Will Rotterdam Convention put controls over the killer mineral?
PRODUCERS of chrysotile asbestos, India, Russia and Canada, will again try to scuttle any controls over the mineral under the Rotterdam Convention that allows countries to monitor and control trade and use of hazardous chemicals.
Conference of parties (CoP-4) to the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure will be held in October-end in Rome. In the earlier three meetings, India had opposed inclusion of chrysotile asbestos on the pic list of hazardous chemicals.
The government claims there is not enough scientific evidence to prove asbestos-related afflictions, though asbestos is known to cause cancer and asbestosis, a chronic respiratory disease.
To build up support for controls on chrysolite asbestos, the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), an independent ngo working for a worldwide ban on asbestos and justice for its victims, released a dossier, India’s Asbestos Time Bomb, on September 25.
The dossier is authored by Indian and international scientists. “During CoP-4, the issue of including chrysolite asbestos in the pic list will come up, and we fear the Indian government will again play dirty and oppose its listing. In this monograph we have put together all scientific evidence to build up a case against chrysolite asbestos," said Madhumita Dutta of Chennai-based campaign group Corporate Accountability Desk.
According to the dossier, between 1960 and 2006, 6.7 million tonnes of asbestos was used in India. It claims that the asbestos industry in the country has gone scot-free, while thousands of workers are suffering. “India’s asbestos industry is worth Rs 3,000 crore. Its might can be gauged from the fact that in spite of 50 countries banning the use, manufacture and trade in asbestos, the Indian government continues to support it," said Gopal Krishna, coordinator of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, a group of health, environment and labour activists.
The government has not taken any action against asbestos use because politicians own most asbestos mines, allege activists. Rather in September 2007, India, along with Russia and Canada, blocked proposals to control the movement of asbestos wastes being considered by a working group of the Basel Convention, a treaty on control of hazardous waste movement across international borders. The Indian delegate argued that more research was needed before declaring chrysolite asbestos a hazardous substance.
Qamar Rahman, dean of Research and Development at the Integral University, Lucknow, along with the Central Pollution Control Board, carried out a study on asbestos effects in Rajasthan and Maharashtra in 2001-02. She found that 21 per cent workers in the unorganized sector had asbestosis. In the organized sector, 26 per cent of the workers had the disease, Rahman said in her paper that is a part of the dossier. The figures remain the same even now, she added.
“The Indian government rather engaged in a 'scientific' hogwash by hiring Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) to study the health impacts of chrysolite asbestos on workers,” alleges the report. The Rs 60 lakh study is being partially funded by the Indian asbestos industry and its representatives are part of the review committee of the study.
“The NIOH study is designed to hoodwink the international community. The scientific community, along with the Indian government, is to be blamed for turning a blind eye towards the problem. Most doctors also do not try to find out the history of patients suffering from mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused due to exposure to asbestos. There is no safe limit of asbestos exposure,” said S R Kamat, a retired professor of respiratory medicine at KEM Hospital, Mumbai.
V Murlidhar, founder member of the Mumbai-based Occupational Health and Safety Centre, a medical officer on a un Mission in Iraq, explained how the Indian medical community colluded with the asbestos industry by misreporting asbestosis cases as tuberculosis. He alleged that premier research institutions undertake several studies on asbestosis but the results are never made public. Added Prahlad Malwadkas, Murlidhar's colleague: “Asbestos patients are fighting a legal battle for compensation in the Bombay Labour Court and it may take years before they receive even a penny.” The industry even manipulates court hearings, he alleged. “To prove that a person is an asbestosis patient, the certifying doctor needs to depose before the court. But for months Murlidhar did not get a chance to depose before the court. Every time he came back from Iraq for a court hearing, the hearing got deferred.”
Down To Earth
Despite it being a proven carcinogen, India imported 3 lakh tonnes of asbestos in 2006
At the upcoming fourth UN meeting to be held in the last week of October in Rome, the Indian government is expected to once again remain consistent in colluding with the corporate interests of the asbestos industry against manifest public interest. White asbestos or Chrysotile fibre constitutes about 95 per cent of the world production and commercial use of asbestos primarily in the construction industry.
All kinds of asbestos including chrysotile cause cancer and according to World Health Organisation, “there is practically no safe level of exposure or use of asbestos against cancer”. It is a “silent killer” in that its effects are both gradual and not easily noticeable. But asbestos poisoning reaches everyone from the person mining it to the ultimate consumer of products containing asbestos.
Irrespective of the political party in power, India has opposed the inclusion of chrysotile, a lethal fibre in the list of UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals in International Trade at the three previous conferences of the parties to the convention against the interest of the Indian workers and citizens.
Asbestos is a generic term used for several naturally occurring fibrous, silicate materials and is used in a variety of everyday as well as industrial applications. Broadly there are three varieties of asbestos referred to as blue, brown and white Asbestos; all of them tend to break into microscopic fibres. Because of their small size, once released, they remain suspended in the air. Asbestos fibres are indestructible — they are resistant to chemicals and heat.
The threat from inhalation of asbestos fibre was known as far back as 1924. But this fact was not disclosed to workers involved in the asbestos industry. By the mid-1930s, it was proved that a small amount of asbestos fibre in the lungs could be fatal.
Asbestos-induced diseases like Mesothelioma and asbestosis currently kill more people than any other single work-related illness. These diseases have no cure. Worse, once the exposure has taken place, merely removing the victim from the site does not limit or arrest the progress of the disease nor the risk of cancer.
White asbestos continues to be in use in India although blue and brown asbestos are banned. It is used mainly for water pipes or as roofing sheets in the construction industry. Asbestos dust can be inhaled while drilling a hole, cutting a pipe, repairing, renovating or demolishing a building. Clinical reports show that asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer can show up even 25 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos.
