Banned in 52 countries, asbestos is India’s next big killer

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By Murali Krishnan And Shantanu Guha Ray

EVERY DAY, the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea bring misery to Alang, the world’s largest shipbreaking yard in Gujarat. An estimated 55,000 workers, unmindful of the lethal effects of asbestos-laden material in the ships, slave for long hours and are exposed to its deadly fibres. The government is aware of the risks but loath to interfere: the men need jobs, and the Indian economy, among the world’s fastest-growing, needs secondary steel from the scrapped vessels. “Reclamation and recycling,” says Pravin Nagarsheth, president of the Iron Steel Scrap and Ship Breakers Association of India, “is a lucrative business.”

Breaking waves  Shipbreakers at Alang, Gujarat, are constantly exposed to asbestos poisoning
Breaking waves
Shipbreakers at Alang, Gujarat, are constantly exposed to asbestos poisoning
Photo: Bani

200 km north of Alang, hundreds of workers at dusty factories producing asbestos sheets used in construction in Ahmedabad face similar hazards in the name of economic development: lung cancer, asbestosis and malignancy, usually affecting the chest cavity, called mesothelioma. The two locales are centres of an emerging epidemic of asbestos- related diseases in India.

Valued for its resistance to heat and fire, asbestos was once widely used. Today, it is banned or restricted in 52 countries. It is banned entirely in the European Union (EU). In the US — where it is blamed for some 2,00,000 deaths and cost the industry $70 billion in damages and litigation costs — asbestos use is limited to a handful of products, such as automobile brakes and gaskets. But in India, it is booming. The country is now the world’s second largest asbestos market, behind only China, consuming nearly 3,50,000 tonnes in 2008. The industry generates more than $850 million a year in revenue, and directly employs 3,00,000 people. Indirectly, it supports as many as three million more. Backed by a powerful lobby, asbestos use in India has risen by 83 percent since 2004, according to government figures. Given evidence of poor workplace safety and weak regulations, such use could prove disastrous, say health experts. A study by two Delhi researchers suggests that by 2020, deaths from asbestos-related cancers could reach one million in developing countries. “The industry is using its clout to allow unrestrained growth,” says Barry Castleman, a USbased environmental consultant. “We can only expect untold numbers of preventable deaths to occur as a result.”

According to recent estimates by the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association (ACPMA), a New Delhibased industry organisation, the Indian asbestos market grew by more than 30 percent just in the past year, primarily because of demand in the country’s rural sector. “Despite asbestos being a health hazard, its market has grown because it serves the poor,” says Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). “And it is growing at a tremendous pace. So, nobody has the time for complaints.”

‘Despite asbestos being a health hazard, its market has grown because it serves the poor,’ says Krishna

A POTENT LOBBY In India, asbestos products carry no health warnings, and trade unions have no mandate to prevent asbestos-related diseases at workplaces. Although researchers around the world have linked lung cancer and other diseases with exposure to the widely used white (chrysotile) asbestos, the powerful ACPMA — funded by 12 companies as well as by the Canada-based Chrysotile Institute — concedes nothing. “That lung cancer deaths have been caused by asbestos fibre has not been proved in India,” argues John Nicodemus, the ACPMA’s executive director. “This is the job of groups like BANI. The state’s stand on asbestos is clear — it has yet to receive proof that the product is a hazard.”

Nicodemus refused to divulge details on the ACPMA’s funding. But senior government sources say it has received $50 million since its founding in 1985. A Modi, president of an asbestos company affiliated to the association, told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that ACPMA members contribute two to three percent of their revenue to the lobby group for “promotional activities in India that advertise promotions to counter baseless allegations by BANI, [and] legal and promotional activities that [are] mostly in rural India.” This means that at current exchange rates, the ACPMA receives about $8 million to $13 million per year.

Sources say it also spends significant amounts on lobbying and training — mostly in Canada and Russia — for its staffers. Its already sizeable budget is expected to increase as industry output grows — possibly to 6,00,000 metric tonnes a year — to meet demand for asbestos- sheet roofing in India’s villages.

