Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - XVII: White asbestos: Silent killer

By Gopal Krishna

Armed with all the facts on the harmful effects of asbestos on human health, and the knowledge that most countries worldwide have imposed a ban on the substance, India continues to import nearly Rs 230 crore worth of asbestos and consume over 125,000 million metric tonnes a year

Despite worldwide condemnation by oncologists and medical practitioners who have treated asbestosis, and condemnation by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), India continues to produce and import hundreds of tonnes of asbestos. Far from banning this dangerous material, the government has not even pushed for environment-friendly substitutes such as steel and clay. It would seem that our legislators wake up only to sudden deaths that involve large numbers, such as railway accidents or gas leaks. Asbestos, known as the 'silent killer' -- as it brings about a slow, painful death -- appears to be well entrenched in India. It is economical and, therefore, the choice of the poor.

The effects of asbestos

Asbestos is used in a variety of everyday as well as industrial applications. In India, it's used mainly for water pipes or as roofing sheets in the construction industry. One of the most common types of asbestos is white asbestos.

Asbestos in all its forms affects human health by causing lung cancer and diseases like asbestosis. Its effects are far-reaching, affecting everyone from the person mining it to the ultimate consumer. Asbestos dust may be inhaled while drilling a hole, cutting a pipe, repairing, renovating or demolishing a building. Worse, once a person is exposed to it, merely removing the victim from the site does not arrest either the progress of the disease or the risk of cancer. Clinical reports show that a sbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer can show up even 25-40 years after exposure to asbestos. These facts are seldom disclosed to workers in the asbestos industry.

Global reactions

Health statistics and the advise of the WHO and ILO have led governments across the developed world to recognise the hazards of asbestos and ban its use in their countries. July 26, 1999 signalled the end of asbestos use throughout member states of the European Union. Bans are already in place in more than 30 countries worldwide.

White asbestos was recently the subject of a trade dispute in which the World Trade Organisation (WTO) passed a judgement upholding France's decision to ban asbestos imports from Canada in the interests of public health. It said countries like Canada are "promoting occupational and environmental racism". 2003 saw the global movement against asbestos gaining ground. There is a consensus emerging to prohibit the use of this toxic fibre. The latest countries to ban asbestos are Japan and Australia. Japan's ministry of health, labour and welfare announced that asbestos would not be manufactured, imported, transferred, provided or used by the country starting October 1, 2004. Australia has banned all new uses of asbestos and materials containing asbestos, from December 31, 2003. It will now be illegal under the laws of each state and territory to use, re-use or sell any product containing asbestos, including automotive brake pads and gaskets. The same ban applies in the government sector, and it will be complemented by a customs regulation banning imports and exports.

Unmindful of the fact that 'p oison' does not become 'non-poisonous' as a result of advertising and public relations campaigns, the Government of Canada, in a December 8, 2003 press release, announced its continuing support for the safe and responsible use of chrysotile asbestos. It renewed its funding to the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute for the promotion of white asbestos in Canada and throughout the world. The Ministry of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the Canada Economic Development (CED) for Quebec Regions announced a contribution of $775,000 over a three-year period, to be administered by NRCan, for the promotion of asbestos.

The Indian situation

In India it's a different story altogether. According to data from the D irectorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, ministry of commerce , the country has imported nearly Rs 230 crore worth of asbestos during 2002-03. Canada, Russia and Zimbabwe continue to dump white asbestos into India, which consumes more than 125,000 million metric tonnes a year of the material. More than 95% of white asbestos is used annually to manufacture asbestos cement products. Although asbestos is being mined in areas already under lease, no new lease has been granted.

The Indian asbestos cement industry is a powerful lobby with an annual turnover of around Rs 2,000 crore.

While all forms of asbestos, except white asbestos, are banned in India, by and large, government policies promote the consumption of white asbestos. Over the last two years the asbestos industry has been claiming, through massive advertisement campaigns, that asbestos products are manufactured under strictly 'controlled' conditions. It would have us believe that it can control wind erosion and normal wear and tear.

On August 18, 2003, Union minister of health and family welfare, and parliamentary affairs, Sushma Swaraj said in the Rajya Sabha: "Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma." Although this clearly implies that asbestos is a health hazard, Indian government representatives, astonishingly, objected to the extension of prior informed consent to cover white asbestos, at the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva held on November 17-21, 2003. The reason: There is no substitute available. Canada and Russia led a revolt by asbestos-producing countries against the inclusion of white asbestos in the international list of chemicals subject to trade controls. This despite scientific findings that asbestos is harmful to human health and the environment. And in spite of clear obligations under the treaty for the listing.

The Indian government's stance at Geneva went against the interests of Indian workers and citizens. The government must learn from countries like the European Union, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, the Gambia, Congo, Egypt, Morocco and others, which support the listing of white asbestos to safeguard public health. There is enough evidence against the material. No further proof is needed in order to ban it.

Cellulose fibre, PVA fibre and steel are all substitutes for asbestos. Although expensive at first, they work out cheaper in the long run because of their long life. Apart from steel, clay, stone tiles or cement can be used for roofing.

What next?

Phased reduction and a ban on the mining and use of asbestos are imperative. If the government is really concerned about the health of its citizens it must approve alternatives to asbestos, especially for roofing. The Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) and Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council (BMTPC) must sensitise themselves to the health risks posed by asbestos sheets.

-- Gopal Krishna is with ToxicsLink, New Delhi

(InfoChange News & Features, January 2004)