homes, but it also causes cancer. The "indestructible" substance is increasingly
being cast aside by developed countries, Canada being one of the exceptions. It continues
to export asbestos to developing countries such as India, where the white dust seems to
have blinded the policymakers and promoters alike
Canada is giving its parliament a facelift, literally. It is cleansing the
building of all the asbestos in acknowledgement of the fact that it is a human
health hazard. And quite appropriately it cannot expose the countrys lawmakers to
such a harmful substance. Ironically, it continues to export it to developing countries
and, in fact, has the distinction of being the worlds largest exporter of chrysotile
(white) asbestos. Ninety-six per cent of its production is exported to poor countries,
which obviously shows no concern for the people living there. The developed countries are
not spared either. Recently, it got into a wrangle with France in the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) over its valued export. France had sought a ban on the import of white
asbestos. The disputes panel gave the ruling in favour of France.
Durable, strong and resistant to heat and chemicals, asbestos means
"indestructible" in Greek. The substance has more than 3,000 uses
manufacturing floor tiles, ceilings tiles and roofing materials being some of the most
common ones. But for decades now studies have shown that asbestos is
"destructive" to human health (see box: White
death). Between 1967-1997, there were 171,500 cancer deaths from asbestos fibres
in usa. In western Europe, according to some estimates, it has been responsible for
half-a-million cancer victims. Worse, in the next 30 years, it could claim another 1
million lives mostly in the developing world, according to a study conducted by USA
The diseases that are associated with exposure to
|The diseases that are associatd withxposure to
asbestos particlesApart from inhalation of crumbled asbestos
particles, even crayons scribbled with and nibbled on by millions of children
worldwide are said to contain asbestos. According to US government research, of the
40 crayons tested from brands that had asbestos, over 80 per cent of them were
contaminated above the trace level.
to asbestos particles can lead to many diseases. Some diseases are malignant or cancerous,
such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. Others are non-malignant, such as asbestosis,
pleural plaques, diffuse pleural fibrosis, and benign pleural effusions. The three main
diseases are asbestosis, peural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma.
ASBESTOSIS: It is caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers.
Asbestosis often exists without any symptoms and is then detected only by x-Ray results.
However, the symptoms of asbestosis typically include difficulty in breathing and
coughing. Asbestosis can be a progressive disease it continues to progress even
after exposure to asbestos has stopped. In some cases, prolonged exposure can be fatal.
Asbestosis affects both lungs (it is bilateral) and, although it is mainly in the lower
fields of the lungs, it is usually widespread (diffuse). There is no cure or effective
treatment for asbestosis. People with asbestosis are also at high risk of developing lung
cancer or mesothelioma.
MESOTHELIOMA: This is a cancer of
the thin membrane enclosing in the lungs, a rare form of cancer that is not associated
thin membrane of mesothelial cells known as the peritoneum envelops many abdominal organs.
This is a tumor of this membrane. This can develop many years after exposure and accounts
for about one-fifth of all mesotheliomas. Symptoms of peritoneal mesothelioma include
abdominal pain, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal swelling.
There is no known cure for peritoneal
mesothelioma. The prognosis depends on various factors, including the size and stage of
the tumour, its extent, the cell type, and whether or not the tumour responds to
treatment. Most cases of mesotheliomas are fatal.
The global trend has been to either restrict or ban its use. France banned the
manufacture of asbestos in 1997, Sweden in 1982 and Belgium in 1998. The European Union
(eu) voted for a ban in May 1999 and so far, 12 out of the 15 countries have already
imposed a ban. The three erring ones Greece, Portugal and Spain also plan to
ban it before 2004. It is the developing world that is left. "The surge in asbestos
use in the developing world will result in several million cancer deaths," warns
Julian Peto, chief of epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.
At the centre of the battle against asbestos is Canada. But the Canadian
governments resistance against the international move to ban asbestos is puzzling.
