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Introduction of Bill to ban Use and Import of white asbestos is a welcome step

Written By Gopal Krishna on Saturday, December 06, 2014 | 3:17 AM

Supreme Court, WHO, ILO seek elimination of asbestos 

NHRC is seized with the case of victims of incurable asbestos related diseases

 ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) and Occupational Health India (OHI) welcome the introduction of the bill seeking total ban on use and import of white chrysotile asbestos in the country that has been re-introduced in the Rajya Sabha. 

The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2014, seeking use of safer and cheaper alternative to white asbestos was introduced onNovember 28, 2014. Earlier the Bill was introduced in 2009 “to provide for a total ban on use and import of white asbestos in the country and to promote the use of safer and cheaper alternative to white asbestos and for matters connected therewith and incidental thereto.”

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill read: “The white asbestos is highly carcinogenic even the World Health Organisation has reported that it causes cancer. It is a rare fibrous material that is used to make rooftops and breaklinings. More than fifty countries have already banned the use and import of white asbestos. Even the countries that export it to India prefer not to use it domestically. But in our country, it is imported without any restriction. Canada and Russia are the biggest exporters of white asbestos. In 2007, Canada exported almost Ninety five percent of the white asbestos it mined and out of it forty-three percent was shipped to India. It is quite surprising that our country is openly importing huge quantity of a product, which causes cancer. This is despite the fact that safer and almost cheap alternatives to asbestos are available in the country. Instead of importing a hazardous material, it will be better if we spend some money in research and development and use environment friendly product. In view of the above, there is an urgent need for a total ban on the import and use of white asbestos and promote the use of alternative material.” The Bill has been introduced by Vijay Jawaharlal Darda, Member of Parliament

Taking cognizance of threats to life and public health more than 50 countries have banned production, use, manufacture and trade of the hazardous mineral fiber, Asbestos. These countries are: Algeria, Czech Republic, Iceland, Malta, Seychelles, Argentina, Denmark, Ireland, Mozambique, Slovakia, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Netherlands, Slovenia, Austria, Estonia, Italy, New Caledonia, South Africa, Bahrain, Finland, Japan, Norway, Spain, Belgium, France, Jordan, Oman, Sweden, Brunei, Gabon, South Korea, Poland, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Germany, Kuwait, Portugal, Turkey, Chile, Greece, Latvia, Qatar, United Kingdom, Croatia, Honduras, Lithuania, Romania, Uruguay, Cyprus, Hungary, Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia. All the 27 countries of European Union have banned it.

Earlier, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) had written to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 21, 2014 submitting that the previous “Government let down the country when India’s delegation to the sixth meeting of the UN’s Rotterdam Conference on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade in Geneva, Switzerland took an untenable, inconsistent and unscientific position with regard to white chrysotile asbestos being non-hazardous substance contrary to domestic laws such as Factories Act, 1948 and India’s 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.  India opposed the listing of chrysotile asbestos under Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention during the meeting held from 28 April to 10 May 2013 based on an irrelevant, flawed and conflict of interest ridden study by the National Institute of Occupational Health, (NIOH), Ahmedabad.  Its listing has been recommended by Rotterdam Convention’s Chemical Review Committee. The Indian delegation was misled by Ministry of Chemicals.  It has made India’s position quite self-contradictory because how can some substance be designated as hazardous under national law and non-hazardous under an international law.  The new government must rectify this grave error and support listing of white asbestos in the PIC list of hazardous substances at the earliest before the Seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention which is scheduled to be held backtoback with the meetings of the conferences of the UN’s parties to the Basel and Stockholm conventions in May 2015.

The continued use of lung cancer causing white chrysotile asbestos is a legacy of the Soviet era has been promoted by companies close to the Congress party. There are established substitutes of these killer fibers of asbestos which need to be adopted to prevent incurable diseases but preventable deaths. 

