In­dia as­bestos in­dus­try thrives de­spite fears

The China Post - - LIFE - BY RA­JESH JOSHI

Grip­ping his in­haler as he strug­gles to breathe, rake-thin Chin­na­pan Chin­nakannu blames his years spent la­bor­ing in one of In­dia’s scores of as­bestos ce­ment fac­to­ries for his de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness.

When he first started at the fac­tory in west­ern Gu­jarat state, Chin­na­pan said he was given protective cloth­ing “but later they stopped pro­vid­ing us with masks and shoes.”

“Ini­tially I suf­fered from breath­less­ness, but slowly the fre­quency in­creased and reached a point where I could hardly work,” said Chin­na­pan, who was di­ag­nosed with as­besto­sis, or scar­ring of the lungs, in 2007.

“Slowly I started los­ing weight, I couldn’t even drink wa­ter as it made me vomit im­me­di­ately,” the 64-year-old said in his onebed­room house on the out­skirts of Ahmed­abad.

A pariah prod­uct in most of the West, blamed for thou­sands of deaths, as­bestos is hugely popular in the de­vel­op­ing world — in­clud­ing in In­dia, where it’s a US$1.4 bil­lion grow­ing in­dus­try.

Na­tions at a U.N. meet­ing in Geneva last month tried to add chrysotile, or white as­bestos to a list of danger­ous sub­stances sub­ject to ex­port re­stric­tions.

But the move was blocked by lead­ing as­bestos ex­porter Rus­sia and other de­vel­op­ing na­tions, a stance sup­ported by In­dia, one of the world’s big­gest im­porters.

Ac­tivists and unions say In­dia’s gov­ern­ment must start to rec­og­nize the dan­gers posed by as­bestos, whose fibers doc­tors world­wide say lodges in the lungs caus­ing can­cer and other dis­eases.

More than 50 na­tions, in­clud­ing all mem­bers of the EU, have banned all forms of as­bestos, which the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says kills at least 107,000 peo­ple an­nu­ally.

“The time has come to ban this prod­uct out­right and In­dia must see that. It’s just too danger­ous,” said haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als ac­tivist Gopal Krishna.

New Delhi de­fended its po­si­tion in Geneva, say­ing there was “no proof” In­dia’s as­bestos fac­to­ries or their prod­ucts — used mainly in low-cost hous­ing — are un­safe.

“We took a call which looked pro-in­dus­try but this was done in the ab­sence of cred­i­ble data (on the health risks),” Shashi Shekhar, In­dia’s top of­fi­cial in charge of haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als and chair­man of the Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board, told AFP.

Shekhar said he has com­mis­sioned a study into the pos­si­ble health ef­fects which would take up to two years to com­plete.

“The whole world is talk­ing about it (as­bestos) in a grave way, and so we have to see whether they are right or wrong.”

Busi­ness Boom­ing

In Ahmed­abad, busi­ness is brisk at a huge ware­house where as­bestos whole­saler Mansur Satani has lit­tle time to talk of health con­cerns, other than to say they don’t ex­ist.

“This is the peak trad­ing pe­riod for the year,” Satani said as the phone rang con­stantly in his of­fice.

The in­dus­try and other as­bestos sup­port­ers say curly-fibered chrysotile is safe, and only other forms with more jagged fibers are danger­ous.

More than 50 fac­to­ries through­out In­dia use white as­bestos as an in­gre­di­ent in mainly ce­ment roof­ing sheets, wall pan­els and pipes. More than 400,000 tons of as­bestos is im­ported ev­ery year to feed the plants.

TK Joshi, direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Oc­cu­pa­tional and En­vi­ron­men­tal Health in New Delhi’s Lok Nayak hos­pi­tal, warned of huge con­se­quences for the in­dus­try’s work­ers.

“It could run into thou­sands (of sick). And that (fig­ure) could rise ex­po­nen­tially in fu­ture as the use of as­bestos in the last decade and a half has gone up con­sid­er­ably,” Joshi told AFP.

But he said ex­act fig­ures on those al­ready suf­fer­ing were un­known be­cause of poor record keep­ing. Many doc­tors treat­ing pa­tients were also un­aware of the symptoms or did not think to ask about ex­po­sure to haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als.

More than 300,000 work­ers are em­ployed in the fac­to­ries, while thou­sands more trades­men in­stall the prod­ucts, bought at mar­kets and ware­houses like the one in Ahmed­abad.

“Many cases go un­di­ag­nosed lead­ing to an un­der­es­ti­mate of the mag­ni­tude of harm.”

Joshi said he was con­cerned about a lack of public aware­ness of as­bestos dan­gers, and poor en­force­ment of safety laws.

The in­dus­try de­nied its em­ploy­ees were at risk, say­ing all pre­cau­tions were be­ing taken, in­clud­ing us­ing ma­chines to han­dle bags of as­bestos to pre­vent fibers es­cap­ing into the air.

In­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor John Ni­code­mus also rub­bished WHO and ILO re­search on in­ter­na­tional as­bestos deaths, say­ing they lacked de­tail.

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