Sitting Ducks

As polluting asbestos units and illegal mining thrive amid lax laws, lakhs of workers become easy prey for dreaded diseases

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Monday 15 April 2002

Sitting Ducks

-- (Credit: Ananda Banerjee / CSE)These factories do not exist in government records. Nor do they figure in the lists of pollution control boards or other regulatory bodies. Even as they have mushroomed in small towns, they are also sprouting in the dark bylanes of congested localities in large cities. They function from one or two-roomed quarters and employ five to 10 labourers. Covered from head to toe in toxic dust, these unwary workers go about their job oblivious of the fact that they are breathing death in lungfuls. This is the ugly face of the unorganised small-scale asbestos manufacturing industry.

Occupational exposure to asbestos occurs during mining operations too. Till a few years back, asbestos was mined in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. But after the ban on extension of leases, mining activity in Andhra came to a halt. In Rajasthan, however, illegal mining continues unabated (see box: Ground reality).

It is ironic that though the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef) had set up the Rajagopalan Committee in August 2001 to formulate a comprehensive policy on asbestos and the industry dependent on it, no guidelines are in sight as yet. Consequently, the much-needed fresh set of regulations related to asbestos hangs fire. And controversy clouds the entire gamut of issues pertaining to it -- be it imports, mining, manufacturing or health and environmental considerations.

In fact, scientists and researchers the world over have come out with contradictory reports on how asbestos can have a deleterious effect on human health. Their studies have been highly polarised: while North American research seeks to distinguish between various forms of asbestos and postulates that with controlled use it can be a safe product, exploration of the subject by many European nations discredits such claims and calls for a phasing out of all products containing it.

The two schools of thought take a divergent view on its categorisation and uses. However, there is near unanimity between them on its link with deadly diseases such as asbestosis, an irreversible and progressive pulmonary condition; pleural mesothelioma, cancer of the thin membrane enclosing the lungs; and lung cancer.
Tagged by lethality Distinguishing various types of asbestos in terms of their hazardous nature and disease-causing potential has driven scientific research for a long time. Broadly, asbestos -- a generic term for a group of naturally occurring hydrated silicate mineral fibres -- is divided into two major groups:

serpentine -- which includes chrysotile (white asbestos)

amphibole -- whose varieties include amosite (brown asbestos), tremolite, actinolite, anthophylite and crocidolite (blue asbestos)

Of these, chrysotile accounts for almost 90 per cent of the asbestos used in industries. Crocidolite, which causes maximum health damage, is banned in India and in most other countries.

"Human data generates incontrovertible evidence that blue asbestos has the highest mesothelioma and lung cancer-causing potential," reveals Jim Willis, director, chemicals division, United Nations Environment Programme (unep). "This is largely because of the synchronicity in a number of epidemiology studies," he adds. The epidemiology database for white asbestos is not as robust, though there are definitely indicative human research analysis results. White asbestos has also been known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. A number of countries consider it to be as hazardous as its blue variant. "Both cause the same problem -- cancer," points out Willis.

The Indian asbestos industry, particularly its cement sector, asserts that chrysotile (which it uses) is a safer variety and should not be associated with malignant diseases. "Extensive research shows that chrysotile does not cause asbestos-related ailments," says A K Sethi, executive director, New Delhi branch of Asbestos Information Centre (aic), a global body set up by the members of the industry. This claim is refuted by Qamar Rahman, head of the toxicology division of Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (itrc), Lucknow, who has conducted extensive research in the field of fibre toxicology.

"Both serpentine and amphibole asbestos fibres can cause pulmonary diseases. Chrysotile-induced asbestosis typically requires a three-fold higher lung fibre concentration than amphiboles. Yet pleural and parenchymal (relating to essential substance of gland or organ as distinguished from flesh and connective tissue) cells appear equally sensitive to chrysotile in terms of inducing asbestosis and mesothelioma in humans. Serpentine fibres -- of which chrysotile is the principal commercial variety -- are curly-stranded structures whereas amphiboles are straight, rod-like fibres," says Rahman. "The toxic effects of asbestos depend upon the cumulative dose and the time since the first exposure. Asbestos-related diseases typically occur after a 15 to 40-year latency period following initial fibre exposure," she adds.

Frank J Hearl, deputy director, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (niosh) of the us, concurs with Rahman: "Some research suggests that chrysotile may be associated with fewer cases of malignant mesothelioma, while other studies hint at an increased risk from lung cancer. All forms of asbestos cause asbestosis. The niosh states that it is not possible to differentiate the risk between asbestos minerals."