It exports asbestos to primarily developing countries such as India, which have a recorded
growth in asbestos use which interestingly coincides with the steep decline in asbestos
market in the developed countries, including usa. Seven of Canadas top markets are
in developing countries.
|HOW RESISTANT ARE YOU TOASBESTOS?
|When left intact, asbestos
fibres do not pose a health risk to the human body
|They are a potential risk when the materials
become damaged to the extent where asbestos fibres become airborne and can be inhaled
|Asbestos can release fibres when it crumbles. If
powdered or friable forms of asbestos are distributed, they can be inhaled
|Some asbestos fibres are long and curly and get
stuck higher up in the lungs. In some cases, chrysotile fibres being fragile and
unstable break up in the body and within a few months are transported deep into the
|Several factors determine whether a person is
affected by the harmful effects of asbestos. This includes the amount and for long the
person was exposed to asbestos
|One of the problems with exposure to asbestos is
that the latency period the length of the time between exposure and the onset of
disease can be 20 years or more
|Smokers exposed to asbestos have a greater risk
of developing lung cancer
Perhaps Canadas consistent pro-asbestos move is politically
motivated. It could be a move to appease its separatist province, Quebec, where most of
its asbestos mines are situated and is the prime source of earning for the local
residents. But in doing this, Canada seems to be furthering the legacy of death from
A few years ago, the French-speaking Quebec almost voted for
independence from the Canadian confederation and since than the separatist movement has
gathered momentum. Canadas worst fear is that if it closes the mines under
pressure from developed countries like USA and other European countries it would
further encourage the separatist government there.
In the mid-1980s when a proposal of banning white asbestos was put before a convention
of the Canadian Labour Congress, delegations of Quebec walked out in protest. That was
also the last time that any initiative of banning it was made in Canada. Hence, to sustain
its political interest and territorial integrity, Canada has to look forward for other
Meanwhile, the French ban is also a concern for Canada. The former French colonies like
Morocco and Algeria are two big markets for asbestos export. Therefore, they could take a
cue from France and ban asbestos.
Anti-asbestos activists from Canada WHO visited India and other developing countries
recently said that Canada was "exporting death to protect its political interest and
1,600 miners in Quebec mines". The industry is dying a natural death. But
Canadas zeal for its promotion remains untamed even though at present, only 1,600
miners are in work and production has come down from 1.5 million metric tonnes in 1975 to
3,70,000 metric tonnes in 1999.
It is the political survival strategy that has spelled doom for millions of people in
the developing countries, experts argue. In India, however, there is little awareness on
the issue, no prescribed safety standards for the workers and the government has made no
effort to restrict its use.
India: slow murder
It was just another normal day at the Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi. But not
for T K Joshi, a consultant physician at the hospital. He had diagnosed a woman with acute
mesothelioma, a tumour associated with exposure to asbestos. Joshi was intrigued because
the woman had never worked in an asbestos factory. When questioned she said that her
husband was working in one. "We were astonished to find that she got this disease
from a secondary source. This only proves how deadly asbestos is and there is no doubt
that it is carcinogenic," says Joshi.
The Supreme Court speaks for the workers of the
|There have been several cases filed against the
asbestos industry with regard to the health of the workers. The most famous is the one
between Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC), Ahmedabad, and others and the Union
of India in 1993. The writ petition dealt with the danger to the life of workers employed
in the asbestos industry. The Supreme Court ruled, "Exposure to asbestos and the
resultant long tragic chain of adverse medical, legal and societal consequences, reminds
the legal and social responsibility of the employer or the producer not to endanger the
workforce or the community or the society. He is not absolved of the inherent
responsibility to the exposed worker or the society at large."
The court ruled that the industrial units must maintain a
health record of every worker up to a minimum period of 40 years; insure workers under the
Employees State Insurance Act or Workmens Compensation Act; or give health coverage
to every worker. In the particular case, the appropriate inspector of factories in Gujarat
was directed to send all workers for re-examination to the National Institute of
Occupational Health (NIOH). In case of the positive finding that any of them were
suffering from the occupational hazards, the person should be entitled to a compensation
of Rs 1 lakh within a period of three months from the date of certification by the NIOH.
"This case was decided after nearly eight years," says Rani Advani of CERC and
advocate at the Gujarat High Court.
