisputable proof" of the illness being caused by just asbestos, which is difficult to prove. So only 2000 of these cases have been successful in five years.

Risks hidden

"Saint-Gobain say that they never knew the risks during the 60s, 70s and 80s which is crazy when you know the situation in Brazil because at the same time that they say they didn't know the risk in France they were producing in Brazil," Thebaud-Mony said.

Fernanda Giannasi: The problem
is finally being taken seriously

"All the meetings of the asbestos industry at the international level already had hidden the risks and effects of asbestos. At the beginning of the 1970s at a conference in London, some of the medical workers in France in the 1950s said that the companies knew everything," she said.

Fernanda Giannasi, 46, has worked at the Brazilian ministry of employment for 21 years and gained international fame after waging a fierce campaign to ban the toxic substance.

"We had more than 4000 cases in the last seven years," she said.

"There's been some small individual success but with meagre compensation. This has never happened before and a judgment so fast for our first class action means that, for the first time, the problem of asbestos is being taken seriously.

"This is an action which recognises victims and condemns the company," she said.

Barbeque parties

More than 3000 products contain asbestos from roofing and insulation to children's toys and wax crayons.

To ban asbestos would bring huge unemployment to states such as Goias, where 200,000 people are involved in the production chain. Exports are worth in excess of $30 million to Brazil every year.

"We still don't have real prevention against places that still have asbestos. There's a regulation of just a
small part"

Annie Thebaud-Mony,
member, Ban Asbestos Network

The companies had profits when the workers were healthy and now they are trying to continue earning profits when they are sick.

They started in 1997 to offer barbeque parties for the victims in Brazil and their families, began providing Christmas baskets, and re-opened a former employees' club for social activities, according to Giannasi.

Eternit said it contested the numbers of workers who had been contaminated with asbestos. "We don't accept that there are 2500 "beneficiaries", much less than there have been 80 deaths as Abrea contest," said Elio Martins, president of Eternit.

Meanwhile, Sebastiao lies in a hospital bed hoping that what happened to him will be not happen to a single other person  again.