Some reports have indicated of late that asbestos can cause various cancers through the oral route. But Rahman differs. "A few varieties of asbestos such as chrysotile, amosite, tremolite and anthophylite were administered orally to animals on whom experiments were carried out. The results of the study revealed no harmful effects," she discloses. "However, there is some evidence that actual oral exposure may induce precursor lesions of colon cancer, and that chronic oral exposure may lead to an increased risk of gastrointestinal tumours," adds Rahman.

Multi-utility mineral
The etymology of the word 'asbestos' can be traced to the Greek language where it means 'indestructible'. The tensile strength and resilient structural and chemical properties of asbestos fibres are ideally suited for various construction, insulation and other industrial purposes. Upwards of 5,000 products contain asbestos.

The building industry uses it for reinforcing cement and plastics, fireproofing, sound absorption as well as in insulating applications. Shipbuilders utilise asbestos to insulate boilers, steam pipes and hot water pipes. The automotive industry uses it in vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads.

In the case of these automotive friction components, exposure to asbestos is not just an occupational hazard. Its fibres are released into the ambient air each time the clutch and brake pedals are used. With the ever-increasing number of vehicles in cities, this public health problem can assume serious proportions. Despite this sources at the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) concede that no monitoring of asbestos fibre in ambient air is being done. Under the Air Pollution (prevention and control) Act of 1981, asbestos concentration in ambient air should be in the range of 0-0.0005 fibre per cubic centimetre (fibre/cc).

"The world over, industry is moving towards asbestos-free brake lining and we need to do the same," says B Sengupta, member secretary, cpcb. Material such as glass wool and mineral wool are cleaner alternatives for use in friction products. The Green Rating of the Indian Industry Project of the Centre for Science and Environment has, meanwhile, found that almost 40 per cent of the automobile companies have moved towards using non-asbestos brake shoes and other friction material.

At the workplace, mechanics and brake workers can be exposed to asbestos dust in different ways, including during cutting, scraping, grinding brake shoes and refurbishing brakes or clutches. "There has not been much change in the ground situation. Much of the problem stems from the fact that rules and regulations are poorly implemented," feels Ravi Agarwal, head of Srishti, a non-governmental organisation (ngo) based in Delhi.

As for the use of asbestos in cement products, research studies have thrown up different findings. According to Brooke Mossman of the University of Vermont (us), an authority in the field of health effects of asbestos and fibres, asbestos in cement pipes or sheeting is not a risk to the general public as the fibres are in a matrix and cannot break into smaller particles even with weathering. Arthur Frank from the University of Tyler, Texas, usa, however, says: "Asbestos cement breaks down over time and its fibres become free."

A factsheet on asbestos brought out by Toxics Link, a New Delhi-based ngo, states that asbestos mining and milling activity is concentrated in the small-scale sector in India, whereas its products are manufactured by the small, medium and large-scale sectors. But the inconspicuous small-scale units are the biggest violators of the existing environmental regulations.

Danger zone
These tiny factories, whose number is burgeoning, manufacture a range of goods -- from friction products such as brake shoes and clutch linings to asbestos cement pipes and sheets. They also produce gaskets and seals. The small-scale industry (ssi) blatantly flouts rules on exposure levels of asbestos fibre, occupational safety and waste disposal (see table: Types of air pollutants from asbestos-related activities). Down To Earth conducted a survey of some of the small friction products units in and around Delhi. To be sure, some of them had installed equipment like the dust collector to prevent occupational exposure. But others were functioning without any precautionary devices.

Interestingly, the ssi too has someone to complain about -- the ultra small-scale sector. The owner of a unit alleges that in the past six months he has twice come across one-room factories manufacturing products of their brand. "The condition of such units is appalling. I saw workers covered with asbestos dust from head to toe," he reveals.

Significantly, this industry functions through an organised network. There is a manufacturer who makes spurious friction products from an unregistered factory (one was recently caught in the Kirti Nagar area of Delhi) and caters to different packers. They in turn pack these goods in cartons of noted brands, dispatching the consignment to the Kashmere Gate area in the capital -- one of the largest automobile spare parts markets in Asia. "Such products sell for almost one-fifth the price of genuine spares," reveals an auto spare parts wholesaler and adds candidly: "I sell 10 spurious spares for every genuine part." Though no data is available about the ultra small-scale sector, estimates suggest that lakhs of workers across the country are exposed every day to deadly asbestos fibres while working in these units.

