MAC: Mines and Communities

Letter to the President on White Asbestos: A Health Time Bomb

Published by MAC on 2007-04-07

Letter to the President on White Asbestos: A Health Time Bomb

From: OEHNI (Occupational and Environmental Health Network India)

7th April 2007

To: Honourable Rashtrapati Ji,
Rashtrapati Bhavan,
New Delhi.
Your Excellency,

Subject: Requesting urgent intervention in the matter of White Asbestos: A Health Time Bomb

With due respect on behalf of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) I wish to seek your urgent intervention in the matter of a serious unprecedented environmental and occupational health crisis with regard to unnoticed asbestos epidemic in country due to cancer causing asbestos of all forms.

Some 40 countries including Europe, Australia, Japan, International Labour Organisation and World Health Organisation besides World Trade Organisation have realized that "safe and controlled use" of asbestos is not possible. Because of the incurable but preventable cancer caused by this asbestos fiber, these countries have banned asbestos of all kinds. Given the ubiquitous presence of the fiber in India, there is no alternative to getting it banned in right earnest. I wish to submit that even our Rashtrapati Bhavan and Sansad Bhavan is not asbestos free.

It is shocking to note that India has not even ratified the Asbestos Convention, 1986 adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that lists activities, which involve the risk of work-related asbestos exposure. Included in the list in particular are manufacture of materials or products containing asbestos; use or application of products containing asbestos; stripping, repair or maintenance of products containing asbestos; demolition or repair of plants or structures containing asbestos; transportation, storage and handling of asbestos or materials containing asbestos and other activities involving a risk of exposure to airborne asbestos dust. According to the ILO figures, the biggest killer in the workplace is cancer of which asbestos alone claims some 100,000 lives annually.

Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) is an alliance of scientists, doctors, public health researchers, trade unions, activists and civil society groups is working since April 2002 to persuade the Government to give up its consistent and continued pro-asbestos industry bias and lack of concern for the asbestos-injured.

Although the Supreme Court of India has ruled that the Government of India must comply with ILO resolutions, our Government has chosen to ignore the ILO resolution (June 14,2006) 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."

This is despite the fact that in August 2006 the Report submitted in the Supreme Court by Dr Prodipto Ghosh, Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Chairman, echnical Experts Committee on Management of Hazardous Wastes took note of asbestos victims and cites the "Medical Examination of the Asbestos Handlers" by a team of National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) that concludes, " The X ray examination by NIOH showed linear shadows on chest X rays of 15 (16 %) of 94 workers occupationally exposed to asbestos. These are consistent with asbestosis..."

We earnestly request you to direct NIOH to reveal the names of the 16 % of the workers who are suffering from asbestos related diseases as per an affidavit filed by the environment ministry and recommend immediate compensation to these victims who are counting their last days.

Unmindful of the hazards of asbestos at the global environmental scene, India has once again demonstrated its collusion with asbestos interests. In October, 2006 India's delegation to the Rotterdam Convention sided with a few other nations to virtually bring down the Convention, an international treaty intended to protect developing nations from toxic trade. The third Conference of Parties (COP-3) to the Convention was held in Geneva, Switzerland during 9- 13 October 2006.

When the inclusion of chrysotile on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list was initially proposed, it was blocked by India along with other asbestos stakeholders, led by Canada. Full prior disclosure of all the risks from this killer fiber is an ethical, legal and humanitarian necessity; therefore, the PIC listing of chrysotile should have been approved as a matter of utmost urgency at COP3 but it did not happen. India's official policy on chrysotile is not at all surprising given the fact that the industry's collusion seems quite manifest.

On August 18,2003, the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare and Parliamentary Affairs, Mrs Sushma Swaraj told the Indian Parliament that: "Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, have shown that longterm 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. 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 light of these statements and the new positions taken by the ILO and World Health Organization regarding the urgent need to eliminate asbestos use, the Government should be initiating a range of measures to protect the population from the asbestos hazard. That it is not doing so demonstrates the parasitic relationship which exists between politicians eager for campaign contributions and industry shareholders greedy for profits. Even after Mrs Sonia Gandhi's electoral victory, which was achieved under the slogan: Aam Aadmi (ordinary peopie), her Government's pro-chrysotile bias was undiminished. Recently, permission was granted for the construction of a huge asbestos-cement plant in Mrs. Gandhi's constituency in Raebarelly, Utter Pradesh.

While other countries are banning asbestos, India is expanding the asbestos sector. It is public knowledge that the Deputy Leader of the Indian National Congress in the Lower House of Parliament owns asbestos factories. To increase national demand for asbestos products, the Government has taken the perverse step of lowering import duties on chrysotile, much of which comes from Canada.

BANI, the Occupational Environmental Health Network of India, PublicHealthWatch, civil society groups, trade unions and human rights groups have demanded an immediate ban on all uses of asbestos including an immediate end to the import of chrysotile. They seek measures to identify, compensate and treat the asbestos-injured and regulations to minimize harmful exposures are also being proposed.

BANI demands the criminal prosecution of those responsible for asbestos exposures such as factory owners and company directors. Asbestos is a public health issue which the Government has ignored for far too long. In the public interest, BANI appeals to the Government of India to support the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on a trade "watch list" that already contains all other forms of asbestos.

