Status of Asbestos
No accurate figures can be stated about the total number of asbestos victims in India as quantification has never been done despite ongoing global asbestos crisis. No has such attempt has been made till date. Constraints of finance, technical know-how and competence regarding the environmental pollution control and to some extent, lack of preference of health in relation to financial gains are some of the important factors which influence the appropriate development of health and safety strategy. Other factors include migratory nature of workers and non maintenance of medical or other records by the factory owners for the migrant labourers which makes it difficult to track the exposure-related diseases.
Given the fact that largest manmade epidemic of asbestos related diseases have become a reality and even reputed medical journals like British Medical Journal (January 31, 2004) have acknowledged it, Government of India should provide the names, addresses and photographs of the asbestos handlers including those who have been examined by the NIOH. This will enable future generations to ascertain for whether or not asbestos exposure was avoidable by preventing its use.
Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen (a substance which can cause cancer). No safe level can be proposed for asbestos products because a threshold is not known to exist. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing lung disease (and cancer). The exposures of workers installing, maintaining and handling asbestos-cement products are quite high, and this exposure defies regulatory control efforts. Asbestos has however, one very dangerous quality, as it accumulates in the body; the microscopic fibers lodged in tissues can remain like little time bombs and cause cancer years later. Since asbestos exposure is cumulative, young people are in particular need of protection. The empirical research says "Adults have three or four decades to develop cancer after exposure". "The kids have six or seven. This means that a smaller dose of a carcinogen is as dangerous to the kids as a larger dose of it is to adults".
“Why is it that the concern of the countries which have banned asbestos not relevant to India?” While asbestos imports and use continues to grow in countries like India, its use has decreased significantly in the developed countries. Canada exports almost all of the asbestos (more than 96%) mined in the country, especially to Asia, including India, whereas asbestos use in Canada is almost non-existent. In the US, demand for asbestos has continued to decline. The developed world has responded to the asbestos health catastrophe with bans on the use of asbestos.
As this unfolds, the global asbestos industry is transferring its commercial activities to the third world. "Multinational asbestos corporations present a deplorable history of international exploitation. These firms have opened large and profitable internal and export markets in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, and in India, Thailand, Nigeria, Angola, Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina."
Current Status in India: Dealing with “Impact of Hazardous Waste on Worker’s Health”, Hon’ble Supreme Court directed the government “to examine the matter and enumerate medical benefits which may be provided to the workers having regard to the occupational hazard as also keeping in view the question of health of the workers and the compensation which may have to be paid to them. The Committee while examining the recommendations, shall also keep in view the judgment of this Court in Consumer Education and Research Centre vs. Union of India (1995 (3) SCC 42).”
In the Consumer Education and Research Centre vs. Union of India matter the Hon’ble Court directed Union and the State Governments are directed to review asbestos standards must be reviewed “every 10 years and also as and when the ILO gives directions in this behalf consistent with its recommendations or any convention; (5) the Union and all the State Governments are directed to consider inclusion of such of those small-scale factory or factories or industries to protect health hazards of all workers engaged in the manufacture of asbestos or its ancillary products; appropriate Inspector of Factories in particular of the State of Gujarat, is directed to send all the workers, examined by the ESI hospital concerned, for re-examination by the National Institute of Occupational Health to detect whether all or any of them is suffering from asbestosis. In case of the positive finding that all or any of them are suffering from occupational health hazards, each such worker shall be entitled to compensation in a sum of rupees one lakh payable by the factory or industry or establishment concerned within a period of three months from the date of certification by the National Institute of Occupational Health.” (pg 73, 74. 1995 (3) SCC 42)
Although the Hon’ble Court had directed Union and State Governments to take action consistent with ILO resolutions and Convention on Asbestos, the concerned Ministries have not even initiated any action in pursuance of ILO’s Resolution on Asbestos dated 14th June, 2006 stating “the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place are the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposures and to prevent future asbestos-related disease and deaths” has not been acted upon. That even if the use of asbestos products is discontinued there are and there will be a massive number victims from past asbestos exposure as is being experienced globally in US, Europe, Australia, Japan and other countries, therefore, the compensation amount may be increased from the current Rs 1 lakh to at least Rs 10 lakh. There is an urgent necessity for the creation of NIOH like facility in each state to deal with the imminent unprecedented environmental and occupational health crisis from asbestos exposure.
