Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) works for Asbestos Free India inspired by trade union leader Purnendu Majumadar. Occupational Health India and ToxicsWatch Alliance are its members that includes doctors, researchers and activists. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims. It works with trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. For Details:firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Human Cost of Asbestos Use in Construction Industry
A February 2008 Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) survey that tracks and records the performance of the manufacturing sector, rated asbestos cement in the high growth category among others. What is not being recorded is the high growth rate of asbestos victims. This is being done in a studied manner as a classic case of Ostrich policy amid reports of 10, 000 asbestos deaths per year in US (approx 30 deaths pr day).
As per data released by UN Statistics Division, India imported about 306,000 MT of asbestos in 2006. Of which 152, 820 MT was imported from Russia and 63, 980 MT from Canada. This trend got a boost from Union Finance Minister, P Chidambaram who announced a 15% reduction on custom duties for asbestos in his previous Budget speech. This time around will the Finance Minister undo his wrongs?
The rising consumption is a joint result of Finance Ministry’s support and a Made-to-order science that gets exposed by the documents that shows how the Union Ministry of Chemicals, acting in collusion with the asbestos industry, is manufacturing science to back its pre-determined position to fight global regulation on the killer fibre by reiterating that 'controlled and safe use' of white asbestos is acceptable both to the white asbestos industry and the Indian government.
It is noteworthy that the Union Health Ministry has informed the Parliament in the past that: "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." But it has now emerged that the asbestos cement industry is the largest user of asbestos in India, which is funding NIOH, the only government agency that is empowered to certify asbestos diseases.
Acknowledging the hazards from asbestos, Anbumani Ramadoss, Union Health Minister informed the parliament recently saying, "…regarding asbestos, a lot of poor people use it. As regards the issue pertaining to banning of asbestos, as a health issue, the Government certainly has not taken it up. It is an occupational hazard and people working in the asbestos factories are prone to lung cancer, but we are taking the enormity of the usage of asbestos. Mostly, poor people in the villages use it. Hence, I cannot take a decision on this issue." The enormity of usage is no excuse to expose Indian workers and citizens to this deadly fiber. Without amendment in the existing Import Policy by the Union Ministry of Commerce & Industry for white asbestos, the current asbestos consumption pattern that is fraught with disastrous consequences is unlikely to change.
Following a Supreme Court order, the Union Ministry of Labour constituted a Special Committee under Chairmanship of S K Saxena, Director General, Directorate of General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institute (DGFASLI) on the issue of medical benefits and compensation to workers affected by handling of hazardous waste, toxic in nature. The Saxena Committee's report mentions lung cancer and mesothelioma caused by asbestos in all work involving exposure to the risk concerned. The same DGFASLI organized a national seminar on hazards of asbestos in general and “Hazards of Asbestos in Construction Industry” in particular in March, 2006. The seminar was noteworthy for its consistent but discredited submissions about the mythical safe and controlled use of asbestos. In the studies conducted by DGFASLI, Ministry of Labour there are no cases of asbestos related diseases detected in industry at time when asbestos epidemic is hogging headlines in countries like US and Europe!
It is obvious from the industry documents that the prices of substitute products and good relations between the chrysotile asbestos fiber suppliers to India like Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Brazil continue to provide an economic rationale for use of asbestos fibers. The suppliers have obviated any uncertainty and ensured reasonable stability of its prices to this end and the political decision makers have consistently provided economic incentives to asbestos and asbestos products deprived the substitute products of even a level playing field. The companies involved in the trade and manufacture of asbestos products continue to expand and explore possibilities of establishing new plants at different locations in the country.
In keeping with the good relations between the government and industry the "Public Private Partnership in India" program of Indian Ministry of Finance, asbestos products manufacturers are listed as their key players.
The political patronage resulting from a quid pro quo given the fact that political parties in India do not get state funding for their activities has led to the emergence of asbestos plants in hitherto unexplored areas like Jaunpur in Uttar Pardesh, Mahuwej in Gujarat, Kymore in Madhya Pradesh, Kaladera in Rajasthan, Rewari in Haryana, Mohali in Punjab, Pune in Maharasthra and at several other locations in other states. The industry is likely to see an accelerated growth due to the government’s thrust on the rural housing and sanitation although perceived risk of asbestos is quite wide spread.
