Hit by international and domestic reports that asbestos can pose huge public health risk, the Environment ministry has sought an explanation from the Bihar government for allowing such plants in poverty-hit Muzaffarnagar district in north part of the state. Bihar government has given permission for setting up as many as 12 plants for manufacturing asbestos laden cement roofing sheets, whose demand has increase phenomenally in Bihar in recent years.
The plants based on Chrysotile - the chemical name for white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95% of the present world trade in asbestos -- has resulted in stiff resistance from locals because of its possible health impact.
While the locals have been petitioning environment minister Jairam Ramesh since May 2010, he has apparently acted on view of health experts who said that white asbestos in any form could be carcinogenic and as many as 54 countries have banned the asbestos among Indian states, Kerala has banned use of asbestos in school buildings.
But, Bihar allowed the plants as part of its industry-friendly policy to attract investments.
Ramesh on Tuesday confirmed that explanation has been sought but refused to divulge the details.
"Asbestos is a highly hazardous material to human health and both - occupational as well as non-occupational exposures -- are associated with mesothelioma and other malignancies among humans," said Sanjay Chaturvedi, head of Department of Community Medicine, Faculty of Medical Science in the Delhi University.
He was one of the experts whose opinion was a reaction for ministry's action. The minister had also examined a recent study by Lancet report, which quoted a World Health Organisation report to say that 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos risk.
In the past, Ramesh has banned asbestos laden US ship to come to Alang but the government has failed to declare a national policy on asbestos in absence of a comprehensive scientific study on its impact.
The Ahmedabad based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) has been asked to conduct a study on environment and health impacts of asbestos in the work zone and assess its impact on workers and those living in the vicinity. The institute is yet to submit its report even though officially the ministry has described asbestos as "safe".
Mining asbestos in India is banned but its use in manufacturing sector is allowed. Most of raw asbestos is imported from Russia and Canada.