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Use of white chrysotile asbestos, a time bomb of lungs rising at an alarming rate

Written By Gopal Krishna on Tuesday, December 03, 2013 | 2:35 AM


Government should ban trade, use of asbestos fibers and provide compensation to victims

Ensure decontamination of pre-existing asbestos laden buildings

Resistance of Bihar and Odisha villagers against asbestos factories paves way for asbestos free India


December 2, 2013: Import of incurable lung cancer causing white chrysotile asbestos, a mineral fiber has increased 186 % in last six years despite Government of India’s announcement that it plans to ban it in compliance with Supreme Court’s order and the resolution of International Labour Organisation and World Health Organisation (WHO) seeking elimination of all kinds of asbestos and its replacement with asbestos substitutes. White chrysotile asbestos is primarily used for manufacture of asbestos cement sheets and pipes for roofing and water supply. After banning, government should announce a compensation for workers, their families and consumers and undertake nationwide decontamination of pre-existing asbestos laden buildings. Two WHO documents on asbestos substitutes and elimination of asbestos related diseases is attached.

Russia, top supplier to Indian manufacturers of asbestos products produces 10 lakh tons of the 20 lakh tons of asbestos produced globally. Most of asbestos, India imports come from Russia. In India, import of asbestos rose from 253,382 tons in 2006 to 473,240 in 2012. It is an increase of 186% between 2006-2012.

In a statement, Dr Barry Castleman, an Environmental Consultant, USA said, "On
December 3, we will always remember what happened in Bhopal. The asbestos industry conference in Delhi comes on the anniversary of the disaster in Bhopal. The death toll in Bhopal was in the tens of thousands, a result of willful, reckless corporate disregard for health of workers and the community. The toll in permanently disabled persons was in the hundreds of thousands. Though we do not have sufficient data to accurately calculate the death toll from asbestos use in India that will result from current and anticipated consumption, it must surely be at least on the scale of the toxic tragedy in Bhopal. One difference is that the toll from asbestos is delayed, almost entirely undiagnosed and uncounted in official records. Another difference is that in the case of asbestos, this discredited, hazardous technology is in the new century promoted by Indian businessmen, not foreign corporations. No one can doubt that these companies are aware of the pariah status of asbestos in the world. And no one can say that the exposure of virtually the entire Indian population to asbestos is comparable to the industrial accident which occurred in Bhopal 29 years ago; these construction products are being used as intended." Dr Castleman is the author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects, one of the most authoritative books on asbestos industry.

Dr Castleman added, "So it shows an ironic and contemptible insensitivity for the global asbestos industry to meet in India, to plan to expand its market and with it the death toll that will result in India. Only the scale of toxic corporate crime makes this a symbolically appropriate time for the assembly of the asbestos industry in India." Dr Castleman visits India quite often and has been involved in research in the aftermath of disaster caused by Union Carbide Corporation whose asbestos related liabilities have been transferred to Dow Chemicals Company which led to creation of a compensation fund of 2.2 billion dollars for the victims of asbestos related disease.
ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) demands that Government should compel Indian asbestos companies to create a compensation fund for the Indian victims of asbestos related
diseases.

During December 3-4, 2013, the global asbestos industry is holding yet another conference in New Delhi co-organised by the International Chrysotile Association (ICA) and Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, (ACPMA), India.

The program schedule of the conference in New Delhi refers to welcome address by “Indian Government Dignitaries” besides Dr. Vivek Chandra Rao of ACPMA. The presence of these “Indian Government Dignitaries” will demonstrate which minister or officials act as impediment to ban on white chrysotile asbestos in India to safeguard public health. Their presence will illustrate who compelled the Indian delegation to take a ridiculous position at the UN’s Rotterdam Convention. Indian delegation at the UN Meeting committed the sin of belittling India’s stature by citing an admittedly tainted and grossly conflict of interest ridden scientific study that was finalised after discussions with vested corporate interests. Notably, Dr. Vivek Chandra Rao of ACPMA and Abhaya Shankar, Managing Director, Hyderabad Industries Ltd, the Chairman of ACPMA has accompanied the Indian delegation.