Government agencies and decision makers are fully conscious of the risks of asbestos exposure. The good relations between the government, manufacturers and asbestos suppliers in the absence of potent political opposition are quit evident. The perceived opposition to the status quo is coming from the left parties that are ruling in states of West Bengal, Kerela and Tripura besides supporting the ruling alliance from outside at the central level. Their compulsion in not banning asbestos in the states where they are in power and in not using sufficient persuasion towards the central government to do so is puzzling.
The link between chrysotile asbestos companies, Indian government’s asbestos policy and collaboration between government and industry in matters of asbestos research is quite visible. The government seems to be following the policy of “kill the people, protect the industry”. On its front page, The Times of India (21 Jun 2007) reported “Asbestos lobby to study health hazards” illustrating the incestuous relation between the industry, ministry and the only research institute that has the power to certify cases of asbestos victims.
Of late, it has become quite explicit that NIOH, a key scientific establishment has unequivocally taken a pro-white asbestos position unmindful of glaring evidences.
Keeping with this trend Indian government has done a volte-face by signaling its plans to lift the present ban on mining of asbestos of all kinds. On November 27, 2007, Union Minister of State for Mines, Dr. T. Subbarami Reddy informed the Lok Sabha, "A study has been conducted by the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) regarding the likely effects on the health of the labourers engaged in the mining of asbestos. The Study recommended imposition of safeguards on pollution level in work environment and other remedial measures." Dr. Reddy in a written reply said, "Recommendations of the Study have been examined in consultation with all stake holders. Some stakeholders have suggested that asbestos mining can be permitted with appropriate safeguards. At present the ban on mining of asbestos has not been lifted."
This is a culmination of a debate that began in 1998 when the Union Ministry of Mines and Minerals asked the IBM to assess the feasibility of lifting the ban on expansion of asbestos mining after assessing pollution levels in asbestos mines and processing plants in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. Indian government’s position is dependent on Russian Federation and Canada who inappropriately cite the Asbestos Convention of 1986 adopted by International Labour Organisation (ILO) feigning insincere ignorance about the June 14, 2006 resolution of ILO that called for the elimination of asbestos.
The manifest support the asbestos industry appears to enjoy from the ruling left front supported United Progressive Alliance (UPA) quite like the previous government of Bhartiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) seems illustrative of an unhealthy political consensus.
All this is happening as part of policy campaign by the industry to re-write science by attempting to discredit the past research done by the leading scientific institutes that continues to contradict the government's push to lift the ban and continue its use.
Dr Qamar Rahman, a senior scientist formerly with ITRC, and Dean, Research & Development, Integral University, Lucknow who did the research says that on the basis of the report and recent studies conducted in the milling units, the ban on asbestos mining should not be lifted. She notes that mining and processing are the part of each other and conditions need to be improved at both the places simultaneously. "In the milling or grinding area fibre concentration is very high, workers do not use gloves, masks and protective clothing. They use primitive manual way for grinding," she says, alarmingly. The housekeeping in the units are also very bad. At the moment unauthorised mining of asbestos is going on in Rajasthan and workers are heavily exposed. If the ban will be lifted conditions will further deteriorate. Keeping in view the above facts the ban on asbestos mining should not be lifted," wrote Dr Rahman in her comments to the central government on a report regarding lifting the ban on asbestos mining.
The government chooses to ignore such suggestions in the same way as it has ignored the plight of victims of white asbestos mines in Roro Hills, Chaibasa, Jharkhand abandoned by Hyderabad Asbestos Cement Products Limited (now known as Hyderabad Industries Limited). Union Ministry of Mines and Minerals is all set to lift the existing ban on asbestos mining. It is ignoring the views of exposure victims, informed recommendations of public sector medical experts, and mounting evidence of an asbestos disease epidemic emerging in developed countries. The rationale to permit mining is hollow.
White asbestos mining is currently banned in India, its import, export or use in manufacturing is permitted. Although Centre of Indian Trade Union and All India Trade Union Congress have called for ban on asbestos and have also written to the Prime Minister. It is not difficult to comprehend as to why the entire political establishment wears blinkers when it comes to acknowledging the fact that currently some 45 countries including Europe have banned all forms of asbestos including chrysotile (white asbestos) due to health hazards. With asbestos firms being owned by politicians or the state itself, the government seems to be following a classic ostrich policy. The reality is that the country's most powerful parliamentarians bless the asbestos industry.
