Death Inside The Factory Gates

Asbestos makes 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

Published: Saturday 30 September 2000

Death Inside The Factory Gates

Credit: Photographs: Ananda Banerji

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 country's lawmakers to such a harmful substance. Ironically, it continues to export it to developing countries and, in fact, has the distinction of being the world's 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 Today.

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.

Lurking danger: continuous exposure to asbestos particles can lead to many diseases, including lung cancer

Canada's conundrum At the centre of the battle against asbestos is Canada. But the Canadian government's 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 Canada's top markets are in developing countries.

Perhaps Canada's 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 asbestos.

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. Canada's 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 markets.

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 Canada's 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 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 100,000 workers.

"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).

Occupational hazard: while other countries ban production of asbestos, the Indian government promotes its use

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 Joshi.

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."

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 USEPA's 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.

Trade tactics

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 Argentina.

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 preventable."

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 asbestos's 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 level.


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.

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 year's Union budget though the levy on PVA was brought down, duty on asbestos was not increased, thus giving an impression that the government favours asbestos.


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 doesn't 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.

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