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.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Asbestos time bomb is ticking away, nobody's listening

Government continues to turn a blind eye to the dangers of unrestricted use of asbestos, writes Sudhirendar Sharma

Ban Asbestos Network, a global toxic activists' coalition, has called upon the Conference of the Parties of the UN Rotterdam Convention, slated from October 27-31, 2008 at Rome, to bring asbestos under its list of hazardous products such that its trade can be curtailed to protect health of unsuspecting consumers from potential harm and to make national decision-making process on its import transparent.

The call is timely given the fact that the Indian asbestos-lobby, in connivance with its Canadian counterparts, has been consistently successful in blocking a UN move to impose health information disclosures on exports of chrysotile asbestos in the past. India is the largest importer of white asbestos, called chrysotile, a product that has not only been proven carcinogenic but has invited ban on its use in as many as 50 countries.

Yet, asbestos continues to be the cheapest roofing material for the poor in the country. However, its presence in our daily lives extends beyond corrugated sheets: As floor tiles, in brake linings and as fire protection. Shockingly, however, finely powdered asbestos has sneaked as adulterant in perfumed talc and as whitener in 'extra white basmati' rice. Without doubt, it is neither suited to the skin nor is it a delicacy!

Conversely, it is a time-bomb that is slowly ticking away. The problem with asbestos is that its fibre can hardly be destroyed, justifying its Greek derivation which means inextinguishable. It is therefore not surprising that while its selling is banned in Canada, it is the second largest exporter of asbestos after Russia. India consumes 30 per cent of asbestos exported by Canada, signifying a well-protected asbestos industry.

Else, a product banned in the European Union countries, Australia, Japan and New Zealand would not have been imported without impunity in India. Slashing of import duty on asbestos from 78 per cent in 1995 to 15 per cent in 2004 only helps piece the conspiracy story. No wonder, cumulative asbestos imports have touched a whopping 7 million tons, increasing from a low annual import of 40,000 tons in 1960 to over 250,000 tons in 2006.

Conservative estimates indicate that over 10,000 workers are exposed to asbestos at any given time; the absence of a national cancer register makes it impossible to assess real impact. However, testimonies of workers echo the unheard pains of thousands of workers at the unregulated asbestos industry. Ravindra Mohite is one amongst them who succumbed to asbestosis in 2004.

Mahite used to work at a Ghatkopar factor in north Mumbai, interweaving asbestos fiber with polyester to make it resistant at the cost of making himself vulnerable. Like 36 others, Mohite now awaits court’s direction on compensation from the factory. The grim reality of asbestos exposure is that while mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer have been recognized around the world these have rarely been reported in India.

Since occupational health is a neglected subject with students rarely having access to standard radiological plates, mandatory for asbestosis diagnosis, the disease rarely gets diagnosed, leaving the victims with no option but to die a slow and painful death. It is however another matter that the disease was known as early as in the first century AD to Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder.

While Gujarat is an asbestos hot spot, with ship-breaking and power plants its greatest consumers, Maharashtra is a veritable time bomb with scores of asbestos factories located at all the major industrial establishments of the state viz., Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, Kalyan, Nashik, Thane and Aurangabad. Without doubt, India has become the backyard of toxic dump by the industrialized west.

Need it be said that ineffective regulation on asbestos use and its illegal waste trade makes India vulnerable to a much larger and devastating epidemic. Because it can take 30 years or more for asbestos-related cancers to be fully blown, India faces an inevitable and sharp escalation in cancer cases over the next three decades. No one is safe!

That medical ignorance and government intransigence has allowed a time bomb to slowly tick in our backyards should be a matter of serious debate in the public. How long can the absence of a national cancer registry or a system to record asbestos cancers or asbestos exposures be allowed in the name of cheap roofing?

October 14. 2008
The Pioneer

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