TWA has written letters to Jagat Prakash Nadda, Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare and to Bandaru Dattatreya, Union Minister of Labour and Employment on November 10, 2014 and November 18, 2014 respectively drawing their urgent attention towards the attached document of International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Health Orgainsation (WHO) seeking elimination of asbestos related diseases.”

It wrote, “In our country, the past usage and the continued usage of the roofing sheets made of cancer causing fibers is an anti-public health legacy of previous governments because all kinds of asbestos including white asbestos causes incurable diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.  The alternatives of asbestos sheets are ideally suited for roofing applications.”
It submitted that government set up a 13 member Advisory Committee on January 23, 2012 to incorporate the ILO resolution of 2006 in the matter of asbestos as per Hon'ble Supreme Court's order of 1995 and 2011 under the Chairmanship of A C Pandey, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Labour but as of November 17, 2014, the Advisory Committee has not submitted its report despite the fact that more than 2 years have passed since it was entrusted the task.

It submitted that Supreme Court in its judgment in the above mentioned case, dated January 21, 2011at paragraph 14 reads as under:
               “....In the earlier judgment of this Court in the case of Consumer Education and Research Centre (supra), hazards arising out of primary use of asbestos were primarily dealt with, but certainly secondary exposure also needs to be examined by the Court. In that judgment, the Court had noticed that it would, thus, be clear that diseases occurred 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 that judgment, 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. 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.”

The Supreme Court in its judgment dated January 21, 2011 in Writ Petition (Civil) No.260 of 2004 referred to its directions of January 27, 1995 in the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 206 of 1986 that are required to be strictly adhered to including fresh ILO resolution on Asbestos dated June 14, 2006.

Owing to growing public awareness about the hazards of asbestos, consumption of asbestos dropped by 39% from 2012 to 2013 in India but this is hardly enough to save us from the hitherto unacknowledged imminent public health crisis. India's asbestos consumption in 2013 was 302,668 tons. In 2012, it was 493,086 tons.

Dr Barry Castleman, the noted author of Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects has underlined that one person dies from mesothelioma for every 170 tons of asbestos consumed. WHO estimates we have 107,000 deaths worldwide per year from occupational exposure to asbestos. If non occupational exposure is added it reaches a figure of about 120,000 deaths. Average world consumption/year 30-60 years ago was -- looks like 3/2 of what it is now (2 million metric tons/year). Give India its share of that based on its share of global consumption. At 300,000 tons in 2013, that's about 18,000 deaths (15% of 120,000). Dr Castleman's work was quoted by Supreme Court of India in its judgment dated January 27, 1995.
If the government can pay heed to the decision taken by some 55 countries which have banned asbestos of all kinds, it can ensure compliance with the resolution of WHO that has recommended elimination of asbestos for eliminating asbestos related diseases.
This decision would honor the letter and spirit of Hon'ble Supreme Court of India's judgment dated January 27, 1995 directing central and state governments to update their rules and laws in the light of fresh ILO's resolution. ILO has made specific directions vide its Resolution of 2006 introducing a ban on all mining, manufacture, recycling and use of all forms of asbestos.
Notably, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi is pursuing is a case (NHRC Case No.2951/30/0/2011) seeking compliance with the Supreme Court's order in the backdrop of an epidemic of asbestos related incurable lung diseases.
It is germane to note that Secretary, Medical Education & Research, Chandigarh Administration has informed NHRC that "a. White Asbestos (Chrysotile Asbestos) is implicated in so many studies with the following diseases:-Mesothelioma (Cancer of Pleura), Lung Cancer, Peritoneal Cancer, Asbestosis, And also consider as cause of following cancers:- Ovarian Cancer, Laryngeal Cancer, Other Cancer, b. Diseases are produced in the person involved in Asbestos Industry." It states that "No. of cancer deaths due to asbestos requires further large scale study from India" It informed, "It is definitely harmful material, causing cancer and other related diseases."

