Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Asbestos Free India campaign of BANI is inspired by trade union movement and right to health campaign. BANI has been working since 2000. It works with peoples movements, doctors, researchers and activists besides trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Government Admits Collusion with Asbestos Industry

Under massive criticism from all quarters both Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Union Ministry of Labour & Employment informed Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha on that the government has undertaken a conflict of interest ridden study to give clean chit to chrysotile asbestos, a cancer causing mineral. Asbestos exposure causes incurable but preventable cancer to both workers and consumers.

Both Namo Narain Meena, Union Ministry of State for Environment and Forests and Oscar Fernandes, Minister of State for Labour and Employment (Independent Charge) acknowledged that “Out of a total of Rs. 59.66 lacs allocated for the study by Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, the Asbestos Cement Products Manufactures Association has contributed Rs. 16 lacs” on March 20, 2008 and March 17, 2008 respectively.

Ministry of Environment and Forests informed, “Since the NIOH study is still under progress, no report (based on it) was presented before the Chemical Review Committee of Rotterdam Convention held at Geneva during March, 10-13,2008.” Meena admitted, the “National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad has been entrusted with a study on environmental and health impacts of the usages of Chrysotile Asbestos with an objective to find out the concentration of asbestos fibres in the work zone and to assess the health status of the workers and the residents in the vicinity of the industry. The study is in progress in major Asbestos based products manufacturing units located in Kolkata, Silvasa, Vapi and Hyderabad.”

Fernandes said in a written reply, “A project titled: "A study of health hazards/environmental hazards resulting from the use of chrysotile asbestos in the country" is under way with National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad.” Earlier, an Objection Letter by Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) and Corporate Accountability Desk- The Other Media was sent to the Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilisers against because this study is crucial to India’s position on chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention and its domestic policy on the killer fiber.

The letter dated March 9, 2008 had pointed out that throughout the world, there is a growing consensus that exposure to all types of asbestos—including chrysotile—is fatal. This understanding is shared by the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, the International Programme on Chemical Safety, the European Union, the Collegium Ramazzini, the International Social Security Association, the World Trade Organisation, the International Commission on Occupational Health, the International Federation of Building and Woodworkers, the International Metalworker’s Federation and governments of over 40 countries and scores of independent scientists.

In such a backdrop, it was rather perplexing that the Ministry had decided to reinvent the wheel by conducting a new study rather than reviewing and taking into consideration the existing scientific evidences and credible opinions. As for the industry argument of “controlled use” and “how technology has made working conditions better”, these are myths long discredited by the scientific community across the globe and national governments.

In its 2001 verdict, Appellate Body of World Trade Organisation while upholding chrysotile asbestos ban in France (European Community) had soundly rejected the “controlled use” and safe use argument of the Canadian asbestos industry. In its 95th Session of the International Labour Conference on 14th June 2006, International Labour Organtisation adopted a resolution for the elimination of all forms of asbestos from future use as the only way forward for protecting workers. It passed this resolution “Considering that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a classification restated by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (a joint Programme of the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme)”.

The fact remains, without amendment in the existing Import Policy of Ministry of Commerce for chrysotile asbestos, the asbestos consumption pattern is unlikely to change. The Ministry had issued a Press Release in the matter WTO order against chrysotile asbestos and continues to promote exposure of Indian citizens while protecting the interest of the Russian and the Canadian asbestos industry.

The study underway that is meant to continue with asbestos trade is highly problematic on the following grounds:
1. Conflict of Interest: The study is being part sponsored by the asbestos industry, its representatives are also part of the review committee meetings.
2. Industry Consultation: In almost every meeting of the review committee, the conditionality for industry consultation prior to finalization of the study report is emphasized.
3. Doctoring of the report: A copy of the report on a study of Everest Industries obtained from NIOH showed “about 32% of the workers with impaired lung function. The major abnormality was restrictive type.”
4. Independent scientists, who had seen the NIOH survey of Everest Industries factory in Kolkata, had sent letters to the Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers in 2007 stating: “…the proposed NIOH studies will not achieve the objective of detecting the health effects of asbestos and are thus a waste of valuable resources. It is also my opinion that Indian workers are being needlessly exposed to asbestos and the only prudent solution is to ban its production and use.”
5. Industry Science: Not only is the industry being consulted on the study, it is also providing the science for it. There is no way of knowing the extent to which the industry data will be selective, and without knowing that it is impossible to confirm whether industry's input to the study will be truly representative of industry's actual experience and knowledge.
6. Moreover the scientific data being provided by the industry to the government is highly questionable. A case in point is the study - Understanding Chrysotile Asbestos: A New Perspective Based Upon Current Data by a freelance toxicologist Dr D.M. Bernstein. Dr Bernstein is known for doing “industry-sponsored science” and has often attended international scientific meetings to advocate the “innocence” of chrysotile.

This study will seal the fate of millions of workers handling this substance and will have far reaching implications on national public health. The only way forward is to ban the production and use of all forms of asbestos in the country and ensure that safe alternatives are put in place, which will address the issues of health, livelihood and economic implications of banning asbestos.

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