However, says Ravi Agarwal of Srishti, a
Delhi-based NGO, "There has not been much change at the ground level. Much of the
problem comes from the fact that rules and regulations in the workplaces are poorly
The asbestos industry in India is spread over in about 15 states nearly 60 per
cent of these industries are in operation. Each year, around 20,000 tonnes of asbestos is
mined in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. India imports raw asbestos
worth around Rs 40-50 crore annually. The annual turnover of the industry is estimated to
be around Rs 800 crore and it generates direct and indirect employment for more than
"Seventy per cent of asbestos is imported, especially from Canada. In Canada,
mining is done in a highly mechanised way. These are then sent to India for final
finishing. The finished products are packaged and sent abroad with signs saying that it is
a hazardous product. But when the raw material is sent to India, no precautions are
taken," says Harsh Jaitli, WHO is with the Participatory Research in Agricultural
(PRIA), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).
The International Labour Organisation has prescribed very strict guidelines. But in a
country such as India, where flouting norms is the order of the day, one wonders how much
of these are adhered to. Asbestos products are sold without warning labels, are not
palletised, and in majority of cases the workers do not wear protective gear.
The industrial units in India are known to flout norms with impunity. A recent
document, released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), reveals that of the
eight large units monitored, six did not comply with Indian emission standards and for
remaining two, the compliance or non-compliance could not be determined. The observations
made by the CPCB team is telling because in most cases there were no monitoring platforms.
Experts say that not just the workers but consumers, too, could be at risk of
contracting cancer through secondary exposure. "But, in India, we hardly work on
the health and environment effects of direct exposure to asbestos, let alone secondary
exposure. Also, workers are not known to change clothes before leaving work sites. They
use public transport, thus exposing other commuters to asbestos particles," says
Only recently, the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) started work on
formulating pollution guidelines for the asbestos industry. "This is for the first
time we are trying to develop a norm," says Sanchita Jindal, deputy director at the
MEF. But here too there is no talk of prohibition. "We are not contemplating a ban
and there are many countries which have revoked such bans," says Jindal. Barry
Castleman , a us-based environment consultant, differs: "I know of no other country
besides USA that has revoked a ban on asbestos."
Lurking danger: continuous
exposure to asbestos particles can lead to many diseases, including lung cancer
In 1989, the us Environmental Protection Agency (usepa) announced a phased
seven-year-ban on the production and use of asbestos. But this decision was later
overturned in the us Court of Appeals. The court found usepas case for a ban
deficient in several ways. Firstly, the usepa failed to explore less burdensome
alternatives to a ban. It virtually ignored the feasibility of a controlled-used approach.
Secondly, the usepa failed to consider whether adequate substitutes were available for
banned asbestos products and that they were necessarily safer than asbestos. Clearly, the
usepa had not done its homework, and for this, the court reprimanded it severely. Despite
revoking of the ban, asbestos consumption in the us has continued to drop from
800,000 metric tonnes in 1973 to 21,000 tonnes in 1996.
The tactics adopted by the asbestos industry are very similar to that of
the tobacco industry. In the absence of international sanction, huge sales to the
developing countries offset losses resulting from reduced cigarette consumption in the
developed countries. The same is the case with the asbestos industry. Since manufacture of
asbestos has been banned in many countries, multinational asbestos companies have opened
large and profitable markets in Brazil, India, Thailand, Nigeria, Angola, Uruguay, and
The sharp rise in the use of asbestos in developing countries by multinational
corporations has prompted several organisations to launch a worldwide stir. For example,
the UK-based Ban Asbestos Secretariat is circulating a note to physicians working in the
field of environment asking them to put pressure on the governments to ban asbestos. The
document says: "It is important to know that asbestos is an occupational and
environmental health hazard of catastrophic proportion. The profound tragedy of the
asbestos epidemic is that all illnesses and deaths related to asbestos are entirely
Is there a way out?
Properties of asbestos seem to be literally rubbing on the lobby too. They
have resisted all the heat generated over the debate on its health hazards. Over a period
of time the lobby has let loose a well-thought out misinformation campaign. It has been
more than 40 years since asbestos was linked to cancer but they have always a less
toxic as thought out to be picture of the killer substance. The lobby has changed
the thrust from asbestoss carcinogenic properties to its responsible
use. During the 1980s and 1990s, international organisations like World Health
Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Office have also been dragged into the
battleground. And quite successfully, the lobbyists have managed to get
controlled or responsible use sanctions from various experts.
