March against asbestos

Though its use is banned in most countries, the asbestos industry continues to thrive at the cost of putting millions of people at risk

By Gregory A Cade
Published: Tuesday 02 April 2019
March against asbestos
Union members march in Sydney on August 4, 2004 to protest against James Hardie Industries' compensation offer to former employees who have contracted asbestos related illnesses. Photo: Reuters Union members march in Sydney on August 4, 2004 to protest against James Hardie Industries' compensation offer to former employees who have contracted asbestos related illnesses. Photo: Reuters

Asbestos has an uncanny habit of repeatedly making headlines. Recently, the Drug Controller General of India issued a show cause notice to Johnson & Johnson for its alleged use of asbestos in its talcum powder. In February this year, authorities imposed a fine of more than US $40,000 after asbestos was found in the construction of a school in Michigan, usa. In New Zealand, a maternity home was demolished in March in Taupo District Council after officials detected asbestos materials. 

Asbestos has been used for different purposes since prehistoric times, but today the campaign against its use is building up, as exposure can lead to a wide range of diseases. When asbestos materials are damaged or broken during processing, the tiny fibres become airborne and can be easily inhaled at a significant rate. Once inhaled, asbestos fibres lodge in the lining of the throat, lung, or stomach, causing cells to mutate and become cancerous. 

Well-documented effects

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 125 million people are directly exposed asbestos in their workplace annually. More than 1 million workers die each year from an asbestos-related disease. In 2004, asbestos-related diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposure resulted in more than 1.5 million Disability Adjusted Life Years. 

That’s why 60 countries have banned the use of this toxic material. Though the Supreme Court of India banned its use on January 21, 2011, it is still being widely used across India. The country uses about 350,000 tonnes of asbestos annually and the industry is growing by 12 per cent annually. More than 50 factories use chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, as an ingredient in cement roofing sheets, wall panels, pipes and other products. Asbestos deposits are found in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Manipur. Workers at cement factories in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Mumbai are suffering from the lethal effects of asbestos. In these factories, the prevalence of asbestosis varies between 3 per cent and 5 per cent. Worse, India continues to import asbestos to be used in cement roofing sheets, cement piping, friction materials, textiles, insulation and even railways and armed forces. Moreover, asbestos products carry no health warning labels and trade unions have no mandate to prevent asbestos-related disease at workplaces. 

In fact, asbestos related-diseases are never diagnosed but simply labelled as tuberculosis or bronchitis. As long as the state governments and Union Territories have no mechanism to prove that lung cancer deaths and other severe conditions are being caused by asbestos exposure, the Indian asbestos industry could not care less about global efforts to completely eliminate this deadly material. 

Trials continue

Russia remains the world’s largest producer of asbestos. The major mines are situated in Asbest, a city located on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, once known as the “dying city” due to its high rate of lung cancer and other asbestos-related conditions. Russia provides most of the asbestos to the world market, including for the US. 

Ironically, its use is legal in the US. “By allowing asbestos to remain legal, the Trump administration would be responsible for the flood of asbestos imports from Russia and other countries into the US, as well as the wave of illnesses and deaths that will continue for years to come,” says Linda Reinstein, ceo and co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a non-profit based in California, usa. 

The legal claims for injuries from asbestos exposure in the US involve more plaintiffs, more defendants and higher costs than any other type of personal injury litigation. By the beginning of 2001, about 600,000 individuals had filed lawsuits against more than 6,000 defendants. The total amount that defendants and insurers have spent on resolving claims, including legal costs, is estimated to be US $54 billion. The victims say they suffer from lung problems caused by repeated exposure to asbestos on their jobs.

The cases with the greatest potential liability involve mesothelioma and lung cancer. How much money can be awarded in a lawsuit depends on many factors, such as the medical evidence that confirms the diagnosis, the degree of injury, the actual and potential losses, and the financial resources of the company liable for the asbestos exposure. 

Since the 1980s and continuing through the present, a number of companies who were defendants in asbestos litigations quickly sought to limit their losses by filing for bankruptcy protection. Specifically, this is a legal process which allows a company to re-organise in a bankruptcy proceeding, put money aside for present and future asbestos liabilities, and, then exit bankruptcy and continue to do business. For instance, Johns-Manville declared bankruptcy decades ago and set up a bankruptcy trust to pay victims of asbestos-related diseases. Soon the company exited bankruptcy and continued to operate as a business with products that can be seen in building supply stores across the country. 

(The author is the principal attorney at US-based Environmental Litigation Group, PC, a law firm focused on asbestos exposure cases, toxic exposure cases and environmental cases)

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated April 1-15, 2019)

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