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The Clemenceau

An old French warship, the Clemenceau, has been making a lot of people in India very angry. And this is neither because it is French nor because it is a warship, but because the ship contains asbestos, an extremely dangerous substance. The ship, now too old to be used in warfare, is making its last voyage to the shipyards of Gujarat where it will be dismantled and broken down so that its metal can be sold. This breaking down process will expose and release the asbestos, harming the workers who are doing the ship-breaking.

Many environmental and social organisations in India and abroad have tried to stop the Clemenceau from coming here, saying that Indian ship-breakers were not properly equipped to deal with asbestos. If the 27,000-tonne warship was to be broken down in France or some other developed country, the workers would receive proper tools to do the job, protective equipment and clothes to make sure they don’t get affected, and medical treatment to ensure their health was not being damaged.

In India none of this happens and workers could be dangerously exposed to asbestos. This lack of caring for workers is one of the reasons it is cheaper to break up the ship in India rather than in France. This is why many ship owners, including governments, send their ships here rather than do it at home. But it does mean that Indian workers may get incurably sick.

No one knows for sure how much asbestos the ship actually contains. The French government says just 45 tonnes of asbestos is left on the ship, the rest has been removed. But the company that helped partially get rid of the asbestos claims that there is still between 500 and 1,000 tonnes left.

Asbestos is considered so dangerous by some that the ship was actually stopped by the government of Egypt before it could pass through the Suez Canal for fear that it would contaminate the surrounding area. The ship had to wait three days before it was allowed to continue to India after assurances from the French government that it was indeed safe. In fact, international laws ban sending such dangerous waste to other countries. The Clemenceau is obviously a waste, a hazardous one at that, but the French government has gotten around these laws by claiming that the ship is not ‘waste’ but some kind of leftover ‘war material’.

What’s all the fuss about? Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral technically called ‘hydrous magnesium silicate’. It occurs in many forms and is mined from its deposits. Its usefulness stems from two properties: the mineral is made up of thin fibres and hence can be made into cloth or mats; secondly, it does not burn. Asbestos has been long used -- the ancient Egyptians used it to make burial cloth and it has been used in lamp wicks for centuries.

In modern times, when asbestos is used, the fibres are typically mixed with cement or woven into fabric or mats, which are thermally and electrically insulating as well as fire-resistant. Asbestos was used in buildings for these properties, but nowadays it is most commonly used in car brake linings and electrical fittings.

Asbestos was used a lot more until the last 20 years when it was discovered that, though useful, it is also extremely dangerous. Asbestos is made up of tiny fibres and the mineral itself crumbles very easily into these fibres which are then very easily breathed in. Most of the asbestos fibres that can be breathed in are so small that they cannot be seen without the use of a microscope. They are about 3.0-20.0 µm in length, but can even be 0.01 µm. Compare this to a human hair which is between 17 and 181 µm thick. One large asbestos fibre can break into hundreds of much thinner smaller fibres. The smaller they are the more dangerous they become since they can be more easily blown around and inhaled. The inhalation of these tiny asbestos fibres causes illnesses, the most serious of these are:

  • Mesothelioma -- cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal wall.
  • Lung cancer -- all types of asbestos can cause the disease. Smoking increases the chances of getting the disease.
  • Asbestosis -- a scarring of the lungs that causes them to work far less efficiently and make the sufferer unable to do much physical activity.
  • Stomach cancer.

One of the most worrying things about asbestos is that it has a latency period of 10-40 years, meaning that if you are exposed to it today, the disease could actually arise 10-40 years from now. There is no cure for asbestos diseases, but early identification can prevent further worsening of conditions. Those who get mesothelioma have a very low chance of surviving and 75% die within a year of it being discovered.

Since the recognition of its dangers, though not banned totally, over 40 countries have banned the use of asbestos. For example, the United States has banned all construction-related products that have an asbestos content of 1% or more.

There are three commonly used types of asbestos. There’s brown asbestos, which is mostly found in Africa. Blue asbestos, found in Africa and Australia, is commonly thought of as the most dangerous type of asbestos now but was used in many products until the early 1980s including asbestos cement sheets and pipes for building construction and for electrical, thermal and chemical insulation. Then there’s chrysotile, or white asbestos, which is found in Canada where it is extensively mined. It crumbles less than other types of asbestos and so some people consider it safer than the others.

White asbestos continues to be used in India although other kinds such as blue and brown asbestos are banned. Though there is some mining of asbestos in India, most of the asbestos used in the country is imported from Canada, which actively promotes its use.

The health hazard of asbestos has actually been known as far back as 1898, but it was officially recognised in 1918 when a US insurance company produced a study showing premature deaths in the asbestos industry in the United States. There, where the ill effects of asbestos have been most studied, asbestos was one of the first hazardous air pollutants controlled by law.

Asbestos-related diseases have become publicly well known because once they discovered how dangerous it was, sick workers in the US have been taking asbestos companies to court. Most asbestos companies actually went bankrupt and closed down because of the amount of money they had to pay to workers. The total number of American deaths related to asbestos range between 200,000 and 265,000. In the UK, over 3,000 people die every year from asbestos related diseases. Of course, there are many more deaths around the world, especially in developing countries. It’s just that they are not so well documented.

In countries like France, when a building containing asbestos has to be broken down or repaired, there are strict rules that have to be followed. Jobs that would normally take six months could take up to 10 years to put in place procedures so as not to expose workers and the general public to asbestos. Examples of such long asbestos-removal processes include the Jussieu Campus (started in 1996; work was still going on in 2005) and the Tour Montparnasse which will take 10 years to complete.

In any case, why should India take something that is considered unacceptable in France? The Indian government knows of the danger, since asbestos mining has been banned here on health grounds. Yet they are letting the Clemenceau in. The workers in the Indian ship-breaking industry are not as well protected as in France. Given the fact that breaking asbestos is probably the worst thing to do to it since this will release a lot of fibres in the form of asbestos dust (which is probably the easiest and hence deadliest way to inhale it), the ship is a ship of death.

-- Manoj Nadkarni

Kids For Change, February 2006

  The Clemenceau
  The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
  The right to information