This sanction was used by Canada against France in WTO. They even cited the health
status of its 1,600 Quebec miners to prove how regulated use can be safe. In Canada,
mining is totally mechanised and sophisticated technology is used to reduce the dust
Exporters of asbestos are now bringing their misinformation campaign to developing and
misinformed countries like India. To prove the point of responsible use, an
international seminar is being organised in November in New Delhi by the pro-asbestos
groups. "The reason the conference is being held in India is that the asbestos
companies know that there is no way developed countries are going to expand their asbestos
market. Therefore, the companies are trying to sell this class 1 carcinogen to developing
countries," says Laurie Kazan-Allen of Ban Asbestos Secretariat, a UK-based NGO.
There is an equally strong lobby against the responsible use campaign.
Scientists and experts argue that there is no way asbestos can be used safely. One
editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine said: "All forms of asbestos
are carcinogenic. All have been shown in clinical, epidemiological and laboratory studies
to be fully capable of causing lung cancer, mesothelioma and the full range of
asbestos-related diseases." While arguing that the safe use of asbestos is
prohibitively expensive and complex even for countries like USA and the UK, it says that
the developing countries can hardly afford to do so. In India, protective gear for
asbestos workers is not known to exist.
The fight between the pro and anti-asbestos lobbies is reflected over the choice and
adoption of an alternative to asbestos keeping the durability and cost factors in mind.
"It is true that the replacement will be more expensive. But if the industry has to
pay compensation costs and invest in protective gear, then even costs of other human made
fibres would be similar," says Ravi Agarwal of Shristi, a Delhi-based NGO. Experts
believe that the high cost of alternatives is not an excuse to continue the manufacture of
asbestos. "The government must first lower the unnecessary tariff and technological
barriers," adds Agarwal.
Occupational hazard: while
other countries ban production of asbestos, the Indian government promotes its use
But, in India, to begin with the government has shown no concern about the health
effects of asbestos and the industry remains unregulated. On the other hand, an initiative
to promote and manufacture polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) a humanmade fibre used in place
of asbestos is discouraged. The government has kept its price higher than asbestos.
For importing PVA, one has to pay around 71 per cent duty, while it is around 33 per cent
in case of asbestos. If the duty is reduced, the price of PVA will be almost equal to that
of asbestos. In this years Union budget though the levy on PVA was brought down,
duty on asbestos was not increased, thus giving an impression that the government favours
PVA has got wide acceptance as a less hazardous and cheaper alternative to asbestos. A
recently-commissioned report by the UK Health and Safety Executive concluded that PVA
fibres will certainly pose a smaller risk than chrysotile as they are generally too large
to be respirable and the parent material causes little or no tissue reaction. "PVA
fibres are being used to replace asbestos in Brazil. In France, I think they were able to
use glass fibres. Both these are safer than asbestos," says Castleman.
The much-debated question of job loss and resource crunch is put forward time and again
to oppose a ban on asbestos. "We know that asbestos is carcinogenic. But we must
realise that any switch to an alternative could affect the livelihood of thousands of
people," says S P Swarup, director, Construction Industry Development Council. Add to
it the government policy of promoting small scale industries most of the asbestos
units come under this category without any substantial pressure on these units for
adhering to environmental norms. The recent policy on small-scale industry (SSI) released
by the prime minister doesnt speak anything about the small units
environmental concern when industry bodies have been accusing the SSI section of being
more polluting than any other sector of the industry (see p 5: Small policy).
"Many people may say that if asbestos is banned or made expensive, it may boil
down to a political issue because the small-scale industry will be hurt. But this is not
true," says J Stievenart, former managing director of Eternit Everest Limited.
Asbestos is used mostly for pipes and sheets corrugated and flat sheets. The former
has moved to iron pipes. So this issue dies down but the raw material for the second is
bought from foreign countries. It is a humanmade material. India can also export the PVA
products because there is a huge market for it.
Experts believe that since the use of asbestos is widespread, the least the Indian
government can do is to take steps to protect the public against the health effects
associated with its use. Says Castleman: "There should be warning labels for any
asbestos product. Every industrial user of asbestos should be registered and direct sale
of asbestos to the public should be stopped immediately." In the long run,
governments should identify every industrial use of asbestos and formulate a phase-out
plan for that product. In many countries, the asbestos industry is given subsidies. In
Canada, the subsidies run into billions of dollars. These must be stopped immediately.