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Killer mineral

Print edition : Oct 20, 2006 T+T-

A report on the health of workers at the Alang ship-breaking yard points to the need to ban asbestos.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

THE magic is wearing off. Now that asbestos has been officially acknowledged in India as the killer it has long been accused of being, the `magic mineral' is losing its popularity.

The official acknowledgement has come indirectly, in the form of a report of the Committee of Technical Experts set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the health of workers at the ship-breaking yard at Alang, Gujarat. The committee found that 16 per cent of the workers suffered from asbestosis. Asbestosis is a progressive disease of the lungs which has a latency period of anywhere between 20 and 35 years. Exposure to asbestos also leads to lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma, and other pleural disorders.

There are three types of asbestos - brown, blue and white - of which brown and blue have been acknowledged as dangerous carcinogens, and are banned in most countries. The last battle was being fought against white asbestos, which is also hazardous, though not in the same league as brown and blue asbestos. Not surprisingly, most developed nations have either banned asbestos altogether or restricted its use so severely that the manufacture of asbestos-related products has become unviable. Equally unsurprisingly, most developed nations with rich deposits of asbestos have trained their sights on `Third World' countries, to which they export the mineral, just as asbestos-laden ships are sent for scrapping.

The Alang report comes as a shot in the arm for environmental and occupational health activists, though they are aware that it may not necessarily lead to a fulfilment of their demand - a ban on the mining, import and export of all types of asbestos, including white asbestos or chrysotile, and the manufacture of asbestos-related products.

To the government, this report should come as a warning and a prod to start actively looking for alternatives. There are at least 100,000 workers involved, directly or indirectly, in industries making asbestos-related products, roofing sheets and pipes accounting for 90 per cent of the production.

Although India had committed itself to phasing out the mining of asbestos, it has not kept its word. It has ignored the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) call for a global ban on asbestos, including chrysotile. There is also a rumour that the government is considering lifting the ban on asbestos mining. For instance, in February this year, the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Namo Narain Meena, said that there was no evidence of white asbestos being a known carcinogen, nor have any complaints been received in that regard.

The Minister's statements have been variously described as `insensitive' and `virtually blasphemous', for this is a claim even the asbestos industry dare not make. The industry prefers to play safe by focussing on `safe use' and controlled conditions as a prerequisite.

The Alang study is neither the first nor the most damning report on the ill effects of the mineral, which has been described as the number one carcinogenic substance in the world by the ILO.

In 2004, the Occupational Health and Safety Centre (OHSC), Mumbai, conducted a study among workers of Hindustan Composites, Ghatkopar; 22 per cent of those surveyed were found to suffer from asbestosis. Similar studies have been conducted by the Central Labour Institute (CLI), Mumbai, and by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, in both processing and mining units. The CLI study, conducted in 2004, was commissioned by the Labour Ministry.

Curiously, Brig. A.K. Sethi, director, Asbestos Information Centre, cites the CLI study, while defending the use of asbestos: "The CLI teams went to eight factories in Mumbai that manufacture chrysotile-based products and studied 702 workers. They did not find any cases of asbestosis. Where pure chrysotile has been used, no excess lung cancer was seen. There is a problem only when it is mixed with other types, especially blue fibres. In controlled conditions, there is no problem."

However, the report says that "radiological signs of pleural thickening, CPA obliteration, interlobar fissure thickening, etc. along with evidence of restrictive type of lung function may be construed as early warning signals of toxicity due to asbestos fibre exposure." In other words, these workers are already on their way to developing asbestosis or lung cancer.

Dr. Qamar Rahman, Emeritus scientist at the ITRC, found more disturbing evidence. "Studies conducted by our group recorded that in unorganised units in Rajasthan, workers exposed to tremolite asbestos were developing asbestosis faster. In some cases, it was contracted in less than five years, which is alarming," he said. The team had strongly advised against the lifting of the ban on mining.

Various departments have repeatedly stressed `controlled use' and safety regulations. However, time and time again, inspection teams have found flagrant violation of norms. India permits up to 2 fibres/cc in the air, but with poor technology and few checks in place the actual fibre concentration is several times higher. Most workers do not wear gloves or masks. The ITRC team even found infants and children playing on heaps of asbestos.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), in 2004 the Karrapa mines in Andhra Pradesh produced only 960 tonnes of asbestos. India imported 180,000 tonnes, the bulk of which came from Canada. Interestingly, India does not export any asbestos products. Clearly, there is nobody willing to buy. Not even Canada, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of our imports, will risk buying asbestos-laden roofing, clutch-plates, or textiles.

Asbestos-cement is sold in India as poor man's housing. Ravi Agarwal, director, Toxics Link, points out that asbestos has been made cheaper through government policies: "The import duty on asbestos dropped from 78 per cent in 1992 to 15 per cent in 2004. The government clearly has no plans to phase it out. Incidentally, such duty benefits are not extended to other products that might serve as substitutes, such as poly-vinyl alcohol."

