India: Asbestos Update
Industry "captured" government committees that reviewed asbestos issues in 1985 and 1995, resulting in reports accepting the status quo ("controlled use"). A new government committee seems more balanced, including Dr. TK Joshi and chaired by Joint Secretary of Ministry of Environment and Forests, V Rajgopalan.
Dr. Joshi’s calls for an asbestos ban have picked up support over the past year, including an editorial by his successor as President of Indian Association of Occupational Health (IAOH), GK Kulkarni (Asbestos – to Ban or not to ban? Indian J. Occup. Envir. Med. 5: 2, 2001), and another editorial by Sanjay and Sujata Chaturvedi (Carcinogenicity of Asbestos: Convincing evidence, conflicting interests. Nat. Med. J. India 14: 43-46, 2001).
Indian government (Central Building Research Institute) research into alternative vegetable fibers and wastes as reinforcements for fiber-cements continues, under the direction of Dr. LK Agarwal. They have developed roofing tiles and blocks using coir fiber and cement; recently, work (sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture) has begun on developing cement building materials incorporating byproducts of oilseeds, pulses, and maize.
The Indian government has lowered import duties for asbestos by 68% between 1995-2000, giving asbestos imports a decided advantage over polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) fibers, whose duties are at about the levels that asbestos was in 1995. This is one reason that attempts by (Belgium’s) Etex affiliate Eternit Everest to replace asbestos in corrugated roofing with PVA failed in 2001. The company had converted a plant in Maharashtra and announced plans to do likewise with 3 other plants, making PVA-cement roofing and flat cement sheets using coir fiber. But in recent months, Etex’s 52% share in Eternit Everest was bought out by ACC, a large cement firm that had previously owned a 26% share, and the Maharashtra plant is now reportedly being reconverted to use asbestos.
Multinational asbestos firms based in the US and Europe dominated the asbestos industry in India in the past, but today the industry is run by Indian companies. There are 3 to 5 separate trade associations representing the asbestos industry in India, putting out familiar propaganda including paid ads in newspapers ("recent reports linking the use of Asbestos to health hazards have been once again clarified and set to rest").
There are relatively few reports on asbestos in the Indian medical literature. However, the government surveys that have been done over the years have shown consistently poor conditions with fiber counts sometimes well above the government limit of 2 f/cc.
Less than 5 compensated cases of workers who developed asbestos diseases are known to us, though efforts continue to find out about others. It appears that the prospects for compensation have been bleak. A 1995 Supreme Court decision was intended to promote more disability evaluations, to be made by the National Institute of Occupational Health; but there was no provision to pay for having the evaluations done.
Pressures on Dr. TK Joshi, leading medical advocate of banning asbestos in India, continued. Dr. Joshi remained unpaid since October, 2001, and international efforts to press for renewal of his position at the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Lok Nayak Hospital were not successful in resolving the impasse.
Events in April, 2002
Toxics Link arranged for an impressive gathering of ~30 toxics activists to converge on Delhi the week of the medical conference organized by Dr. Joshi. They came to learn about asbestos and consider concerted action on the asbestos issue. Sudam Mitra of Kalyaneshwari in Kolkata had already filed a complaint about community asbestos hazards in India to the National Human Rights Commission, and on March 18, 2002, the Commission ordered the Ministry of Mines to respond to it.
The asbestos industry took a very low profile, unlike a year ago. Junior trade association officials declined to meet with visitors Castleman and Giannasi, and questions were faxed by Toxics Link to the senior industry spokesman at Hyderabad Industries, the country’s leading asbestos-cement producer. Industry representatives at the medical meeting and an earlier evening public meeting did not confront the speakers calling for an asbestos ban.
We visited Mr. Rajgopalan, Joint Secretary of Ministry of Environment and Forests and chairman of the state asbestos committee, noticing the broken pieces of asbestos cement lying just outside of his office on the floors of the building undergoing renovation. We were amazed when he showed surprise that this type of exposure and a vivid example of why the environmental authorities should want to ban asbestos was occurring right outside of his door.
The medical meeting included presentations by leading experts on asbestos. Dr. Domyung Paek reported that asbestos use in Korea was declining and that asbestos textile production had all fled to Indonesia and China. The national exposure limit had been lowered from 2 f/cc to 0.2 f/cc. He also discussed efforts to compensate asbestos victims in Korea. Dr. Benedetto Terracini told about epidemiological findings that about 6 out of 10 cases of mesothelioma found each year near a closed asbestos plant in Italy had only environmental asbestos exposure. Risk of the disease was found to be greatest among people living nearest to the plant. Dr. James Leigh reported on work of the Mesothelioma Register of Australia, the leading register of its kind in the world. The cases investigated indicated clearly that chrysotile asbestos and sometimes very limited exposure to asbestos had caused mesothelioma. Dr. T. Jayabalan of Malaysia reported that Malaysia is months away from banning asbestos, that the industries, unions and government are in agreement and that the media have been aggressively covering the issue. He is also starting work on a mesothelioma register in his country.
Dr. Qamar Rahman, an Indian toxicologist who has studied asbestos, reported that illegal tremolite mining in Rajasthan is said by local doctors to be so uncontrolled that workers die in 6 years from the dust. She told of women shaking out asbestos sacks for re-use all day, paid less than one dollar a day, and showed pictures of women with dust all over their clothing and bodies. She is involved in conducting a medical survey for the Central Pollution Control Board that should be completed by March 2003. Dr. Rahman, who had been more cautious a year ago, said she supported the call for a ban on asbestos in India.
The medical meeting, held by the Delhi chapter of the IAOH, concluded with a written statement supporting the idea of banning asbestos, urging the government to take immediate action to close the tremolite asbestos mines in Rajasthan, and urging the government to ratify ILO Convention 162 on asbestos. The statement also protested the harassment by the asbestos industry of medical and public health professionals.
The activists met the next day and agreed to establish the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI – the Hindi word for "voice"). Groups involved include environmental groups and groups that work with unions and communities. A platform was written on which all participating groups agreed, calling for an asbestos ban, for compensation of workers harmed by asbestos, just transition for workers losing employment, and measures to raise public awareness about asbestos. Efforts to obtain funding support and hire a person to work on the issue full-time are planned.
News coverage of these events appeared in The Lancet, Times of India, The Pioneer, and The Economic Times of New Delhi.
April 25, 2002