A letter from Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) sent to ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), a research and advocacy group reveals that Indian delegation led by of Ajay Tyagi currently Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board was misguided by a note of Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC), Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers to misrepresent Government of India’s position on hazardous substance chrysotile asbestos at the Sixth Conference of Parties of (CoP-6) of UN’s Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade held in Switzerland. The note can be made available on request.

Indian delegation’s position was/is inconsistent with domestic laws. MoEF shared a 7 page long note of the DCPC on the subject of Chrysotile Asbestos titled ‘Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals’ View on the use of Chrysotile Asbestos” in the country’. MoEF’s contention based DCPC’s note stating that “On the basis of the said note, the listing of Chrysotile Asbestos under Annex ‘A’ of Rotterdam Convention at CoP-6 during April 28th -May 10th 2013 at Geneva could not be supported” unless revised remains misplaced. This note of the ‘line department’, i.e. Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals (DCPC), Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers on the subject of chrysotile asbestos is totally illogical. Notably, Vision Statement of Union Ministry of Environment & Forests that says, “Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent possible and use of asbestos may be phased out.” The Vision Statement is available at: http://moef.nic.in/divisions/cpoll/envhealth/visenvhealth.pdf

The DCPC note was/is irrelevant from the point of view of the objective of the Convention for which it was prepared. While one disagrees with the findings of the conflict of interest ridden study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health, (NIOH), it is evident that even this study does not state that chrysotile asbestos is not a hazardous chemical.

Had NIOH study concluded that Chrysotile Asbestos is not a hazardous chemical it may have become relevant. But even then it would have been legally unsustainable because under Indian laws chrysotile asbestos is a hazardous chemical. The concluding sentence of the DCPC’s note saying, “In view of the above, India may take a stand in the next CoP meeting of Rotterdam Convention for not inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in Annexure-III of Convention.” The flawed conclusion of the note titled ‘Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals’ View on the use of Chrysotile Asbestos” in the country’ is quite stark and will not stand scrutiny of logic. But DCPC’s note does not absolve the Indian delegation to CoP-6 because asbestos is listed as a hazardous substance under several Indian laws.

Notably, ACPMA which accompanied the delegation is facing a probe by Competition Commission of India (CCI) after a reference from the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO). CCI has said in its quarterly newsletter that “The market of asbestos cement sheets consists of 20 big firms and 68 manufacturing units, of which top six players hold 87 per cent of the market share”. The newsletter is available here: http://www.cci.gov.in/Newsletter/Newsletter_Dec.pdf

Had ACPMA not overwhelmed the DCPC and Indian delegation, the Indian position would have been in keeping with its Inventory of Hazardous Chemicals Import in India that lists ‘asbestos’ at serial no. 26 as one of the 180 hazardous chemicals in international trade which is imported in India. This inventory was prepared by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), under Union Ministry of Environment & Forests, Govt. of India prepared in September, 2008 with a foreword September 24, 2008 by J. M. Mauskar, the then Chairman, CPCB and Additional Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment & Forests. The CPCB “has been identified as one of such Authorities. In order to study the inventory of Hazardous Chemicals being imported by various categories of industrial units in India, the data provided by these industrial units to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) have been compiled.” This leaves no doubt that asbestos is a hazardous substance.

Earlier, on June 22, 2011 Indian delegation led by Ms. Mira Mehrishi, Additional Secretary, had supported the listing of Chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous chemical substance at the fifth meeting on Rotterdam Convention amidst standing ovation. This about turn at the behest of DCPC under the influence of ACPMA was a sad let down at the sixth meeting.

