Supreme Court's Asbestos Decision a Missed Opportunity
A ruling handed down on January 21, 2011 by the Supreme Court of India rejected an appeal to ban asbestos. This is one of a long line of missed opportunities for the world's most prolific importer of asbestos to conclude a damning chapter of its industrial history. Since 1960, more than 7.5 million tonnes of asbestos, a substance categorized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a class 1 carcinogen, have been used in India.1 Supreme Court Justices S.H. Kapadia (Chief), K.S. Panicker Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar summarily rejected the public interest lawsuit mounted in 2004 by a non-governmental organization.2
The court verdict will undoubtedly be grist to the public relations machine that progresses the asbestos industry's propaganda campaign in India. Asbestos-cement factories seem to be springing up with incredible speed throughout the country, often despite strong community opposition. The campaign by local activists against plans to build a factory producing asbestos-cement roofing materials in Manwar has been widely reported.3 The Environment Ministry has asked the Bihar State Government to explain the decision to approve plans for this and 11 other plants for the production of asbestos-cement roofing in the State in light of well-known concerns over the toxicity of asbestos.
Commenting on the asbestos hazard, Dr. Sanjay Chaturvedi, head of the Department of Community Medicine, Faculty of Medical Science at Delhi University, recently noted:
Asbestos is a highly hazardous material to human health and both occupational as well as non-occupational exposures are associated with mesothelioma and other malignancies among humans."
Given the links between asbestos exposure and cancers of the lung, larynx and ovary, the country's heavy asbestos usage will undoubtedly contribute to the predicted escalation in cancer mortality. Indeed in June 2008, a spokesperson for Tata Memorial Hospital revealed that the hospital had diagnosed 107 cases of mesothelioma, an aggressive asbestos cancer, since 1985; the majority of patients were males between the ages of 40 and 69. The same day the Supreme Court declined to take action on asbestos, Dr R. A. Badwe, Director of the Tata Memorial Hospital, confirmed that India is at the beginning of an explosion of cancer burden due to several factors and drastic steps need to be taken to prevent the explosion.4 In this context, the decision of the Supreme Court is a tragic mistake, the cost of which will be borne by innocent Indian citizens.
January 22, 2011
2 SC refuses asbestos ban in India. January 21, 2011.
3 Chauhanc C. Ramesh issues notice to Bihar on new asbestos plants. January 18, 2011.
Kazan-Allen L. Asbestos Protests in India, Canada and Korea. January 2011
4 India staring at cancer explosion: Experts. January 21, 2011.