The Final Report of the Committee of Technical Experts has admitted that the vessel is laden with different kinds of asbestos such as Chrysotile, Amosite, and Crocidolite. (pg 4917, vol. xiv). Acknowledging the hazards from asbestos, the same Report NIOH’s admission “We do not have any information with regard to concentration of asbestos in the work environment” in its Report for TEC is noteworthy. (pg. 4824, vol. xiii)
In pursuance of the directions from the Chairman, TEC, the Director, NIOH was asked for medical examination of Asbestos Handlers. The NIOH in its recommendation said, “The directives of Hon Supreme Court (1995) for asbestos exposed workers …should be strictly followed.” The same has not been done else 16 % of the workers would not been found exposed to asbestos.
At page 4923, the Final Report of TEC has a copy of a letter dated March 14, 2006 (three months prior to SS Norway’s entry in the Indian territory) by one Jean Michel Chiapell wherein it is stated that “In Europe the exposure limit for workers is 0.100 fiber (average concentration over 1 hour). That means the air on the Norway was very clean, probably because of marine environment, and because most of the asbestos is covered or painted.”
It is noteworthy that the letter dated March 14, 2006 submitted by the TEC refers to the European occupational exposure limit. It is incomprehensible as to how the occupational exposure limit in Europe has any significance for a ship that carries tons of asbestos still on it, to India. The whole idea was for the European or American owners to have asbestos and other hazardous materials removed prior to sending the ship to India for shipbreaking. What difference does it make what the European asbestos workplace exposure limit is, if the asbestos is not removed in Europe?
In this connection it is relevant to submit that asbestos has been banned throughout the European Union since 1 January 2005. Asbestos is now a banned substance throughout all twenty-five member countries of the European Union. A five year phase-out period which was permitted under Commission Directive 1999/77/EC ended on January 1, 2005.
The countries that have banned asbestos are Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom (including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), Uruguay and others.
On June 21, 2004, South Africa announced a 3-5 year phase-out of asbestos use and a ban on asbestos. Vietnam has banned the usage of chrysotile as a building material and is making more serious attempts than most Asian countries to remove asbestos from workplaces and replace it with safer alternatives. Vietnam announced its plan to ban in 2004. South Korea and Peru have also announced that they will soon ban asbestos.
An urgent intervention is needed in the matter of a serious unprecedented environmental, physical and occupational health and moral crisis with regard to unnoticed asbestos (killer fibre) epidemic in our country. It is high time concerned authorities took note of exposures of workers and citizen consumers. “The Asbestos War” an editorial in the International Journal of Environmental Health, Special Issue, 2003 is a revealing document. It says, after one hundred years, asbestos industry’s battle for Europe as its market had been lost. Following the collapse in Western demand for asbestos, producers have mounted a global campaign to protect remaining markets and develop new ones. A well-oiled propaganda machine reassures civil servants and consumers that asbestos can be used “safely under controlled conditions,” despite a vast amount of scientific and medical evidence, which proves otherwise.
