Fibres of misinformation
In the second article on Asbestos, Toxics Link reports on an upsurge in the Asbestos Industry's misinformation campaign in media and in Parliament.
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December 2002 - Even as a campaign for banning asbestos in India is gaining ground, the situation in Parliament indicates just how much more informed engagement is necessary between government, civil society groups and the industry before the wheel begins to turn. Suresh Ramrao Jadhav asked the following question in Parliament in May 2002: "Whether the Government proposes to shut down asbestos sheets manufacturing units in India as it can cause lung cancer to the workers exposed to it." Dr. Raman Singh, Minister of State in Ministry of Commerce and Industry answered: "There is no conclusive scientific evidence on harmful effects of asbestos. The units manufacturing asbestos have to follow BIS prescribed safety norms to protect workers against harmful effects of asbestos. Therefore, it is not desirable to ban production of these sheets."

"No conclusive scientific evidence." That's the direction governance is coming from.

Courtesy Toxics Link. 
A women worker in an Asbestos mill. Workers are directly exposed to all the asbestos dust in milling units. A women worker in an Asbestos mill. Workers are directly exposed to all the asbestos dust in milling units. Picture Courtesy: Toxics Link.

For its part, the asbestos industry has mislead both the houses of parliament on three occasions. It is evening attempting to manipulate public opinion. An advertisement in a recent issue of India Today that says, "Chrysotile Asbestos is a magic mineral". This is misinformation. The Chrysotile Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers' Association (CACPMA), which has launched this misinformation campaign, is an association of 14 large manufacturing companies. The advertisements wrongly claims that, "In a country like India various types of roofing is used by the underprivileged, comprising 80 per cent of the population who cannot afford concrete constructions. The most economical roofing available for the poor is chrysotile asbestos cement sheet". Asbestos is presently being used in a large-scale manner in consumer products, particularly in products used in public utility service including roofing sheets, pipes for water supply, pipes for soil, rain water and ventilation and brake linings. But according to occupational health expert, Dr T K Joshi, "Even a single fibre, on reaching the right place in a cell can cause irreversible damage - leading to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma."

According to a paper entitled: Present Status of Asbestos Mining and Related Health Problems in India - A Survey by AL Ramanathan and V Subramanian which was published in the Industrial Health Journal in 2000, imported asbestos is widely used in India: "In India raw material asbestos is received from Canada without any warning and India sends back the finished product to them along with a warning. In India workers slice open the bags of Canadian asbestos with knives, then shaking the bags into troughs and mixing it with cement to make piping. Here the unprotected workers are completely covered in asbestos dust, where precautions are absolutely not in place."

Elsewhere in the world, over thirty countries have already banned asbestos. Even World Trade Organisation (WTO) has given an adverse judgment against its use. The European Union has had a directive is in effect from October 1999 prohibiting the use of asbestos. There is not question of lack of availability of safer alternatives. In most cases it is practicable to use natural or man-made alternatives to asbestos. The world over, countries are replacing asbestos with glass fibre, carbon fibre, cotton, organic fibre, man-made mineral fibres and particulate mineral fillers, poly vinyl alcohol, cellulose, paramid fibres. Developing countries like India are the dumping ground of asbestos from countries like Russia and Canada even as Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) is spearheading a campaign to get asbestos banned all over the country.

Calculations by the International Labor Organization (ILO) present an appalling picture of the global asbestos tragedy. The ILO's statistics were presented by Dr Jukla Takala, ILO's Director of the ILO's In Focus Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (Safework), at the XVIth World Congress on Occupational Safety and Health at Work which was held in Vienna, Austria on May 26-31, 2002. "According to the ILO figures, the biggest killer in the workplace is cancer, causing roughly 640,000 or 32 per cent of deaths, followed by circulatory disease at 23 per cent, then accidents at 19 per cent and communicable diseases at 17 per cent." Asbestos alone, the report says, "takes some 100,000 lives annually." More cause for concern is that the ILO's calculations have been based on working conditions in Finland, where there some form of control has been in place for decades. Countries like India have rampant misuse of asbestos and exposures experienced by the population What's more is that these figures does not include thousands of people disabled and killed by asbestosis, another asbestos-related disease.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which funds several projects in India, has called for global trade restrictions on the sale of all forms of asbestos. On 21 February, 2002 an announcement was made saying: "All forms of asbestos should be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls." This decision follows a review of asbestos which had been triggered by unilateral bans adopted by the EU and Chile. The Chairman of the Interim Chemical Review Committee (ICRC) Reiner Arndt of Germany said: "Even in countries like mine, where these products have been banned for a long time, they remain a major problem when decontaminating buildings and paying the huge costs of treating people with serious diseases caused by asbestos." Deliberations in Europe have been taking place within the framework of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade.

The World Bank has had a policy against asbestos since 1991, says Barry Castleman, an internationally acclaimed asbestos lawyer. Quoting from WB documentation: "The Bank increasingly prefers to avoid financing asbestos use...Thus, at any mention of asbestos in Bank-assisted projects, the Task Manager needs to exercise special care." The guideline does go on to allow for the possibility that waivers (exceptions); nevertheless, the policy stands.

Clearly the Ban Asbestos campaign in India has a challenge on its hands.

Toxics Link
December 2002

This article is made available on India Together by arrangement with Toxics Link, New Delhi. Toxics Link, H-2 Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110 014. Tel: +91 11 4328006/0711. Detailed references used for this article are available. To join cause with BANI, write to Toxics Link.