The Supreme Court had ruled in 1995 on a petition filed by the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) in 1986 that "disease occurs regardless of the country, type of industry, job title, job assignment or location of exposure. The disease will follow the trail of the exposure and extend the chain of carcinogenic risk beyond the workplace... does not require a continual exposure. The cancer does not cease when the exposure to carcinogenic agent ceases."

Unfortunately, the cement-asbestos industry does not see the risk. When Frontline asked why India has not banned asbestos while 40 other nations have already done that, Brig. Sethi said: "Why compare ourselves with other countries? They were using something in a different manner, which was causing them problems. Why should we get carried away by what is being done there?"

Gopal Krishna, coordinator for the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), told Frontline: "The health hazards of asbestos were known as early as in 1893. The first published evidence came in the 1930s in British Medical Journal, but related industries had been trying to suppress the evidence for decades. In the 1970s, it was established beyond doubt that asbestos causes cancer. It causes irreparable damage which is wholly preventable. Since then, the movement to ban it has been going on. France sought to ban asbestos in 1997. Canada argued against the ban, on the grounds of free trade, and the matter went to the World Trade Organisation, but it ruled in France's favour, in 2001. This was the first `green' judgment by the WTO."

The ruling now forms the basis for a writ petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2004 by Kalyaneshwari, a Kolkata-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), against the Union of India and the State governments. The petition calls for a ban on the use and import of asbestos and for an order to all Labour Commissioners in the country to identify asbestos workers and victims within a year. The ban is sought on the grounds that `controlled use' is deemed impossible even in developed nations where safety regulations are far more stringent.

Kalyaneshwari has identified more than 500 victims from five States (West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). One of its surveys found an abandoned asbestos mine in Chaibasha, Jharkhand, which exposed the tribal people living in its vicinity to great risks.

The WTO report had noted that "workers come into contact with asbestos in many ways, in particular in the servicing and maintenance operations for which safe use is not a practicable option". The victims included carpenters, plumbers, painters, decorators, laboratory technicians, electrical engineers and power station workers.

In India, power plant workers have fallen victim to asbestosis in the past. Raghunath Manwar, who worked at a power plant and has been an activist for occupational health in Ahmedabad for nearly 20 years, says that not much has changed over the decades.

He said: "We had filed a petition in the Supreme Court, saying that there were 15-20 lakh workers in power plants across the country. If we have found cases in Gujarat, surely there must be more. The court directed the government to check all plants, but no follow-up has been done. The Labour Ministry is just not interested. We have compensation cases pending in the High Court, but there have been inordinate delays. Some victims have already died."

The United States curiously has not banned asbestos. (It has been phased out of many products, and consumption fell from 803,000 tonnes in 1973 to 15,000 tonnes in 2000.) However, it has paid through its nose. At least $54 billion has been awarded as compensation to victims, and new cases continue to be filed each year.

In India, unfortunately, few victims have recourse to compensation. For one, most doctors are not trained to identify the disease or to look for occupational history while making their diagnosis. Victims are often treated for tuberculosis since the initial symptoms are similar. Often doctors hesitate to certify the disease for purposes of litigation because victims have no proof to show of employment. Secondly, even if they manage to get certificates, court cases drag on for years. So most victims are beyond help, if not dead, before compensation comes their way.

The CERC, in its 1986 petition, had noted that no claims for compensation were pending with the Employees State Insurance Corporation. Part of the problem is fixing employer liability. Under the ESIC Act, an employer is liable to pay compensation only as long as the employer-employee relationship exists. If a worker is fired after developing asbestosis, he/she can no longer make claims. The CERC had demanded that the ESIC Act be amended to correct this situation.

The petition filed by Kalyaneshwari now demands that the compensation amount be increased from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.10 lakhs and that specialist doctors be appointed to certify disease in different regions.

In 1995, the apex court had made the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, responsible for certifying victims. It had also decided on Rs.1 lakh as compensation and made it mandatory for employers to keep medical records of the victim even 15 years after retirement (or 40 years from the beginning of employment) and conduct membrane filter tests on workers.

A 2002 study by the Institute of Public Health Engineers on Asbestos showed that the judgment had not been implemented. Very few employment records and even fewer medical records were kept. Fewer than five units (out of the 300-odd surveyed) had performed the test.

The court had also directed the government to review the standards of permissible exposure every 10 years and whenever "ILO gives directions in this behalf consistent with its recommendations or any conventions".

In fact, the CPCB recommended that the limit be brought down to 0.5 f/cc immediately, and then, revised to 0.1 f/cc by 2004. Other recommendations included restricting the import of chrysotile, making registration compulsory, and seeking out substitutes for the mineral. The recommendations have not been implemented yet.

The ILO estimates that 100,000 people have already died of asbestos-related diseases. India can choose to ratify ILO's Convention 162 and join the call for a ban, or at the very least it can agree to include chrysotile in the list of substances that require prior informed consent (PIC). This can be done as early as October, at the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva. As Gopal Krishna points out, "cancer is a very painful way to die" and if people must be exposed to a carcinogen, they have a right to be forewarned, as surely as they have a right to live.