Asbestos Disinformation Campaign in India
An estimated 1,25,000 million metric tons of asbestos is used in India each year. About 1,00,000 tons is imported mainly from Canada and Russia, and 25,000 is locally mined. The imported asbestos is all Chrysotile as government of India prohibits the import and use of Crocidolite asbestos. The locally mined material is Chrysotile and Tremolite. The three states where the mines are located include Rajsthan in west, Bihar in east and Andhra Pradesh in the south of India. The imported asbestos costs about US $ 800/ton, whereas the locally mined material costs only US $ 30/ton.
The asbestos industry in India has an annual turn over of US $ 200 million. Thirteen large, and 673 small-scale units are involved in asbestos use. States of Andhra, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu and Gujrat account for about 75% of the total consumption. A factory near Delhi in Haryana state consumes 15%, and another in Gujrat uses up about 8% of the total asbestos. For some time there has been weak demand for asbestos cement pipes in the country.
It is estimated that the asbestos industry employs directly 6,000 workers, and another 1,00,000 are indirectly dependent on its use. However, these figures may be an under estimate. Majority of asbestos, i. e., 98% tons, is used in the manufacture of asbestos cement products such as pipes and sheets. The remaining is used by automotive industry since asbestos is used in the manufacture of brake shoes and clutch pedals as well as gaskets etc. Asbestos textile is manufactured in India.
The exposure to asbestos is covered under The Environment Protection Act 1986, which sets a limit of 4 f/cc for environmental emission. Under The Factories Act 1948, the limit of occupational exposure is 2 f/cc, which is under review and may be brought down to 1 f/cc. This will still be higher compared to the standard of 0.1 – 0.5 f /cc prevailing in most developed countries. Under The Factories Act asbestosis is included as the notifiable disease but there is no mention of mesothelioma. However, under The Mines Act of 1952 after a revision in 1995, the condition of Cancer lung, stomach, and pleura including mesothelioma were included as notifiable diseases. The word notifiable denotes an obligation on the part of the physician to notify a disorder, and if proved work related, compensation is paid.
Few studies of asbestos exposed victims have been undertaken and there is no central registry for mesothelioma. Lack of such data makes things difficult for those fighting the disinformation campaign of asbestos lobby. The enforcement departments including those of labour and mines, lack the expertise to measure airborne concentration of asbestos accurately.
Besides, industry is close to policy makers, which further makes life difficult for those working towards achieving a ban on asbestos. An Asbestos Information Centre has been active in India and is located in Delhi. In past, it has held meetings and conferences where pro industry scientists were invited who underplayed the risks created by Chrysotile asbestos. In one of the conferences, International Labour Office was a co-sponsor.
After a consumer group filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) some years back, the Supreme Court or the apex court in the country expressed unhappiness at the way asbestos exposed workers were treated. The court ordered compensation to the victims of asbestosis consequent upon their work in mining. It further said that International Labour Standard No. 162 on asbestos should be implemented whenever asbestos is used. The court further ordered the use of Membrane Filter Method for air monitoring of asbestos exposure. The medical surveillance of asbestos exposed workers is not streamlined and is not undertaken in a proper manner. One of the main reasons is lack of adequately trained physicians in occupational medicine. This also hampers the correct diagnosis of asbestos related diseases specially the mesothelioma.
The Indian Association of Occupational Health (IAOH) in 2001 February organized its annual conference and included a symposium on banning asbestos use in India. Objecting to this, the asbestos lobby in India threatened the organizers to withdraw the symposium or change its title. Only when the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat and leading scientists and organizations in North America, South America and Europe protested, did the lobby retract its threat. The lobby was arguing that asbestos could be used responsibly, safely and in a controlled manner as has been recommended by many. However, those making such recommendations for safe use of asbestos were not identified.
There are several constraints in implementing the strict surveillance for asbestos exposed workers. Large number of small scale units spread far and wide in the country with scant resources and lack of will to implement health and safety measures at work, makes protection of workers difficult. Moreover, the construction workers remain unsupervised. The IAOH is an influential organization but remains dominated by pro industry physicians who are opposed to criticizing industry for its poor record. Academic base of occupational medicine is weak. It was expected that physicians working in academic departments are outside the influence of industry and can take a strong position against asbestos lobby. Even trade unions have not raised the issue of asbestos enthusiastically.
The picture in India with regard to asbestos use and exposure remains grim and alarming. Asbestos exposure is causing a "Disaster in Slow Motion" but is not visible as no records are maintained, and enforcement remains on paper. It is not difficult to imagine the outcome of such a scenario. In the final analysis, asbestos exposure will claim many times more lives than the Methyl Isocynate exposure in Bhopal in 1984 did. Due to the lack of will of stakeholders, it is only an international effort that can force the asbestos lobby to mend its ways and to generate a sustained pressure on the government to ban asbestos use in India as has been done by many countries,
June 8, 2001