"Research has found that needle-like crystals permanently penetrate the lung tissue when dust-sized particles of asbestos are inhaled. The crystals can eventually cause scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, and can cause cancer of the lining of the lung, called mesothelioma. Both diseases are incurable and terminal." In such a situation it is inexplicable as why discredited and false claims of 'safe use' of asbestos by the industry is being parroted by Namo Narain Meena, the Minister of State for Environment saying, "No complaints have so far been received regarding its carcinogenic content and its hazard to health and environment." This is stark contrast to Ministry' own admission in the Supreme Court that 16 % of the workers exposed are suffering from asbestos related diseases.
Such stances betray the fact that the UPA government supported by left parties have succumbed to pressures from asbestos industry comprising of Visaka Industries, Hyderabad Industries Limited, Ramco Industries Limited, Utkal Industries Ltd, Everest Industries Ltd, New Sahyadri Industries Ltd, U P Asbestos Ltd, Tamil Nadu Cements Corporation Limited, Kerala Asbestos Cement pipe Factory Limited, Sturdy Industries Ltd, Shakti Roofings Ltd, Assam Roofing Ltd, A Infrastructure Ltd. and others who have been lobbying with the help of Chrysotile Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers' Association, a corporate NGO and Asbestos Information Centre, a corporate NGO both are affiliated to multinational asbestos producers through International Chrysotile Association.
Asbestos, asbestos everywhere
In India, asbestos is used in construction industry in industrial buildings of all types, food storage godowns, warehouses and cold storage godowns, poultry farms, dairy farms, houses, garages, school buildings, public utility sheds, cooling towers, railways and bus stops and in coastal & hilly areas for houses, etc. India comprises of twenty-eight states and seven union territories. The states and territories are themselves further subdivided into 604 districts. The asbestos industry in India is spread over in about 15 states. In India, asbestos occurs in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Manipur. The state of Rajasthan has the world’s largest asbestos deposits of amphibole mostly tremolite. There are some states, for instance Assam, UP, and Tamil Nadu, where the state governments run asbestos factory units.
Doctoring asbestos study to promote its use
Documents unearthed under the Right to Information Act reveals how the industry added Rs. 16 lakhs to the Government's Rs. 44 lakhs to commission a study by National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) to "specifically indicate how technology has made working conditions [in asbestos factories] better." The Industry-Ministry study is titled Implementation of Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedures - Study of Health Hazards/ Environment Hazards Resulting from the Use of Chrysotile Variety of Asbestos in the Country. Chrysotile is popularly known as white asbestos.
It is noteworthy that the information gained using Canadian Right to Information corroborates the same. The Information Commissioner of Canada informed, “Canada is working with other countries to promote chrysotile asbestos. The Indian government has worked diligently in cooperation with the Indian Asbestos Information Centre (AIC) and the Canadian Asbestos Institute.” Canadian High Commission in India says, “A ruling which states that subjecting a worker to asbestos is a violation of human rights could have far reaching consequences whether or not it is binding". It is noteworthy that Indian Government consults and trusts this very AIC in matters related to continued use of chrysotile.
Manufacturing India’s position for the next UN Rotterdam Convention Meeting
This study that has now been exposed through the Right to Information Act is supposed to be presented at the next meeting of the Chemical Review Committee of the Rotterdam Convention in March 2008 to rationalize its third veto against the UN action on white asbestos. It will also form the basis for India's domestic policy on continued use of asbestos.
The next conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention will be held from 27 to 31 October 2008 in Rome. Chrysotile asbestos will be on the agenda of Fourth Conference of Parties (COP-4) as was agreed at COP-3. This treaty that is a result the efforts of United Nations came into force in February 2004. The text of the Convention was adopted in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Indian government irrespective of the ruling party has consistently colluded with asbestos interests.
The COP-3 of Rotterdam Convention held in Geneva, Switzerland in October 2006 failed to bring Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Treaty to apply to chrysotile (white asbestos), a known human carcinogen that represents 94 per cent of world’s asbestos. The Indian delegation comprised of Brig. A K Sethi, Executive Director of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association making Indian delegation, the only one with industry representatives sitting with the official delegation.