It has come to light that the "Government of India is considering the ban on use of chrysotile asbestos in India to protect the workers and the general population against primary and secondary exposure to Chrysotile form of Asbestos" at page no. 28 of its concept paper presented by the central government at the two-day 5th India-EU Joint Seminar on "Occupational Safety and Health" during 19-20 September, 2011.
Dr H N Saiyed, former Director, National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad has stated that paying compensation to the victims of asbestos related diseases is a long process. He added, asbestos does not have a threshold limit. The best way to stop the diseases is to stop its use. Politicians are hiding behind absence of data which is not being collected. They shared this at conference organized by Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi organised by Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in partnership with Drexel University, School of Public Health, Collegium Ramazzini, central ministries of Government of India and Heart of England, NHS Foundation Trust.
At the conference Dr. R.B. Raidas, Deputy Director General, Directorate General of Factory Advice Service & Labour Institutes. (DGFASLI) has revealed that 36 out of 1000 workers have been found to be suffering from asbestos related diseases. He revealed that DGFASLI had studied some 8, 000 workers and found that some 228 workers were exposed.
Notably, the Working Group of a Planning Commission on Occupational Safety and Health for the Xth Five Year Plan at the workplace in its 159 page report dated September 2001, the Working Group noted that “The workers are also exposed to a host of hazardous substances, which have a potential to cause serious occupational diseases such as asbestosis…” It has recorded that various studies conducted by the Central Labour Institute have revealed substantial prevalence of occupational health disorders amongst the workers such as Asbestosis. The prevalence rate for Asbestosis was reported to be 7.25%. It has been acknowledged that “At the same time the number of occupational diseases reported is very meager…This makes it evident that early identification of occupational diseases is required. It has recommended that “To meet these requirements, measures are needed for diagnostic facilities and appropriate training in the field of occupational health. Occupational health hazards and diseases to the workmen employed in asbestos industries are of great concern to the industries, Govt. and the public. The Honorable Supreme Court of India in its judgement dated 27th January, 1995 relating to the Public Interest Litigation No.206 of 1986 had given several directions concerning the protective measures to be taken against the hazards of exposure to asbestos at workplaces such as mining and manufacturing activities. In the light of Supreme Court directives, it is proposed to launch a comprehensive programme for the protection of the health of the workers engaged in hazardous industries with adequate mechanisms for monitoring of work environment and diagnosis and control of disease.”  
It is noteworthy that Dow Chemicals Company has set aside $2.2 billion in compensation fund to address future asbestos-related liabilities arising out of acquisition of Union Carbide Corporation and its Indian investments in 1999. Many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products have gone bankrupt in USA as a result of asbestos litigation. 
It is relevant to note that World Bank has a policy against asbestos since 1991. "The Bank increasingly prefers to avoid financing asbestos use...Thus, at any mention of asbestos in Bank-assisted projects, the Task Manager needs to exercise special care." (World Bank’s Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, Vol. 3, World Bank Technical Paper #154) The guideline says: “The onus is on proponents to show the unavailability of alternatives.”
Although India has technically banned asbestos mining, Russia, the world's biggest asbestos producer remains India's biggest supplier of raw asbestos. India remains the world's biggest asbestos importer. India is consuming 15 % of the total world asbestos production, as per US Geological Survey estimates. 
Notably, Ukraine has decided to prolong anti-dumping duties on imports of asbestos-cement corrugated sheets from Russia for an additional five years.
Given incontrovertible evidence, the government ought to consider recommendations to take preventive steps by ensure elimination of use of all kinds of asbestos as per the recommendations of the Court, ILO and WHO.   
There is an immediate need to create a register of asbestos workers and their health records as per Court's decision and conduct an audit of the current status of the victims of asbestos related diseases from the government hospital records in the country and make it mandatory for medical colleges to provide training for doctors. This is required so that they can diagnose diseases caused by occupational, non-occupational and environmental exposures to killer fibers and substances.

For Details: Gopal Krishna, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), Mb: 08227816731, 09818089660, E-mail:gopalkrishna1715@gmail.com, Web: www.toxicswatch.org 
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