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Say no to white asbestos

February 12, 2004

White asbestos continues to be in use in India although other kinds such as blue and brown asbestos are banned. It is used mainly for water pipes or as roofing sheets in the construction industry.

Asbestos dust can be inhaled while drilling a hole, cutting a pipe, repairing, renovating or demolishing a building. Its effects are far-reaching, affecting everyone from the person mining it to the ultimate consumer.

Clinical reports show that asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer can show up even 25 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos.

On August 18, 2003, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare and Parliamentary Affairs Sushma Swaraj said in the Rajya Sabha: "Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma."

Although this clearly implies that white asbestos is hazardous and a health hazard, Indian government representatives, astonishingly, objected to the extension of prior-informed consent to cover white asbestos as a material subject to trade control at the Rotterdam Prior Informed Consent Convention in Geneva in November 2003.

India joined Canada -- which exports more than 95 per cent of all the asbestos it produces, most of it to India -- to scuttle attempts to include the material in the international list of chemicals under the Convention.

The PIC Convention, which will come into force in February 2004 under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is a globally-binding instrument that provides an early warning system and transparent information on chemicals that have been banned or restricted by at least two countries.

The Indian government's stance at Geneva went against the interests of Indian workers and citizens. India must disassociate itself from Canada, which successfully blocked consideration of a proposed UN ban on the import of white asbestos until September 2004 with support from Russia and 13 other asbestos-producing countries.

The year 2003 saw the global movement against asbestos gaining ground. The latest countries to ban asbestos are Japan and Australia. Japan's health, labour and welfare ministry announced that asbestos would not be manufactured, imported, transferred, provided or used by the country starting October 1, 2004. Australia has banned all new uses of asbestos and materials containing asbestos from December 31, 2003.

The World Trade Organisation's Dispute Settlement Panel on September 18, 2000, and its appellate body on March 12, 2001, accepted that chrysotile, also known as white asbestos, is an established carcinogen and that "controlled use" is not an effective alternative to a national ban.

Health statistics and the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) have led governments across the developed world to recognise the hazards of asbestos and ban its use in their countries.

Member states of the European Union stopped using asbestos in 1999 and bans are already in place in more than 30 countries worldwide. Says ILO Director of Safe work Jukka Takala, "The ILO has updated its estimates on global accidents and diseases related to work. a single substance, asbestos, causes some 100,000 of these fatalities."

Unmindful of the fact that "poison" does not become "non-poisonous" as a result of advertising and public relations campaigns, the Canadian government recently announced its continuing support for safe and responsible use of white asbestos.

It renewed its funding to the Montreal-based Asbestos Institute for the promotion of white asbestos throughout the world. It has announced a contribution of $775,000 for the promotion of asbestos.

In India, even as the demand for a global ban on all forms of asbestos was once again made at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January, the Maharashtra government is pursuing its request to the Union rural development ministry for permission to use asbestos sheets in rural housing projects.

And the asbestos industry has flooded national dailies with sponsored features like "scientific findings squash asbestos cement myth " and "only blue asbestos 'causes' mesothelioma".

Unlike Maharashtra, Goa seems to be on the right track. "No low-income housing group structures should be covered by asbestos sheets as they are highly carcinogenic and harmful to the residents. The previous government's short-sightedness should not be repeated," says Matanhy Saldanha, MLA from the United Goan Democratic Party, a part of the Goa's ruling coalition.

There is no single product in day-to-day use at work or at home that needs to be made from deadly asbestos. Even then, over 3,000 workplace- and home-based products contain this poison.

Cellulose fibre, PVA fibre, clay, stone tiles and steel are all substitutes for asbestos. Although expensive at first, they work out cheaper in the long run because of their long life.

If the Indian government is concerned about the health of its citizens, it must approve alternatives to asbestos, especially for roofing. White asbestos is a convicted mass killer. Its use should not be perpetuated.

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