In keeping with Indian laws when the UN’s Chemical Review Committee of Rotterdam Convention recommended listing of white chrysotile asbestos as hazardous substance, it is incomprehensible as to why Indian delegation opposed its inclusion in the UN list. The only explanation appears to be the fact that the Indian government delegation did not have a position independent of the asbestos industry’s position which has covered up and denied the scientific evidence that all asbestos can cause disease and death.

Supreme Court in its direction dated January 21, 2011 observed that asbestos related incurable diseases occur "wherever the exposure to the toxic or carcinogenic agent occurs, regardless of the country, type of industry, job title, job assignment or location of exposure. The diseases will follow the trail of the exposure and extend the chain of the carcinogenic risk beyond the work place. In this judgment at paragraph 14, the "Court had also directed that a review by the Union and the States shall be made after every ten years and also as and when the ILO gives directions in this behalf consistent with its recommendations or conventions. Admittedly, 15 years has expired since the issuance of the directions by this Court."

In its direction, the Court observes "The ILO also made certain specific directions vide its resolution of 2006 adopted in the 95th session of the International Labour Conference. It introduced a ban on all mining, manufacture, recycling and use of all forms of asbestos. As already noticed, serious doubts have been raised as to whether `controlled use' can be effectively implemented even with regard to secondary exposure. These are circumstances which fully require the concerned quarters/authorities in the Government of India as well as the State Governments to examine/review the matter in accordance with law, objectively, to achieve the greater health care of the poor strata of the country who are directly or indirectly engaged in mining or manufacturing activities of asbestos and/or allied products."

In compliance with the Court’s order, it was announced that “The Government of India is considering the ban the mining and use of chrysotile asbestos in India to protect the workers and the general population against primary and secondary exposure to Chrysotile form of Asbestos”. (Paragraph 8.1, page no.28, Union Labor Ministry's Concept Paper on Occupational Safety and Health presented at Fifth India-EU Seminar on Employment and Social Policy, “Occupational Safety and Health”, New Delhi, September 19-20, 2011)

Notably, an Advisory Committee of Union Ministry of Labour has been set up on January 23, 2012 to implement Supreme Court’s directions issued on January 27, 1995 and repeated on January 21, 2011. Although almost 2 year has passed but the Advisory Committee headed by A C Pandey, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Labour is yet to submit its report to incorporate specific directions of the Court with regard to fresh ILO’s Resolution of June 14, 2006 introducing a ban on all mining, manufacture, recycling and use of all forms of asbestos. The influence of the industry is apprehended to be cause of this delay. Mining of all kinds of asbestos is technically banned in India due to adverse health impacts.

It is reliably learnt that ahead of the asbestos industry conference during 3-4 December 2013 concerned ministries of Government of India are finalizing their current position to either pander to their demands or to articulate their position based on gnawing public health concerns to avoid the fate of French minister who is charged with asbestos deaths after 25 years and the conviction of Swiss tycoon and Belgian baron. The day is not far when members of DCPC too will be held liable for their acts of omission and commission as is happening in more than 50 countries that have banned all kinds of asbestos.

The program schedule reveals that speakers who are allied to and financed by the asbestos industry and who promote use of chrysotile asbestos are arriving to propagate the myth of its safe and controlled use of this carcinogenic mineral fiber.
One of these speakers is David Bernstein who has visited the national capital at an earlier conference. Bernstein received financing from the ICA to co-author a paper entitled ‘Health Risks of Chrysotile Revisited’ along with Jacques Dunnigan and others claim that chrysotile asbestos can be safely used without causing harm to health. It has been published in Critical Reviews in Toxicology journal in 2013. Before making a “Declaration of interests” admitting its conflict of interest, this 30 page long paper concludes, “The studies reporting on the use of chrysotile alone in high-density cement products as well as other applications and the implementation of controls in mining and manufacturing provide a framework for establishing safe use. As with other respirable particulates, there is evidence that heavy and prolonged exposure to chrysotile can produce lung cancer. The importance of the present and other similar reviews is that the studies they report show that low exposures to chrysotile do not present a detectable risk to health. Since total dose over time decides the likelihood of disease occurrence and progression, they also suggest that the risk of an adverse outcome may be low with even high exposures experienced over a short duration.” Its admission stating, “The preparation of this review was supported by a grant from the International Chrysotile Association, Washington, DC, USA, in cooperation with The Canadian Chrysotile Association, Montreal, QC, Canada” leaves not even an iota of doubt that the paper has been customized to suit the interest of its corporate sponsors.

