Some of us are aware of the deadly diseases asbestos and any association with it brings. But yet another fact is the extent to which asbestos has been used in India and is continuously being used. Just before writing this blog, I googled asbestos and India and there is an alarming number of stories where people have become stars in the shooting arena and their practice ground was a factory with an asbestos roof or how thousands of students have been educated under an asbestos roof.
This only brings to my notice that how it is almost impossible to educate everyone at the same time especially when some officials and manufacturers are proud that they are bringing a roof to hundreds and thousands of people at a nominal price which is a very important thing in a country with a population like ours. Not that they have not been informed about this deadly mineral. But they think and want to believe that it is not as scary as it sounds. We wonder is it really nonchalance or the profits must be a real good margin.
The International Labor Organisation, World Health Organization, the wider medical community and more than 50 countries say that asbestos must be banned. Asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs and cause many diseases like mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer or the scarring of the lungs. The ILO estimates 100,000 people die every year from workplace exposure, and experts believe thousands more die from exposure outside the workplace.
But all is not lost. In a country like ours number is not only a disadvantage. In a small village in Bihar called Vaishali the first word about the dangers of asbestos came from chemistry and biology textbooks that a boy in a neighbouring town brought home from school, according to villagers interviewed by The Associated Press.
A company was proposing an asbestos plant in the village of 1,500 people located about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) east of New Delhi. The villagers worried that asbestos fibers could blow from the factory across their wheat, rice and potato fields and into their tiny mud-and-thatch homes. Their children, they said, could contract lung diseases most Indian doctors would never test for, let alone treat. Neither India nor any of its 29 states keep statistics on how many people might be affected by asbestos.
The people of Vaishali began protesting in January 2011. They objected that the structure would be closer to their homes than the legal limit of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Still, bricks were laid, temporary management offices were built and a hulking skeleton of steel beams went up across the tree-studded landscape.
The villagers circulated a petition demanding the factory be halted. But in December 2012, its permit was renewed, inciting more than 6,000 people from the region to rally on a main road, blocking traffic for 11 hours. They gave speeches and chanted “Asbestos causes cancer.”
Amid the chaos, a few dozen villagers took matters into their own hands, pulling down the partially built factory, brick by brick.
“It was a moment of desperation. No one was listening to us,” said a villager involved in the demolition, a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the company. “There was no other way for us to express our outrage.”
Within four hours, the factory and offices were demolished: bricks, beams, pipes and asbestos roofing, all torn down. The steel frame was the only remnant left standing.
“Still, we did not feel triumphant,” the teacher said. “We knew it wasn’t over.”
They were right. The company filed lawsuits, still pending, against several villagers, alleging vandalism and theft.
Far away in an air-conditioned hotel, people sipping tea with biscotti don’t know how it is embedded in almost everything. Not just in roofs but even within the same hotel buildings. Durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was long a favourite insulation material in the West, but has also been used in everything from shoes and dental fillings to fireproofing sprays, brake linings and ceiling tiles.
Most asbestos on the world market today comes from Russia. Brazil, Kazakhstan and China also export, though some have been reviewing their positions. Canada’s Quebec province was the world’s biggest asbestos producer for much of the 20th century. It got out of the business in 2012, after a new provincial government questioned why it was mining and exporting a material its own citizens shunned.
We are so amazed at the Canadian government for banning its export. And stunned at the same time how in India this mineral is banned from mining on health grounds but not banned from using it or even importing it.
Asia is the biggest market. India last year imported $235 million worth of the stuff, or about half of the global trade. The global asbestos lobby says the mineral has been unfairly maligned by Western nations that used it irresponsibly. It also says one of the six forms of asbestos is safe: chrysotile, or white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95 percent of all asbestos used since 1900, and all of what’s used today.
A vast majority of experts in science and medicine reject this. “A rigorous review of the epidemiological evidence confirms that all types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,” the Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology said in a 2012 position statement.
Squeezed out of the industrialised world, the asbestos industry is trying to build up new markets and has created lobbying organizations to help it sell asbestos to poor countries, particularly in Asia, it said.
Arun Saraf, the Indian asbestos association’s chairman, said India has learned from the West’s mistakes. He said the lobby’s 15 member companies maintain the strictest safety standards in their factories. That includes limiting airborne dust, properly disposing of waste and insisting employees wear safety masks, gloves and protective clothing. But on a surprise check, none of these hold true.
The vast majority of asbestos used in India is mixed with cement and poured into molds for corrugated roof sheets, wall panels or pipes. Fibers can be released when the sheets are sawed or hammered, and when wear and weather break them down. Scientists say those released fibers are just as dangerous as the raw mineral.
Indian customers like the asbestos sheets because they’re sturdy, heat resistant and quieter in the rain than tin or fiberglass. But most of all, they’re cheap.
Umesh Kumar, a roadside vendor in Bihar’s capital of Patna, sells precut 3-by-1 meter (10-by-3 foot) asbestos cement sheets for 600 rupees ($10) each. A tin or a fiberglass sheet of similar strength costs 800 rupees. “I’ve known it’s a health hazard for about 10 years, but what can we do? This is a country of poor people, and for less money they can have a roof over their heads,” Kumar said. “These people are not aware” of the health risks, he said. But as sellers of asbestos sheets wanting to stay in business, “we’re not able to tell them much.”
Research conducted around the world has not convinced some Indian officials, who say there is not enough evidence to prove a link between chrysotile and disease in India. Gopal Krishna, an activist with the Ban Asbestos India, calls this argument “ridiculous.” “Are they saying Indian people’s lungs are different than people’s in the West?”
The permit for the asbestos plant in Vaishali was canceled by Bihar’s chief minister last year after prolonged agitation, but some in his government still rejected that the mineral is hazardous.
Last year, an Indian delegation travelled to Geneva to join Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Zimbabwe and Vietnam in opposing the listing of chrysotile as a hazardous chemical under the international Rotterdam Convention, which governs the labeling and trade of dangerous chemicals. Without unanimous support among the convention’s 154 members, the effort to list chrysotile failed again.
An Indian Labor Ministry advisory committee set up in 2012 to give a recommendation on asbestos has yet to release a report. The Health Ministry has said asbestos is harmful, but that it has no power to do anything about it. The Environment Ministry continues to approve new factories even as it says asbestos may be phased out.
Some companies have begun to manufacture non-asbestos roofing material, some like EPSCO are trying our level best to educate people and get rid of this deadly mineral in the safest possible way and some small villages are trying their level best, but only an actual ban on the usage and import will benefit the entire country.