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Preventable asbestos related diseases and deaths must be prevented, regulators and manufacturers held criminally liable

Written By Gopal Krishna on Friday, September 30, 2016 | 2:50 AM

National Labour Institute journal publishes paper seeks “elimination of use of all kinds of asbestos as per the recommendations of the Court, ILO and WHO”

“If preventable diseases and deaths are not prevented, the regulators and manufacturers of asbestos based products must face criminal liability”, said Dr Gopal Krishna, Editor, ToxicsWatch and convener, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) while delivering a speech at the 3rd International Conference on Occupational and Environmental Health (ICOEH 2016) in at National Institute of Health & Family Welfare (NIHFW), Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Govt. of India, New Delhi. Drawing lessons from the ongoing industrial disaster of Bhopal caused by Union Carbide Corporation, he argued that the public health disaster being caused by asbestos based industries shows that no lessons have been learnt from the industrial disaster which happened 32 years ago and which continues to be an ongoing disaster. Like hazardous chemicals, asbestos is a threat to life throughout its life cycle. 

He was speaking at the Scientific Session III “Elimination of Asbestos Related Diseases in India” which was co-chaired by Dr. U Datta, Dean, NIHFW and Dr. Geeta Pardeshi, Associate Professor, Vardhaman Mahavir Mdical College (VMMC).

The abstract of Krishna’s paper titled “Status of enviro-occupational  health of workers in hazardous industries: An inquiry into asbestos industry” has been published in the Souvenir of the ICOEH.

“This paper examines the hazards which workers face in the in the asbestos based industries. The paper examines the implications of routine admission by the industry that asbestos fibers which are used in their plants as a raw material is hazardous in nature and the “industry will give information to the workers on hazards associated with asbestos" given the fact that asbestos factory's "Construction site has a potential hazardous environment." The paper will evaluate the regulatory mechanisms in place to deal with the deleterious effect of exposure to asbestos fibers and the role of the asbestos products manufacturers. The paper reviews the submission to National Human Rights Commission by Maharashtra government and inconsistencies that get revealed from the documents of state’s Directorate of Industrial Safety & Health (DISH) in the matter of death and diseases of workers who worked in asbestos based factories and on plots of ship breakers.”

“It examines the studies conducted by National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad on health hazards resulting from asbestos industry and shipbreaking industry.”

“The paper examines the status of asbestos factories in Bhojpur, Bihar. The occupational health status of 78 workers currently working in the asbestos based factrory in Bihiya, Bhojpur is dealt with reference to the death of a worker in the factory. The paper documents the reaction of the government and the company to the death of the worker in question. It reviews the role of State Government, Patna High Court, Bihar State Assembly, Bihar Human Rights Commission, Bihar State Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and National Human Rights Commission in the matter of asbestos based factories in the state. The paper reviews the decision of the Government of India to stop “grant any new mining lease for asbestos (including Chrysotile variety) in the country" keeping in mind the ‘deleterious effect of asbestos mining on health of the workers’. It examines its rationale of promoting trade, manufacturing and use of asbestos fibers in India.” 

“The paper draws on lessons from the industrial disaster of 1984. This disaster demonstrated that what happens to workers happens to communities and environment. The life cycle assessment of hazardous industries and products has unequivocally established the adverse health impact on workers and consumers. Workers and the communities in the vicinity are a community of fate.  The link between occupational exposures and non-exposures isn’t quite distant. The paper underlines how lack of documentation and lack of occupational health infrastructure does not mean lack of victims of asbestos related diseases.”

“It infers that there is a need for adopting measures consistent with global scientific and medical findings to safeguard workers from asbestos related incurable diseases caused due to occupational exposures and non-occupational exposures of their families. It builds a case for intervention aimed at saving workers’ health and life from dirty, degrading and dangerous working and living conditions.”  The abstract of the paper is available at page no, 74 of the Souvenir published by ICOEH. ICOEH was co-organised by Department of Community Medicine, Vardhaman Mahavir Mdical College & Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi, National Institute of Health and Family Welfare (NIHFW), New Delhi in partnership with Occupational Health and Safety Management Consultancy Services (OHS-MC) and in collaboration with Indian Public Health Association, St. Stephen's Hospital, Delhi, Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences & Research (HIMSR), New Delhi, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine, Community Medicine Department, PDU Govt. Medical College, Rajkot Gujarat, Indian Association for Adolescent Health, Dept of Community Medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, Advanced Research Publications, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh and Center for Inquiry, Washington, DC, USA.         

The Souvenir was released by Dr. Jagdish Prasad, Director General of Health Services, Government of India along with Dr Barry Kistnasamy, Occupational Health/Compensation Commissioner, South Africa, Dr. Jugal Kishore Chairman, Scientific Committee, ICOEH, Prof Dr J K Das and Dr Ashish Mittal.    
Commenting on the presentation regarding Asbestos related diseases (ARDs), Dr. Geeta Pardeshi said, “As many cases remain undiagnosed and are not notified what is known is just tip of the iceberg- the rest represents the submerged portion of the iceberg. On one hand there is also an increasing trend of ARDs and on the other hand we have elimination of ARDs as a goal to be achieved. This means we have to change the direction as well as the magnitude of the curve- A huge challenge.”

She added, “There are gaps in our understanding of the problem in India and this is a potential area of research for young researchers. Experiences from countries which have already banned Asbestos indicates that there are serious post ban issues, especially the risks associated with exposure in abandoned asbestos mines which pose a risk of environmental exposure. India’s changing position on this issue is a cause of concern. We need to take a studied, scientific and solid stand on the international forum and be ready to face the challenges which accompany such a decision!”

Speaking at the conference, it was argued that there is a logical compulsion for Union of India to support inclusion of white chrysotile asbestos in the UN list of hazardous chemicals under UN’s Rotterdam Convention.

In a related development, an academic paper “Status of occupational health of workers in hazardous industries: An inquiry into asbestos and ship breaking industry”published in Labour & Development journal by V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, the Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government India concludes. “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.  The continued use of white chrysotile asbestos is a legacy of the Soviet era. There are established substitutes of these killer fibers of asbestos which need to be adopted to prevent incurable diseases but preventable deaths. In view of the ongoing environmental exposures, emergence of the epidemic of asbestos related diseases and diseases due to exposure to other hazardous substances there is an immediate need to create a register of these workers and their health records as per Court's decision and to undertake 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.”    

This paper “reveals that the relationship between the employer and the employee in asbestos industry is deeply exploitative. The latter suffers the fate of dehumanization. They have become the most vulnerable workforce in the world. Their condition is admittedly worse than the workforce in the worst industrial sector-the mining industry. This dehumanization linked to the externalization of human cost by global and national companies. The workers of the hazardous industries constitute part of the community of fate to which all wretched of the earth belong with no remedy from occupational health crisis in sight.”

Drawing on Central Government’s Draft National Health Policy, 2015 which mentions “industrial and occupational safety” as part of multiple determinants of health, it concludes that “So far “existing knowledge” has failed to inspire institutional action to safeguard the health of even the most vulnerable working class. It is apparent that there has been a policy bias against them since inception. If this policy can facilitate preventive structural measures with regard to preventable but incurable diseases “that are more prevalent in certain occupational groups” it can pave the way for occupational health justice for the workers. 

BANI/ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), Mb: 09818089660, 08227816731 Web: http://www.asbestosfreeindia.org, www.toxicswatch.org

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