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Friday, October 31, 2008

India's asbestos time-bomb

A new study titled ‘India’s Asbestos Time Bomb’ takes a hard look at the integrated global system that mines, processes and exports asbestos, and delves into the dark, shadowy world of the asbestos industry which thrives on political patronage.

Unless one really thinks about it, asbestos does not appear to be a part of our everyday lives. But it exists in a range of items, from corrugated sheets to floor tiles, from brake linings to fire protection. Finely powdered asbestos has even sneaked into our lives as an adulterant in perfumed talc and as a whitener in ‘extra white basmati’ rice. Shockingly, it is neither suited to the skin nor a delicacy!

Instead “it is a time bomb that is slowly ticking away,” contends a just released study edited by David Allen and Laurie Kazan-Allen. Titled ‘India’s Asbestos Time Bomb’, the study takes a hard look at the integrated global system that mines, processes and exports this life-threatening product, and delves into the dark shadowy world of the asbestos industry that thrives on political patronage. The study is published by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS).

Without this patronage, a product that is banned in the European Union, Australia, Japan and New Zealand could not have been imported with such impunity in India. The slashing of import duty on asbestos from 78% in 1995 to 15% in 2004 only adds more grist to the conspiracy mill. No wonder cumulative asbestos imports have touched a whopping 7 million tonnes, up from a low annual import of 40,000 tonnes in 1960 to over 250,000 tonnes in 2006.

The report begins with the testimony of workers who echo the pain of thousands of people earning a livelihood in the unregulated asbestos industry. Ravindra Mohite may have worked to create resistant textiles by interweaving asbestos fibre with polyester, but not without getting asbestosis in 2004. Like 36 of his co-workers, Mohite awaits the court’s direction on compensation from the Ghatkopar factory in north Mumbai.

Illustrating the grim reality of asbestos exposure both through personal accounts and research papers, the study notes that while mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer are recognised around the world, they are rarely reported in India. “This is no surprise as cancer is not a notifiable disease,” argues Dr V Murlidhar, one of the study’s 15 contributors.

Examining the role of the medical community, the study stresses that “occupational

health is a neglected subject, with students rarely having access to standard radiological plates, mandatory for asbestosis diagnosis, even in the top medical colleges… thereby lacking the expertise to diagnose asbestosis unambiguously, often certifying an X–ray as normal when it is not”.

This has resulted in the failure of medical professionals to diagnose asbestos-related illnesses, leaving victims with no option but to die a slow, painful death. It is quite another matter that way back in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that the material damaged the lungs of slaves who wove it into cloth!

The trouble with asbestos is that its fibre is rarely destroyed, justifying the Greek derivation of the word which means ‘inextinguishable’. It is therefore not surprising that while its sale is banned in Canada, that country is the second largest exporter of asbestos after Russia. In fact, there is evidence that Canada has pressurised countries, including Chile, not to impose an asbestos ban. India accounts for 30% of Canada’s asbestos exports.

In addition to quantifying issues related to diagnosis, treatment and compensation, the study also puts into perspective political and trade-related dimensions of the asbestos crisis. Devoting a chapter to the illegal trade in asbestos waste, despite the existing ban, the study argues that permission granted to asbestos-waste-laden ships like the Blue Lady highlights how entrenched the asbestos industry has become with the powers-that-be.

This nexus is further corroborated by the fact that, along with its Canadian counterparts, the Indian asbestos lobby has been consistently successful in blocking a United Nations move to impose health information disclosures on exports of chrysotile asbestos. The health of millions of asbestos workers will be at stake at the upcoming Conference of the Parties of the UN Rotterdam Convention in Rome, on October 27-31, 2008.

Laurie Kazan-Allen, co-editor of the study, says: “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 become full-blown, India faces an inevitable and sharp escalation in cancer cases over the next three decades. No one is safe!”

While Gujarat is an asbestos hotspot, with its busy ship-breaking industry and power plants, Maharashtra is a veritable time-bomb, with scores of asbestos factories located in Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, Kalyan, Nashik, Thane and Aurangabad. India has undeniably become the backyard for toxic dumping by the industrialised West.

This study is a timely contribution to the pathetic state of the occupational health of India’s industrial workers. That medical ignorance and government intransigence have allowed this time-bomb to slowly tick away in our backyards should be a matter for serious debate among the public.

The authors and editors of the study argue that it does not aim only to expose corporate malfeasance and government apathy but also to reiterate what Mahatma Gandhi said: that commerce without morality, science without humanity, and politics without principle are amongst the deadly sins that must be overcome.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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