India's expanding use of asbestos brings dire warnings

International Consortium of Investigative JournalistsJuly 21, 2010 

NEW DELHI — Every day, the swirling waters of the Arabian Sea bring misery to Alang, the world's largest shipbreaking yard, in western India's Gujarat state.

An estimated 55,000 workers, unmindful of the lethal effects of asbestos-laden material in the vessels, slave for long hours taking apart old ships and, in the process, are exposed to deadly fibers.

The Indian government is aware of the risks but loath to interfere: The men need jobs, and India's economy, among the world's fastest-growing, needs secondary steel from the beached vessels.

"Reclamation and recycling," said Pravin Nagarsheth, the president of the Iron Steel Scrap and Shipbreakers Association of India, "is a highly lucrative business."

One hundred-twenty miles north of Alang, workers at hundreds of dusty asbestos factories in the city of Ahmedabad face similar hazards in the name of economic development: lung cancer, asbestosis and a rapacious malignancy called mesothelioma, usually found in the chest cavity. In this case the end product is asbestos sheet, widely used in construction.

The two locales are centers of an emerging epidemic of asbestos-related disease in India.

Valued for its heat and fire resistance, asbestos was once widely used worldwide, but 52 countries ban or restrict it now. The use of the mineral is banned entirely in the European Union. In the United States — where it's blamed for some 200,000 deaths and has cost the industry $70 billion in damages and litigation expenses — asbestos use is limited to a handful of products, such as automobile brakes and gaskets, and rarely used even in those.

In India, however, asbestos use is booming.

The country is now the world's second largest asbestos market, behind only China, consuming nearly 386,000 tons in 2008. The industry generates more than $850 million a year in revenue, and it directly employs 300,000 people; indirectly, it supports as many as 3 million more. Backed by a powerful lobby, asbestos use in India has risen by 83 percent since 2004, according to government figures. Given evidence of poor workplace safety and weak regulations, such widespread use could prove disastrous, health experts said.

One study by two New Delhi researchers suggests that deaths from asbestos-related cancers could reach 1 million in developing nations by 2020.

"The industry is using its economic and political power in a way that's allowing it totally unrestrained growth," said Barry Castleman, a U.S. environmental consultant who advises the World Health Organization. "We can only expect untold numbers of preventable deaths to occur as a result."

According to recent estimates by the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association, a New Delhi-based industry organization, the Indian asbestos market grew by more than 30 percent just in the past year, primarily because of demands in the country's rural sector.

"The asbestos market — despite being a health hazard — has grown because it serves the market for the poor," said Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. "And that market is growing at a tremendous pace. So nobody has the time for complaints."

In India, asbestos products carry no health warning labels and trade unions have no mandate to prevent asbestos-related disease at workplaces. Although researchers around the world have linked lung cancer and other diseases with exposure to the widely used white, or chrysotile, asbestos, the powerful Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association — funded by 12 asbestos companies, as well as by the Canada-based Chrysotile Institute — concedes nothing.

"That lung cancer deaths have been caused by inhaling asbestos fiber has not been conclusively proved in India," said John Nicodemus, the association's executive director. "This is the handiwork of groups like BANI. The government's stand on asbestos is very clear. It has yet to receive proof of the product being a health hazard."

The manufacturers association and others contend that chrysotile asbestos is less toxic than blue or brown forms of the mineral, which no longer are used. Nonetheless, many health experts say chrysotile asbestos can be deadly.

Nicodemus refused to divulge details of the association's funding, but senior government officials say it's received $50 million since it was founded in 1985.

A. Modi, the president of an asbestos manufacturing company that's affiliated with the association, told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that association member companies contribute 2 to 3 percent of their revenue to the lobby group for "promotional activities in India that revolve around advertising promotions to counter baseless allegations by Ban Asbestos Network India (and) legal and promotional activities that (are) mostly in rural India."

This means that at current exchange rates, the association receives the equivalent of $8 million to $13 million per year.

It spends some of this money on "advertorials," at up to $34,000 apiece, in mass-circulation Indian daily newspapers, ostensibly to counter what it terms disinformation about the effects of asbestos. Government officials say the association also spends significant amounts on lobbying and training — mostly in Canada and Russia — for its staffers. Its already sizable budget is expected to increase as industry output grows — possibly to 600,000 tons a year — to meet the demand for asbestos-sheet roofing in India's villages.

The manufacturers association's lobbying activities were part of a detailed discussion on hazardous minerals during a spirited meeting at the Ministry of Mines in April, when a host of scientific and public interest groups opposed demands for the increased use of asbestos.

At the meeting, officials told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, representatives of BANI and the National Institute of Miners' Health argued for an asbestos ban. Representatives of asbestos companies, in turn, demanded proof that asbestos causes lung diseases and dismissed the idea of a ban.

When public health advocates produced global figures to argue their case, the industry officials replied that such figures reflected deaths in other countries and not in India, where they say chrysotile use under "controlled conditions" poses little risk. The companies, however, rarely provide the working conditions and safety equipment to protect their employees from the dangers of asbestos, experts say.