The ACPMA’s lobbying activities were part of a detailed discussion on hazardous minerals during a spirited meeting at the Ministry of Mines in April, when demands for increased use of asbestos were opposed by a host of scientific and public-interest groups.

Deadly fibre  An asbestos mine near Udaipur, Rajasthan
Deadly fibre
An asbestos mine near Udaipur, Rajasthan
Photo: Bani

At the meeting, officials told ICIJ, representatives of BANI and the National Institute of Miners’ Health argued for an asbestos ban, and public health advocates produced global figures to argue their case. The industry officials replied that such figures did not reflect the state in India, where the chrysotile, used under ‘controlled conditions’, poses little risk. But controlled use is nearly impossible in developing countries where workplace and environmental standards are weak, experts say.

Most of the asbestos used in India comes from Russia or Canada. Despite the rapid increase in usage across India, little mention is made of the potential health effects of these imports. For example, a newly released Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) guidance manual for asbestos-based industries has no details about the alarming rise in asbestos- related diseases worldwide or countries that have banned the product.

Not surprisingly, the first official record on the dangers of asbestos was publicised only in 2008 when BANI’s Krishna, then a unknown activist, filed an RTI affidavit. But for the majority, knowledge about asbestos remains scarce.

THE CASE OF GUJARAT COMPOSITE 
The lack of official attention has dire consequences, health experts warn. At just one Ahmedabad company — Gujarat Composite Ltd (GCL) — at least 75 workers have been diagnosed with lung cancer in the past 10 years, out of a workforce of about 1,000, according to activists working on such diseases. At least 20 have died, they say. “No one listened to our complaints of breathing troubles and skin irritation,” rues Muthuswami Munian, who has suffered from the disease for nearly a decade. He and other sick workers say they were fired by the company and offered little compensation, prompting them to file a complaint with the local police over conditions at the company. Shorn of funds, they are dependent on monthly handouts by a few NGOs.

In Andhra, asbestos is being pushed by Vivekanand, MP, who controls 25 percent of India’s production

Officials of GCL are facing four criminal complaints brought by the state Labour and Employment Department in March this year, blaming them for lack of safety records, failure to conduct medical exams of workers, and refusal to provide inspectors with a registry of its workers. “There were no records kept of the fibers floating in the atmosphere,” reads one complaint. GCL officials declined repeated requests by ICIJ for an interview.

In 1997, a year after it acquired the factory, GCL began subcontracting to two private firms. “The saddest part of the story is that the state government knows what is happening, yet no action has been taken on them,” says Raghunath Manwar of the Ahmedabad-based Occupational Health and Safety Association, which advocates for asbestos victims.

NASCENT DEBATE 
Efforts to ban asbestos nationally have gone nowhere. The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2009 — introduced in the Rajya Sabha by the Congress’ Vijay Jawaharlal Darda — drew flak from influential Congress MP T Subbarami Reddy, an industrialist and chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, and Forests. The bill is pending in the Upper House, but observers give it little chance of passage.

In January 2009, the Kerala State Human Rights Commission prohibited the use of asbestos sheet roofing for school buildings. But elsewhere, asbestos is considered an essential for growth. In Andhra Pradesh, a pro-asbestos agenda is being pushed by MP Gaddam Vivekanand, who reportedly controls 25 percent of India’s asbestos production through seven factories across India. An eighth will open this year in Orissa.

Beneath the growing debate, lies the fact that India remains a country where an estimated 450 million people live below the poverty line. Here, the chances of factories maintaining proper safety and health standards may be dim indeed. Castleman, the environmental consultant, says it is reasonable to expect hundreds of thousands of asbestosrelated deaths before India reacts. “I’m hard-pressed to point to any sign of success that activists and public health people have had over there,” he says.

Asha Gupta, a lawyer who represents asbestos victims in Gujarat, says that at the least, companies need to provide safety gear to those working in such hazardous conditions. “Otherwise, workers will continue to fall sick and, eventually, die a slow, painful death.”

Abhishek Upadhyay contributed to this report

Dangers in the Dust is a joint project by the BBC’s International News Services and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Photo: Bani

muralikrishnan40@gmail.com,
shantanu.guharay@fwtehelka.com

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