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Indians inhale slow poison as roof demand feeds asbestos imports

Written By krishna on Saturday, June 11, 2011 | 8:31 AM

One THING Rajendra Pevekar remembers from falling asleep on his father’s chest as a child is the smell of burnt plastic and the shiny specks of dust sticking to his clothes.

What Pevekar did not know was that the dust had a name – asbestos – and a record of wrecking the lungs of those who inhale it.

Only last year did he draw a connection between the fibre from the car parts factory where his father worked sweeping the floor, the man’s early death, the disease that left his mother crippled and his own shortness of breath.

“This is a slow poison,” Pevekar said at his home in Mumbai’s working class neighbourhood of Ghatkopar. “It destroys your lungs and you don’t even know it.”

Pevekar’s mother was among the first Indians last December to get paid about 700 000 rupees (R104 000) – more than 10 times her son’s annual income – from a trust established by factory owner Turner & Newall in Manchester, England. The payment was compensation for asbestosis, an occupational disease first identified in the UK in 1906.

Last month, another 40 workers received payouts, bringing the year’s tally to a record 70 million rupees.

The lessons learned by nations like the UK and Germany, which banned asbestos in factories decades ago, are slow to take hold in India, where demand for a sturdy material to make roofs for millions of slum dwellers has overpowered concerns about worker safety.

India is the largest importer of asbestos, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database.

Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets that sell for as little as 300 rupees.

More than 100 000 people in India are employed by companies producing the material, according to the Asbestos Cement Producers Association, an industry lobby group.

“It is totally outrageous,” said Gopal Krishna, the founder of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. “We’ve known for many years that this stuff is deadly and the government is not banning it. In fact, they are making asbestos artificially cheaper by giving incentives.”

A 15 percent duty is payable on asbestos imports, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The tariff, which stood at 78 percent in 1995, had been gradually cut over the past decade, Krishna said. Imports totalled 322 200 tons in 2009, UN data show.

Asbestos mining is allowed for permit holders, though the government stopped granting licences in 1986.

Homes would be unaffordable for 38 million families in India by 2030 based on projected market prices, McKinsey estimated last year.

The need for cheap roofing and piping material is fuelling asbestos shipments from Russia, Brazil and Canada, but the use of the raw material is restricted in Canadian factories.

Pevekar’s troubles began when his 71-year-old mother, Indira, developed a debilitating shortness of breath in 2003, 11 years after her husband died from an ailment diagnosed as bronchial asthma.

She has been hospitalised more than six times since then, recalls Pevekar, who ferries her to medical appointments at least once a month, while bills began to mount.

“We pawned jewellery, borrowed from friends, relatives and money lenders to pay for all these expenses,” he said.

That forced him and his brother to stay in the same slum house where they grew up and continue to care for Indira, who is partially bedridden and cannot use the toilet without help.

Pevekar said he came to understand the connection between his mother’s woes, his father’s death and his own pulmonary problems in February last year, when he attended an event organised by a non-profit organisation to inform workers and their children of what is called secondary exposure to asbestos.

“Before that, I had no idea,” he said. “At the event, I asked the organisers to check my mother for asbestosis.”

Indira and another worker’s wife were the first two women to receive compensation from Turner in India, according to Pralhad Malvadkar, the head of the Occupational Health and Safety Centre, which organised the event Pevekar attended.

Natural fibres

Asbestos is the name given to six natural fibres about 1 200 times smaller than a strand of human hair that can be woven like fabric.

Their resistance to fire, heat and chemicals makes them well suited to the construction and motoring industries.

The fibrous mineral has been used for the last 140 years in construction. Evidence of its harmful effects began appearing a century ago and national bans were first enacted in the 1970s.

Harm occurs when the asbestos fibres are inhaled. They bruise the lung tissue, leaving behind scars that accumulate and cripple the organ’s ability to process oxygen, says Arthur Frank, a professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“If you think of the lung as a balloon that expands and contracts, it’s as if the capacity of the balloon is reduced,” says Frank, who specialises in asbestos-related diseases. Chest X-rays identify the scars with characteristic squiggle marks.

The fibres can lead to the development of lung cancers, including a rare malignancy of the lining of the lungs and abdomen known as mesothelioma, which can be fatal within 18 months.

“Even a day or a month at an asbestos factory can do you in,” says Frank. “There is no safe minimum level of exposure.”

It can take 20 years or more for symptoms to appear, according to the US National Institutes of Health’s website.

India has ranked behind China as the briskest-growing major economy for much of the past decade. The speed of industrialisation has outpaced improvements in infant survival, infrastructure and workplace conditions.

“It’s a difficult issue,” says David Heymann, the chairman of the UK Health Protection Agency. “Some countries say: ‘We’re developing just like you did during the industrial revolution.’ The difference is now we know what asbestos does.”

India’s use of the material since the 1980s is equal to the amount used by the UK during its entire industrial history, according to estimates by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, an umbrella group of non-profit organisations.

As many as 55 countries including Japan and all members of the EU have banned asbestos in factories, buildings and car parts. The US Environmental Protection Agency selectively bans the material in products such as spray-on paint and pipe insulation.

Canada was India’s second-largest overseas supplier of asbestos in 2009, trailing Russia, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics database.

The Quebec government approved in April a $60 million (R405.7m) loan guarantee to a group of Canadian and Indian investors, enabling them to expand production at the Jeffrey Mine, said Jolyane Pronovost, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s economic development ministry.

To secure the loan guarantee, the owners of the Jeffrey mine had to commit to annual checks by an independent auditor of their clients to ensure that the white, or chrysotile, form of asbestos was being used safely and met Quebec standards, Pronovost said.

Safe use

“Our position hasn’t changed,” she said. “We support the safe use of chrysotile.”

The decision, opposed by public health groups including the Canadian Cancer Society, might allow one of Canada’s last remaining asbestos mines to produce 250 000 tons a year, said investor Baljit Chadha, an Indian-born businessman.

At that capacity, the mine would produce more than an eighth of global asbestos production, according to 2010 estimates from the US Geological Survey. About 40 percent of the mineral might end up in India, and sales would generate $130m in revenue, Chadha said.

“I’m going into this with an absolutely clear conscience,” said Chadha, who disputes the risks asbestos poses, citing an open letter from six European and North American doctors published last year which said the chrysotile that emerged from the mine was not dangerous for workers as long as it was “properly controlled”.

All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, according to the World Health Organisation said. The UN agency in Geneva estimates that one person dies every five minutes from an asbestos-related disease somewhere in the world, causing 107 000 deaths annually.

Canada’s Natural Resources Ministry declined to comment on asbestos exports to India.

While living under an asbestos roof may be less harmful than working with it in a factory, the risk is not negligible, says Frank. Rainwater can seep through the roof, mixing with the fibre.

Pevekar installed a plastic sheet under his roof last year after learning about the risks of asbestos, stopping tainted water from dripping onto his sleeping children like it had for years before. – Bloomberg

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