Most of the asbestos used in India comes from Russia or Canada. Despite the rapid increase in usage across India, little mention is made of the potential health effects. For example, a newly released environmental impact assessment guidance manual for asbestos-based industries — with a foreword by Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh — has no details about the alarming rise in asbestos-related diseases worldwide or countries that have banned the product.

Those who follow the industry aren't surprised.

The first official records on the dangers of asbestos became public in India only in 2008, when BANI's Krishna, who was then a young, unknown activist, demanded documents under the Right to Information Act, India's freedom of information law.

For the Indian public, reporting on asbestos remains scarce, however. Experts say this is primarily because the states and union territories have no mechanism to prove that lung cancer deaths and other skin diseases are being caused by asbestos exposures. As a result, the Indian asbestos industry is insulated from the movement to ban asbestos globally.

The lack of official attention has dire consequences for tens of thousands of workers likely to succumb to asbestos-related diseases, health experts warn.

At one company in Ahmedabad — Gujarat Composite Ltd. — at least 75 workers have been diagnosed with lung cancer in the past 10 years, out of a work force of about 1,000, according to nongovernmental activists in Ahmedabad who are working on asbestos-related diseases. At least 20 of those have died, they said.

"No one listened to our repeated complaints of breathing troubles and skin irritation," said Rues Muthuswami Munian, who's suffered from the disease for nearly a decade. He and other sick workers say the company fired them and offered virtually no compensation, prompting them to file a complaint with the local police over conditions at the company. Shorn of money, they're dependent on monthly handouts from a few aid organizations.

Representatives of Gujarat Composite are the target of four criminal complaints that the state Labour and Employment Department filed in March. The complaints accuse the company of lacking safety records, failing to conduct medical exams of workers and refusing to provide inspectors with a registry of its workers.

"There were no records kept of the fibers floating in the atmosphere," one complaint reads.

Gujarat Composite officials declined repeated requests for an interview.

The U.S.-based company Johns Manville held a stake in the 48-year-old factory when it was called Shree Digvijay Cement Co. and expressed dismay about its hygiene decades ago, according to documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In a confidential 1977 memorandum, for example, a Johns Manville official wrote, "The Indian Government Environmental Division has been recently tightening dust emissions and Shree has been told to either shape up or close down with their management liable for jail sentences. Their present operation is just indescribably poor. The wet end of the pipe machines is like 'London fog' with fiber floating all over from the fiber bins." Johns Manville held 10 percent of Shree Digvijay's stock until at least 1983.

In 1997, about a year after it acquired the factory, Gujarat Composite began subcontracting with two privately owned companies. In January, responses to requests by a nongovernmental organization filed under the Right to Information Act suggested that more than 1,000 workers at the two firms toiled under dangerous conditions.

"The saddest part of the story is this: The state government knows what is happening, yet no action has been taken on these two companies," said Raghunath Manwar of the Ahmedabad-based Occupational Health and Safety Association, which advocates for asbestos victims.

"The environment is lethal," said Dheemant Badia, an Occupational Health and Safety Association trustee. "These workers work in a death zone because there is no practice of measurement of airborne asbestos-fiber dust." Gujarat's Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health has routinely received complaints about Gujarat Composite but, critics charge, has turned a blind eye.

In the majority of Indian states and territories, asbestos is considered an essential ingredient of growth.

In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, a pro-asbestos agenda is being pushed by one of its members of Parliament, Gaddam Vivekanand, who reportedly controls 25 percent of India's asbestos production through his ownership of seven factories across the country. An eighth will open this year in eastern Orissa state.

The ubiquitous nature of the fiber is best demonstrated in western Maharashtra state, which is filled with asbestos factories in places such as Mumbai, Pune and Kolhapur.

The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board acknowledges the mounting number of lung diseases in the state in its annual reports, but it's taken no action to make the state asbestos-free.

Beneath the growing debate, some experts note, lies the fact that India remains a country in which an estimated 450 million people live below a government-stipulated poverty line.

In such an environment, the chances of factories maintaining the proper safety and health standards may be dim indeed. Castleman, the environmental consultant, said it was reasonable to expect hundreds of thousands of asbestos-related deaths before India would react.

"I'm hard-pressed to point to any sign of success that activists and public health people have had over there," he said.

Asha Gupta, a lawyer who represents asbestos victims in Gujarat, said that companies at least needed to provide safety gear to those who were working in such hazardous conditions. "Otherwise, workers will continue to fall sick and, eventually, die a slow, painful death."

(International Consortium of Investigative Journalists associate Abhishek Upadhyay contributed to this report from India.)

(This story is part of "Dangers in the Dust," a joint investigation by the BBC's International News Services and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium is a collaboration of some of the world's top investigative reporters. Launched in 1997 as a project of The Center for Public Integrity, the consortium globally extends the center's style of watchdog journalism, working with 100 journalists in 50 countries to produce long-term, transnational investigations.)

ON THE WEB

Read more on the investigation at PublicIntegrity.org and the BBC.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

In Libby Montana, asbestos questions remain

Will sale of copper producer affect pollution, asbestos claims?

Check out McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service