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 chrysotile rupees that can be used to obtain an eveof political support. As the quid-pro-quo relationship between Government officials and asbestos businessmen exists outside the media spotlight, journalists and the public remain unaware of the pernicious reasons which motivate the decisions being taken; decisions which will expose current and future generations to the deadly asbestos hazard.

The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), Environment Health Criteria 203 concludes and recommends protection of human health from exposure to chrysotile asbestos because it poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks. It adds, where safer substitutes material are for chrysotile asbestos is available, they should be considered for use. IPCS specifically discourages the use of chrysotile asbestos in construction materials, the use for 90 percent of all asbestos in India.

We are alarmed by the misinformation by the Chrysotile asbestos industry. It will have us believe that the pattern of asbestos is entirely different in India hence most of the diseases pattern seen in the west bear no relevance to the magnitude of Indian experience. We are also afraid that the outcome of the chrysotile asbestos study underway at NIOH would be compromised because the research is partly funded by the Chrysotile asbestos industry.

Contrary to these misleading facts, Dr Qamar Rahman of Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, one of the most renowned toxicologists of India revealed a 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 includes cases where women have died after 6-7 years of the first exposure as was reported by the government doctors.

At a Round Table in March 2007 in Delhi, she reiterated her concerns emphatically. Concerned with the global and national evidence about the increasing death toll of asbestos workers, trade unions, labour and environmental groups have sought immediate phase out of chrysotile asbestos. In India asbestos is still used in the manufacture of pressure and non-pressure pipes used for water supply, sewage, and drainage, packing material, brake linings and jointing used in automobiles, heavy equipment, nuclear power plants, thermal power plants amongst others.

Even if one asbestos fibre reaches the right place, it causes irreversible damage - leading to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Despite the fact that the World Trade Organisation has given an appropriate judgment against it, upholding France's decision to ban import of asbestos from Canada, successive governments in India have promoted this killer mineral fibre ignoring public health. World over almost forty countries have already banned asbestos, said H Mahadevan, General Secretary All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) & Vice-president, National Safety Council.

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, informed Dr Kamat.

Thirty deaths are caused per day from asbestos-related diseases as per estimates based on US and European studies. White asbestos continues to be in use in India although other kinds such as blue and brown asbestos are banned. Asbestos is being promoted freely in our country whereas the developed countries are keeping away from it. Union Budget committed a blunder by reducing the customs duty on asbestos.

According to recent studies in United States there 10, 000 deaths happening due to past asbestos exposure and will cause million more deaths worldwide. This has been corroborated by studies published in the British Medical Journal. "The most vulnerable and affected people are the workers in asbestos manufacturing units who work under extremely hazardous conditions," said P K Ganguli of Centre for Indian Trade Union (CITU).

Taking note of the fact that public concern, regulations and liabilities involved have ended the use of asbestos from the developed countries, delegates at the Round Table wondered, "why is it that the concern of the countries, which have banned asbestos not relevant to India?." Exposing workers to asbestos must be equated to murder and legal provisions must deal with it accordingly. How many consumers would want to use the material if they know that even a single exposure can cause cancer? "Experimental as well as epidemiological studies proved asbestos as carcinogen as well as co- carcinogen. Risk assessment and control of occupational exposure are very poor in developing countries like India," said Dr Qamar Rehman.

Corroborating it Raghunathbhai Manwar of Occupational Health and Safety Association, Ahmedabad said, "There are no industrial physicians and virtually no occupational health centres, whatever the rules may say."

When the world is preparing and planning to get rid of all forms of asbestos, it makes us look stupid in India to be still importing it, we should devote our scarce resources to prevent the impending disaster by phasing it out as soon as we can. Safer substitutes materials for white asbestos are available, they should be considered for use.

Exposing any worker or citizen to asbestos is human rights violation. Alarmed at the continuing asbestos usage, its fatal consequences and misinformation campaign of the asbestos industry, nation wide public awareness campaign about the hazards of asbestos is the only solution. An unanimous appeal was agreed upon for the safety of asbestos workers at a Round Table in Delhi on 14 March 2007, recommending the Government of India to work out a timetable to phase out of asbestos for once and for all.

We, publicly denounce the wanton greed and callousness of white asbestos industry and the inhuman conditions of the asbestos workers. The industry has started harassing even the occupational and medical professionals who have disclosed the gravity of hazards of asbestos simply for leading medical efforts to bring asbestos hazards under control in India and for having a public discussion on the justification for banning asbestos. As medical and public health professionals and activists, we support them and agree that efforts to ban the use of white asbestos in India should be given serious and immediate attention by the government of India.

In short we

Urge the government to put an end to the ongoing expansion of the white asbestos sector that is being produced 24 hours a day, ensure just transition of workers and provide medical follow up and compensation to the affected workers;

Support ban on manufacture and use of asbestos and asbestos products as recommended by ILO, Collegium Ramazzini and International Commission on Occupational Health; Immediate Ratification of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 162 on Asbestos by the Government of India

Take strong objection to efforts by the asbestos industry to harass medical and public health professionals and conflict of interest ridden asbestos study sponsored by the industry being undertaken by government's occupational institutes and

Prepare a Register of asbestos victims and award a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the asbestos victims

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