Chrysotile is a convicted mass killer. There is no single product in day-to-day use at work or at home that strictly needs to be made from deadly asbestos. Even then, over 3,000 workplace and home-based products contain this poison. Cellulose fibre, PVA fibre, clay, stone tiles and steel are all good substitutes for asbestos. Although expensive at first, they work out to be cheaper in the long run because of their long life.
Few months back Dr Anbumani Ramadoss helplessly informed the parliament on asbestos "A lot of poor people use it. As regards the issue pertaining to banning of asbestos, on health grounds, the government certainly has not taken it up. It is an occupational hazard and people working in the asbestos factories are prone to lung cancer, but we are taking the enormity of the usage of asbestos. Mostly, poor people in the villages use it. Hence, I cannot take a decision on this issue."
Indeed it is for the Union Commerce Ministry to take a decision and amend the existing import policy for chrysotile without which the alarming rise in the asbestos consumption is unlikely to change. As per data released by the U.N. Statistics Division, India imported about 306,000 tonnes of asbestos in 2006. Of which, 152,820 tonnes was imported from Russia and 63,980 tonnes from Canada. It is estimated that cumulative asbestos consumption will exceed 7 million tonnes by the end of 2008. Of the total sales of asbestos cement products, more than half goes to the rural sector, while 20 and 30 percent are in the urban and industrial sectors, respectively. This is all the more dangerous given the sad state of medical facilities in rural areas. In any case asbestos diseases are preventable but incurable.
It is unpardonable for the ministry of commerce to succumb to pressures from the domestic asbestos industry which has been lobbying with the help of Chrysotile Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association and Asbestos Information Centre, both corporate NGOs and sharing the same platform with the international asbestos producers using the International Chrysotile Association.
Some 50 countries have banned asbestos to safeguard their citizens and workers but Indian government officials, like R K Vaish, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests have, astonishingly objected to the extension of prior-informed consent to cover white asbestos as a hazardous material subject to trade control. India has consistently joined hands with Russia and Canada — from where most of the asbestos is imported— to scuttle attempts to include the material in the international list of chemicals under the Rotterdam Convention. The Convention, which came into force in February 2004 under the United Nations Environment Programme, is a globally-binding instrument that provides an early warning system and transparent information on chemicals that have been banned or restricted by at least two countries.
The Indian government’s current stance at the upcoming Rome meeting goes against the interests of Indian workers and citizens. India must disassociate itself from Russian and Canada, which have successfully blocked consideration of a proposed UN initiative on trade in white asbestos with support from Russia and 12 other asbestos-producing countries. The recent years have witnessed global movement against asbestos gaining ground amid reports of asbestos companies going bankrupt due to their huge compensation liabilities. Following on the footsteps of Europe, the latest countries to ban asbestos are South Africa, Japan and Australia.
Unmindful of the fact that “poison” does not become “non-poisonous” as a result of advertising and public relations campaigns, the asbestos producing countries and asbestos industry continues to support mythical “safe” and “responsible” use of white asbestos turning a blind eye towards disastrous health consequences.
The story of such criminal recklessness by the asbestos industry has been documented in a recently released dossier titled "India's Asbestos Time Bomb". The dossier recommends, "The only way for the government to remedy the situation created by the asbestos industry is to implement a complete ban on the mining, manufacture, use and trade of all kinds of asbestos including chrysotile (white asbestos)."
While the reality is quite grim as far as the workers and consumers are concerned, industry continues to enjoy the patronage of the central and state governments. So much so that on 24 September, 2008 an investment advisory said, "If I were to sell my house and buy a stock I would probably buy this (Visaka Industries) asbestos-cement (AC) sheets manufacturing stock because it is coming at a very good valuation and there is a significant increase in profits expected over the next two years."
A paper titled Asbestos-Related Disease in India notes: "Although mesothelioma, asbestos related lung cancer are recognised worldwide, in India, neither one of the diseases is commonly reported. This is not surprising as in India, cancer is not a notifiable disease.” It has resulted in the failure of the medical professionals who are not trained to issue asbestos related diagnoses, leaving the victims with no option but to die a slow and painful death.
It is noteworthy that under massive criticism from all quarters both the ministries of Environment and Forests and Labour and Employment admitted on 17 March 2008 in the Rajya Sabha and on 20 March 2008 in the Lok Sabha that the government has undertaken a conflict of interest ridden study to give clean chit to chrysotile, a human carcinogen.
Earlier in its 2001 verdict, Appellate Body of World Trade Organisation while upholding chrysotile ban in France had soundly rejected the "controlled use" and safe use argument of the Canadian asbestos industry. In its 95th Session of the International Labour Conference on 14 June 2006, International Labour Organisation adopted a resolution for the elimination of all forms of asbestos from future use as the only way forward for protecting workers. It passed this resolution: "Considering that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a classification restated by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (a joint Programme of the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme)".
In the light of the an unprecedented occupational health crisis due to ongoing asbestos exposure, environmental, labour and human rights organisations have called upon the government to support the inclusion of chrysotile in the list of the Convention.
What is most alarming is that as of now there is a political consensus to promote its use in India. The acts of omission and commission by all the agencies that are working in tandem with Russian and Canadian asbestos producers must be brought under a scanner to set matters right. Insulated from media's attention in India, death toll due to asbestos is rising at an alarming rate. Even as such manifest acts of corporate crimes are underway routinely without any conviction till date, all news agencies remain dogmatically focussed on street crimes. Both state and central governments have devised a very simple way of responding to it. They have ensured that the deaths caused by asbestos are not recorded by any institution. As it stands now, Indian asbestos industry is well-insulated from the ongoing global ban on asbestos.
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