"We had done a survey of registered and unregistered small-scale asbestos products factories in 1995," discloses A S Sood, deputy director, development commissioner's office for ssis. "To our dismay, we found that 90 per cent of the units had no mechanisms to prevent occupational exposure to asbestos fibre. Worse still, they were not functioning properly in the few units that had installed them," he adds.

Whither control?
"The use of asbestos should not be allowed in the unorganised sector at present. At the same time, the functioning of the larger players too needs to be strictly regulated," opines Sengupta. Senior mef officials and ssi top brass share his view. In this connection, the mef's office memorandum dated August 21, 2001, observes that asbestos industries have come under close scrutiny worldwide and several developed countries are jettisoning asbestos due to its known adverse impact on health.

Recently a committee appointed under the interim secretariat for the Rotterdam Convention on the prior informed consent procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade has concluded that all forms of asbestos should be subjected to trade controls. A unep committee of government-appointed experts has decided that all types of asbestos will be added to an international list of chemicals subject to trade controls.

But India is progressing at a snail's pace. The Rajagopalan committee that was scheduled to review Indian regulations and report to the policy implementation cell of the Union commerce and industry ministry by November 15, 2001, has held just one meeting to date. Some activists and occupational health experts allege that the committee may be under pressure from the powerful asbestos industry to delay tougher regulations in line with global standards. The panel comprises the member-secretary of cpcb, director of National Institute of Occupational Health, director-general of mines safety, director of itrc and director-general of National Council for Cement and Building Materials.

Senior mef officials have informed Down To Earth that in the first meeting there had been suggestions to make emission standards more stringent for asbestos product-manufacturing units. Currently the permissible level for the workplace is two fibres per normal metre cube (Nm 3 ), which is 20 times the world's best standard. "There were suggestions to reduce this to 0.5 Nm 3 ," says the source. But this is still five times the global limit.

Other retrograde steps have also been brought to light. Activists claim that India has been reducing the customs duty on asbestos fibre in recent years (from 78 per cent in 1995-96 to 25 per cent in 1999-2000), thus promoting the use of the product. India imports around one lakh tonnes of chrysotile asbestos. Furthermore, during 1997-98 the number of industrial sectors subject to licensing was reduced from 14 to nine. The de-licensed industries include asbestos units.

So far as the disposal of asbestos-containing wastes is concerned, the mef is currently working on some guidelines. "It may take a while," says Lakshmi Raghupati, additional director with the ministry. But, surprisingly, instead of involving all the stakeholders in the formulation of the rules, the mef has adopted a document prepared by industry body aic as a preliminary draft. "It is surprising that the ministry has decided to adopt the guidelines prepared by the asbestos industry itself. It is not even ready to discuss the subject with us," says Madhumita Dutta, central coordinator, Toxics Link.

Looking ahead, Agarwal recommends a switchover from asbestos to human-made fibres. "It is true that the replacement will be expensive. But the costs incurred would be similar if the industry has to pay compensation and invest in protective gear," he points out. Agarwal adds that the cost of alternatives can be prevented from spiralling if "unnecessary tariffs and technological barriers" are done away with.

Noble thoughts. But till they are translated into concrete action by the authorities, gullible Indian labourers will continue getting caught in the death trap of asbestos dust.

Types of air pollutants from asbestos-related activities
Sources Pollutants
Asbestos mining and milling Fibre, dust
Asbestos bag opening and grinding Fibrous dust (fibre + suspended particulate matter, ie, SPM)
Main cement silos, plant cement silos, transfer lines Cement dust (SPM)
Storage of oxidants, colouring agents, metal powders Miscellaneous dust (SPM)
Raw materials mixing Asbestos dust, cement dust and miscellaneous dust (fibre + SPM)
Pulverising broken/rejected pieces Mixed dust (fibre + SPM)
Cutting and finishing operations SPM
LDO baking ovens and furnaces Soot, fumes, CO (carbon monoxide), NOx (oxides of nitrogen), SO2 (sulphur dioxide), phenolic gas, ammonia, aldehydes
Boilers, incinerators SPM, NOx, SO2
Source: Anon 2002, Factsheet on asbestos, Toxics Link, New Delhi, P5

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