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Dumping asbestos on Asia 26/2/01
The industrial revolution has come
late to India. Economic growth is
pursued with an urgency tinged
with desperation. India's priorities
don't always lie with the health of
its workers. In a two-room house
in Sabarmati, Mrs Goplani is
mourning her husband. He
died a few months ago of a
disease caused by asbestos.
Kishnan Goplani worked at the
city's power station. Now the
family's only income is from Mrs
Goplani's work there as a cleaner.
He worked in the boiler room. He
got his breathing problems there.
He didn't have it before.
Another worker at the power
station is seriously ill. Six of
his colleagues have died in the
last few years. He suffers from
chest pain, fits of coughing and
nausea. He told me that he used
to mix the lagging with a stick and
then picked it up to spread it on.
He showed me how he used his hands
to smooth it down. The lagging is a
compound made from asbestos.
Asbestos fibres have been shown to
be highly dangerous, but he was
given no protective clothing. Nor
is there much to protect those who
are part of India's boom in construction.
The drive for economic growth has led
to building on an unprecedented scale.
Asbestos sheets, banned from new
construction in the West, are
relatively cheap and widely
available. Where it's still legal,
asbestos - heat-resistant and
insulating - has myriad uses. In a
roadside garage, asbestos brake
linings are scrubbed clean to extend
their life. Asbestos is most dangerous
when its fibres are released into the
air, but no-one here seemed much
concerned. Harsh Jaitli heads a
group trying to raise awareness
about the hazards of working with
asbestos. He campaigns for better
protection for workers, but gets
little help from the law.
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH CAMPAIGNER
In India there are many loopholes in
the law. There are many factories
and few inspectors. There's a reason
they come to India. We have a large
market. Even if you produce a
dangerous product you can sell it
easily if it costs less.
With a billion people to house, India
is an easy place to sell asbestos.
But it's considered so dangerous
it's banned in most of the
industrialised world. The European
Union says no safe level of
exposure has yet been identified.
Even the World Trade Organisation
says bans on asbestos are justified
to protect human life. But even as
their markets in industrialised
countries are closed, asbestos
producers are finding huge new
markets to exploit - among people
who know little of the epidemic
of cancer asbestos has created
elsewhere. Canada is well aware of
the legacy of disease asbestos has
left in rich countries, but the
knowledge has done nothing to limit
its exports to developing countries.
In fact they have markedly
increased. At a factory in the
suburbs of Delhi, raw Canadian
asbestos is prepared for mixing
into cement. This company is owned
by a group called Birla, which
produces about a third of India's
The sheets are cut to size...
Birla showed us round their factory,
reputedly one of India's safest. Figures,
collected by the company, show less
fibre in the atmosphere than the
standards would allow.
This bag is impermeable. The fibre
level is now at 0.15.
But we found asbestos lying on
machinery open to the air. So there
is quite a lot of it lying around?
It depends on if you clean once a week.
The asbestos you find is minimal.
Canada, the biggest exporter of
asbestos, tried but failed to
prevent the EU imposing a ban on
asbestos. Now 70% of Canadian
exports go to Asia. Birla produces
a million tonnes of sheeting each
year. Once it leaves the factory
the company has no control over
how it's used.
ASBESTOS INSTITUTE OF INDIA
The practices in India, which are
recommended - in those conditions
we find that the dust levels are
acceptable. Somebody may
be using it wrongly and exposing
himself - it's possible. Secondly,
you said the data was only mine.
Yes, but I am telling you the truth.
Whether you believe me or not,
I leave to you.
The asbestos dust that can be so
deadly is released when cement
sheets are sawn into convenient
lengths or drilled with holes so
they can be fixed into place.
Enforcing rigorous health and
safety standards is almost
impossible in a country where
asbestos sheeting is so freely
available. The multitude of
carpenters, builders and
householders who use it get scant
advice about best practice. At
India's Occupational Health
Institute there's concern about the
widespread use of asbestos. Health
officials admit that there's little
way of monitoring any disease
caused by asbestos and say people
may often die of lung cancer
without it being diagnosed.
DR H N SAIYED:
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH
The industry says there is no record of
cancer, but human biology is the
same all over the world. Indians
don't react differently. There
should be cases of lung cancer from
exposure to asbestos. We don't have
the records, because people get
lung cancer after 30 years of
exposure - maybe 40 years. After
that they retire - no track is kept,
they go back to their villages and
probably those who suffer die
quietly without being probed into.
Rajeev Agarwal is an architect who
has ruled out the use of asbestos
in any of his buildings. He says
the asbestos industry must be aware
of how their cement sheets are
Best practice doesn't exist. It's
ridiculous to imagine that clean
masks would be employed in using
asbestos. You can go anywhere and
see people drilling and sawing through
asbestos with their mouths and faces
In your opinion, is it necessary - as
the industry says - to use asbestos
to be economically feasible.
Asbestos has a lot of uses but I don't
subscribe to the view that it is the
only low-cost feasible material. In
this house, for example, we've used
stone in the roofing and brick as
For larger roof spans, Mr Agarwal often
uses galvanised iron, which he says can
work out as cheaply as asbestos. He
went on to show me some of the
houses in which he specialises.
This technology is as local as it
can get - as low-cost as it can get.
This is local grass that grows in
the monsoon. It's cut, dried and
stored for use like this. It can
easily be bundled to make a roof
The asbestos industry's public
advertising has recently become
more discreet. But architects and
developers in India do receive direct
mailing emphasising the advantages of
asbestos products. The industry
also has political influence, and
the government is vulnerable to any
claim that it's blocking development.
CENTRAL POLLUTION CONTROL BOARD
Even within the government we have
to play a role - not necessarily an enviable
one. Sometimes we are seen as being
anti-development or anti-progress.
It's not looked at that these kinds
of activities can, in the long run,
cause long-lasting damage, even to
Poor countries have often been the
dumping ground for products banned
in the West as unhealthy. Nations
desperate for raw materials have been
glad to buy so cheaply. Now asbestos
production is expanding as fast as the
Indian economy. The true cost of
asbestos may be paid in death and
disability several decades from now.