The word 'asbestos' in Greek means 'indestructible'. All types of asbestos tend to break into very tiny fibre, almost microscopic. In fact, some of them may be up to 700 times smaller than human hair. Because of their small size, once released into the air or water they may stay suspended for hours or even days. Because of its high durability and with tensile strength asbestos has been widely used in construction and insulation materials - it has been used in over 3,000 different products. After mining and milling (crushed/grinding), Asbestos is processed through various methods and used for making cement products, gasket sheet material, friction material, heat resistant textiles, some special applications like in paints, thermoplastics etc. In addition it is used for textiles, laminated products, tape, gland packing, packing ropes, brake lining and jointing used in core sector industries such as automobile, heavy equipment, petro-chemicals, nuclear power plants, fertilizers, thermal power plants, transportation, defense. Asbestos fibre is used in manufacture of asbestos cement roofs, pressure and non pressure pipes, sewage, irrigation and drainage system in urban and rural areas etc.
Asbestos is world's most notorious industrial health hazard. The primary routes of potential human exposure to asbestos are inhalation. Asbestos is used so widely that the entire population is potentially exposed to some degree. According World Health Organisation "Damage to asbestos-containing material can result in the release of small asbestos fibres that become airborne and are readily inhaled. These fibres can remain in the lungs for long periods and can cause serious lung disease." Therefore, it is harmful to not only the workers who make the asbestos products and handle them but also to the consumers who use them. In such a scenario, all studies concerning health hazards of asbestos are relevant.
In a journal article "The Asbestos Cancer Epidemic", Joseph Ladou, editor, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health wrote, “The asbestos cancer epidemic may take as many as 10 million lives before asbestos is banned worldwide and exposures are brought to an end. In many developed countries, in the most affected age groups, mesothelioma may account for 1% of all deaths. In addition to mesotheliomas, 5-7% of all lung cancers can be attributed to occupational exposures to asbestos. The asbestos cancer epidemic would have been largely preventable if the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) had responded early and responsibly. The WHO was late in recognizing the epidemic and failed to act decisively after it was well under way. The WHO and the ILO continue to fail to address the problem of asbestos mining, manufacturing, and use and world trade of a known human carcinogen. Part of the problem is that the WHO and the ILO have allowed organizations such as the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and other asbestos industry advocates to manipulate them and to distort scientific evidence. The global asbestos cancer epidemic is a story of monumental failure to protect the public health…All forms of asbestos can result in asbestosis (a progressive fibrotic disease of the lungs), lung cancer, and mesothelioma, a cancer arising in the membranes lining the pleural and peritoneal cavities.”(Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 112, 2004)
In an editorial “Chrysotile in India: Truth Held Hostage” (Indian Journal of Community Medicine, January – March 2006) Sanjay Chaturvedi, Professor, University College of Medical Sciences and GTB Hospital, Delhi wrote, “Information showing asbestos-cancer relationship was available as early as the 1940s. During next 2 decades, enough epidemiological as well as experimental evidence was generated to prove this relationship. For half a century the asbestos industry, in collaboration with some of the leaders of occupational and respiratory medicine, was able to suppress most of the data1. Meanwhile, millions of people were exposed to the carcinogen and hundreds of thousand died. The knowledge that asbestos causes cancer became public in the 80s, not because of scientific community but as a result of prolonged struggle and legal actions by ordinary people. For decades, certain privileged sections of the world order, including some scientists, were instrumental in the enormous release of a known carcinogen, just to keep their .profits. intact. Now we have a job on our hands - for a century - to combat the insult. Isn’t it a profound statement on our times, our polity and to an extent our science? This is just a punctuation in the whole story that ceases to conclude.”
Even World Bank has a policy against asbestos since 1991. “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 International Finance Corporation, the arm of the World Bank Group that lends to the private sector, urges that materials be avoided whose hazards to workers and the community cannot easily be prevented, such as “the use of asbestos in building materials.”
