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India, China Headed for Asbestos Catastrophe: Experts

Written By Krishna on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | 2:27 AM

India, China Headed for Asbestos Catastrophe: Experts

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April 12, 2012 8:58 AM EDT

India and China are headed for "an absolute catastrophe of death and disease" because of likely massive jump in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades, says a report written by Pulitzer winning journalist Gary Cohn.

Citing numerous scientific studies and two of the world's most prominent experts on public health and asbestos exposure, Cohn writes in a news blog for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance that India and China are the two countries where the consequences are going to be felt the most in Asia, where cancer from asbestos is going to ravage economies.

Cohn, who is currently a professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, has also won the Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism and the George Polk Award for environmental reporting.

"What we can expect is very predictable - an absolute catastrophe of death and disease" for India and China, Dr. Arthur Frank, chairman of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University, has been quoted as telling Cohn.

This is primarily because India, China, and other countries on the continent continue to use - or in some cases, even increase - their dependence on asbestos for cheap roofing insulation, in cement, and other widespread applications.

An estimated 107,000 people worldwide die each year from asbestos-related diseases, a number that will continue to grow if efforts to curb its usage fail. While already substantial, this assessment is probably low, according to leading public-health experts, as it is difficult to categorically track deaths from asbestos-related diseases in Asia because India, China and other countries do not to keep reliable data on them, says Cohn.

Another expert, Dr. Amir Attaran, a scientist, lawyer and acknowledged expert on global health issues, said that the consequences of continued heavy use of asbestos will be felt particularly hard in India, a growing nation of 1.2 billion people with few limits or controls on the use of asbestos.

"It's a scientific failure, a clinical failure, and a social and moral failure of India. It is a failure of culture and science," Attaran tells Cohn.

When asked about the consequences of the country's widespread use of asbestos, Attaran, a leader in the fight to stop exports of the material to Third World countries, says: "In disease terms, incalculable. India has no public health controls. They will pay dearly for this with an epidemic of mesothelioma."

Cohn notes that asbestos has historically been used as cheap insulation material in construction, ships and cars. In the United States and Europe, it has been banned for most uses because of its clear-cut links to mesothelioma and other diseases, but it is still widely used in Asia and other nations because it is effective, yet relatively inexpensive.

In Asia, it is used primarily for cheap roofing insulation, and in cement and power plants. The health hazard of exposure is compounded by the fact that Asian workers often toil in factories with poor ventilation.

A few Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea, have banned asbestos, but they are the exceptions.

In recent years, numerous studies have documented the anticipated rise in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases over the next several decades in Asia. One recent study, in the Journal of the Asian Pacific Society of Respirology, said that Asia, where there are many large, developing countries, currently accounts for about 64 percent of the world's asbestos use. This represents a steady increase - the continent accounted for a 33 percent share from 1971 to 2000, and 14 percent from 1920 to 1970.

Medical experts say that it generally takes people 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This timetable clearly forecasts that Asia's current rate of usage is likely to lead to a huge hike in asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades, Cohn says.

Ken Takahashi, the lead author and acting director of the World Health Organization Collaborative Center for Occupational Health, has said that Asia can anticipate an "asbestos tsunami" in the coming decades.

In response, WHO has identified asbestos as one of the most dangerous occupational carcinogens in the world, and says there is an urgent need to stop asbestos use in order to curtail the enormous associated health damages.

Cohn himself got a first-hand view of the problem in the late 1990s while investigating India's notorious shipbreaking facilities in Alang, where thousands of unprotected workers worked on large, retired vessels with high asbestos content. (Global India Newswire)

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