This paper forms part of industry sponsored literature meant for unleashing a misinformation campaign. On earlier, occasions whenever such conference were held newspapers in India were flooded with full page advertisements claiming how safe and controlled use of asbestos is possible in the face of glaring scientific evidence debunking such misleading claims. David Bernstein has worked for the tobacco industry in a similar manner. Notably, a New York court has ruled that a number of scientific articles written by Bernstein may constitute crime-fraud since the articles were financed by an asbestos products company which was seeking to defeat a case filed by asbestos victims seeking compensation because the author did not disclose that the company’s lawyer got the manuscripts revised.

Such industry dictated studies got unearthed in India too. Documents unearthed under the Right to Information Act revealed how white chrysotile asbestos industry added Rs. 16 lakh to the government’s Rs. 44 lakh for a study titled ‘Implementation of Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedures — Study of Health Hazards/Environment Hazards Resulting from the Use of Chrysotile Variety of Asbestos in the Country’ by NIOH to “specifically indicate how technology has made working conditions [in asbestos factories] better.” The minutes of the Review Committee for the NIOH study obtained through the RTI application dated December 19, 2006, read: “The report will be finalised after due discussions with the asbestos industry.” Another meeting minutes, dated April 18, 2007, report that “...the results of the study which was under way could not be shared [with public] till the same was finalised.” A letter dated April 24, 2006 from Under Secretary to the Government of India, Dept. of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers to Director, NIOH: “the deliverables will include generation of data which would justify the safe standards of its usage as also the reasons/rationale justifying its non-inclusion/or otherwise in the PIC ambit…” Like the Bernstein’s study even the inference of NIOH study was doctored.

The program schedule of New Delhi conferences shows speakers from Russia like a Russian trade unionist, Dmitry Selyanin and Dr. Sergey Kashansky who are known for their pro-asbestos position to safeguard Russia’s continued export of killer fibers of white chrysotile asbestos.

Russian asbestos suppliers in particular and global asbestos producers in general have softened and manipulated India’s regulatory mechanism to export their asbestos to India.

Old ways of the propaganda by white chrysotile asbestos industry is raising its head with the help of political patronage, advertising, public relations machine and “Indian Government Dignitaries”. When the conference unfolds all eyes will on these “Indian Government Dignitaries” to witness whether or not these government representatives are either taking a position against human health and the environment to put profit of the asbestos industry before gnawing public health concerns.

India’s position at the recent WTO negotiations in Bali revealed that public opinion counts. It remains to be seen whether World Health Organisation (WHO)’s call for elimination of asbestos related diseases by banning all kinds of asbestos besides the verdict of WTO’s Appellate Body upholding ban on white chrysotile asbestos counts or not.

From the pronouncements of Government of India, it is clear that ban on asbestos is being imposed in India in installments in the face of the tremendous influence of the asbestos companies. But the alarming rise in import of asbestos to the tune of 186% in six years shows that asbestos companies have become ungovernable and are no more subservient to Government’s political will which was expressed in September 2011 at an official international conference.

The resistance of villagers of Muzaffarpur, Vaishali and Bhojpur Bihar and Bargarh, Odisha against asbestos has stopped construction of asbestos based factories despite complicity and collusion of some central ministers and officials. This paves the way for asbestos free India.

For Details: Gopal Krishna, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI)/ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), Mb: 09818089660, 08227816731, E-mail:gopalkrishna1715@gmail.com, Blog:banasbestosindia.blogspot.com, Web: www.toxicswatch.org

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