AVAILABLE RESEARCH/DATA AGAINST KILLER MATERIAL
USA: The unanimous and successful passage of Ban Asbestos America Act of 2007 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works is a result of past exposure due to asbestos related deaths
CANADA: Canadian MP Pat Martin spoke out about Canada's duplicitous behavior in supporting the global asbestos lobby; his remarks were quoted in an article published in Canada on July 25, 2006 entitled: Canada tarnished by asbestos trade: "Canada is acting like an 'international pariah' by exporting asbestos to Third World countries despite the well-known health hazards, says a Manitoba MP (Martin)…".The Canadian asbestos industry was, Martin said, a "corporate serial killer" which exports "human misery." The Canadian Government should, Martin urged, ban all forms of asbestos, shut down the remaining mines, provide early retirement for asbestos workers and financial assistance to affected industries and communities. Martin has urged the government to launch a comprehensive testing and removal program.
· ASIA: The Asian debate on asbestos began in 2004 at the Global Asbestos Congress (GAC 2004) in Tokyo; the Bangkok conference progressed the discussion and allowed new voices to be heard. There was considerable interest amongst delegates in the availability of alternatives to replace asbestos-cement, a substance still being widely used throughout Asia. Following which Japan banned asbestos. The Asian Asbestos Conference which was held in Bangkok, Thailand in July 2006. The Bangkok Declaration on the Elimination of Asbestos and Asbestos-related Disease, called for a total ban on the use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products. Judging by the opinions expressed in Bangkok, there is little doubt that the momentum for a regional asbestos ban has been boosted by the conference.
· INDIA: On August 18, 2003, the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare told the Indian Parliament that: “Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.” This was not the first official acknowledgment of the asbestos hazard. Government of India’s Office Memorandum NO.6 (6)/94 - Cement, (Sept 1, 1994) of the Ministry of Industry states: “The Department has generally not been recommending any case of Industrial License to any new unit for the creation of fresh capacity of asbestos products in the recent past due to the apprehension that prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to serious health hazards”.
In Uttar Pradesh a survey of U.P. Asbestos Limited, Mohanlalganj, Lucknow and Allied Nippn Pvt Ltd, Gaziabad, (U.P), the lung function impairment was found to be higher in subjects exposed for more than 11 years. This was the result of a Central Pollution Control Board sponsored project entitled "Human risk assessment studies in asbestos industries in India". This has been reported in the (2001-2002) Annual Report of Industrial Toxicological Research Centre, Lucknow. It has also been published in the 139th Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Forests, Science and Technology and presented to the parliament on 17th March, 2005.
Dr S R Kamat, a renowned lung specialist was bitter at the "utter callousness of employers", the total lack of medical expertise and government inaction; all of which continued to put workers at risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. In the 5 surveys done in the country, large number of the subjects showed asbestos lung diseases. All of them showed breathing problem, many had cough, some had sputum, chest pain finger clubbing and chest pain. Disability in such cases are permanent, progressive; means of compensation are meager. Dr Kamath, has observed number of asbestosis cases where patients who have not directly worked with asbestos had contracted the disease. "….patient was an industrialist's son, owner of an asbestos boxing plant...was exposed to the dust and diagnosed with asbestosis. In another case, the patient had an office in the first floor of a building which had asbestos boxing shed in the ground floor. The patient got exposed to asbestos fibres and dust through the AC ducts into the office...he was diagnosed with asbestosis too. A railway master was diagnosed with asbestosis due to the constant loading of asbestos in the rail wagons."
Dr Qamar Rahman one of the most renowned toxicologists of India formerly with Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow has revealed very shocking data on cellular and genetic mutations and about the plight of the asbestos mine workers especially women. She informed the scientific and medical community present here about the occurrences of asbestos related diseases that include cases where women have died after 6-7 years of the first exposure as was reported by the government doctors.
CONCLUSION: The present pathetic situation demands the criminal prosecution of those responsible for asbestos exposures such as factory owners and company directors and also the planners and users of the product. Asbestos is a public health issue, which the Government has ignored for far too long. Although non-asbestos technology certainly exists in India, in fact in some factories the two technologies exist side-by-side, consumers will inevitably opt for the cheaper product: more demand will translate into higher sales which will generate more Asbestos Money that is being used to obtain political support.