Although 95 per cent of the countries sought its inclusion, the COP-3 failed to list this and the decision to include it has been proposed in COP-4 in 2008. The Indian delegation has consistently argued that the science behind the recommendation to list chrysotile asbestos was not categorical. It claimed that India was in the process of studying on the hazards of pure chrysotile.
The minutes of the Review Committee obtained recently through Right to Information Act dated 19 December, 2006 reads: "The report will be finalised after due discussions with the asbestos industry." Another meeting minutes dated 18 April, 2007 reports that "...the results of the study which was underway could not be shared [with public] till the same was finalised." Clearly, a scientific study that is finalised after discussion with the corporate interests is grossly conflict of interest ridden and deserves to be scrapped.
Out of several million workers exposed to asbestos in India, less than 30 have been compensated so far. The reasons for such a small number are: refusal by management sponsored studies to grant medical certifications to workers suffering from occupational diseases, lack of training for doctors in diagnosis of occupational lung diseases, deliberate misdiagnosis by doctors of asbestosis as either chronic bronchitis or tuberculosis and the inherent class bias of middle class doctors against workers.
Meanwhile, the asbestos roofs in the national capital at the New Delhi Railway Station are being dismantled indiscriminately and new alternate roofs being constructed in an effort to make New Delhi, India first asbestos free railway platform. One can see pieces of asbestos strewn around. This underlines that while ban on asbestos is a must, safe removal of asbestos from buildings and other places would be long drawn and arduous process besides the compensation and rehabilitation of asbestos victims.
Declaration from the Building and Woodworkers International Asbestos
Conference, made in Vienna, February 2008
The Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) International Asbestos Conference
in Vienna in February 2008, attended by representatives from Construction Trade Unions
from 33 countries, the International Union of Building and Wood Workers (UITBB), the
International Social Security Association, the International Association of Labour
Inspectors and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, issue the following declaration.
The organisations represented at the Vienna Conference are committed to promote the
global ban of all forms of asbestos from the construction industry and from all other
industrial sectors; to promote the effective regulation of work with in -situ asbestos in demolition, conversion, renovation and maintenance works by law; to work for the
elimination of diseases caused by asbestos; to promote social justice for those affected by asbestos.
• All forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human
carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and by the
International Programme for Chemical Safety, and recognised as such by the
international scientific community;
• 90% of all asbestos produced is chrysotile
• 90% of chrysotile asbestos is used in asbestos cement materials;
• At least 100, 000 workers die every year from diseases caused by exposure to
• It has taken three decades of efforts and the emergence of suitable alternatives for a comprehensive ban on the manufacture and use of asbestos and asbestoscontaining
products to be adopted in more than forty countries. Furthermore that these countries now permit the handling of in situ asbestos only during asbestos removal, demolition, renovation and maintenance work carried out under strictly controlled working conditions;
• The most pressing concern is the situation concerning asbestos in the developing
world with increasing consumption of chrysotile and weak regulatory and
protection systems. The organisations represented at the Vienna conference call upon the governments and social partners of all countries to:
• Take immediate steps to develop National Action Programmes for the Elimination
of Asbestos Related Diseases, following the guidance of the International Labour
Office and the World Health Organisation
• Take immediate steps to ban all mining, manufacture, recycling and use of all
forms of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials as soon as possible.
• Undertake and support all measures intended to eliminate asbestos and asbestos-
containing products from the economic cycle and to replace asbestos with less
• To protect employment of those currently employed in the asbestos cement sector
through efficient reconversion of the industry
• Make the protection of workers against asbestos exposure a priority through
Trade Union representation in the building sector and through effective public
• Ratify and implement the provisions of ILO Convention 162 (1986), Safety in the
Use of Asbestos, and to implement the provisions of its accompanying
Recommendation 172 as a minimum standard not to be fallen below.
• Ensure proper compensation, medical treatment and support for the victims of
asbestos related diseases
• Carry out an extensive mapping and registration of asbestos in buildings, trains,
ships, water pipes with a view to prevention of exposure and the eventual
• Put in place an information plan targeted in particular at younger and migrant
construction workers, about handling of asbestos
• Increase pressure on the countries producing and exporting asbestos – namely
Canada, Russia, Khazakstan, China and Brazil.
The signatories to this declaration commit themselves to a thoroughgoing campaign to
implement the objectives outlined herein.
7th February, 2008
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