India has banned asbestos mining but buys it mainly from Russia. Experts are calling for a ban on trade in the dangerous mineral, which is widely used for roofs in the slums where the poorest people live. Environmental lawyer Gopal Krishna explains to AsiaNews how the Indian government has based its inaction on research financed by producers that minimise the risks.
Milan (AsiaNews) - Most of the slums in India have roofs made of asbestos materials. It can be seen with the naked eye and those who live there probably do not even notice it, because they do not know the risks. Although asbestos mining was banned in 2011, its use in construction has not been banned and India remains one of the world's largest importers of asbestos.
This is still possible because a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health (Nioh) on 1248 workers states that asbestos and its derivatives are not very harmful to human health. The study concluded that "only three workers in a small factory had interstitial pulmonary fibrosis", a disease in which the elastic tissue of the lungs is replaced by rigid, fibrous tissue, impairing the ability to breathe.
What is overlooked is that the study was sponsored by the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers' Association, the country's collective of asbestos-trading entrepreneurs. Nioh, on the other hand, comes under the Indian Council of Medical Research, the institution in India responsible for formulating, coordinating and promoting biomedical research. "Even today, the Indian government cites this study to refuse to classify as carcinogenic some products containing chrysotile asbestos, going against the UN Rotterdam Convention that should promote informed consent in relation to the import of hazardous chemical materials," environmental lawyer Gopal Krishna tells AsiaNews.
Asbestos is a fibrous material that has been used since ancient times for its corrosion resistance and insulating properties. There are several types, including chrysolite or white, which is the most widely used (and still traded) worldwide. The mineral's fibrousness is also the reason for its danger: released into the environment over the years, if inhaled over a long period of time, the very fine asbestos fibres cause various types of cancer.
According to Krishna, who has been campaigning for a global ban on asbestos for more than 20 years, "asbestos producers provide large sums of money to the political parties in power, there is no other explanation for India's inconsistent policy" on such a harmful material.
85% of India's imports come from Russia; the rest from Brazil, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Poland and South Africa. The losers are the marginalised sections of the population, who do not know the health risks of living surrounded by asbestos. "About 79% of dalits, who number 200 million in India, live in houses with asbestos roofs," Krishna continues. "A significant proportion are in slums, but the fact remains that no building in India is completely free of asbestos and most water pipes are made of asbestos cement.
Only asbestos use in cosmetics is banned, 'the import and distribution of which is regulated by the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940', the expert explains. "The use of asbestos in cosmetic products is regulated by Indian regulations according to the standards set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). Recently, the Bis changed the parameters regarding talcum powder: "If the law is enforced Johnson&Johnson's talcum powder will no longer be allowed to be sold in India."
In December 2018, a Reuters investigation had revealed the presence of asbestos in the talcum powder produced by the US company at its Indian plants in Baddi and Mulund. Production resumed in a couple of months after Narendra Modi's government said it had found no traces of the mineral in the talcum powder manufactured in India.
Gopal Krishna, who co-founded the Ban Asbestos Network of India (Bani) has scored some small victories in recent years. "India's railway ministry is phasing out asbestos roofs from all 7,325 stations in the country, while the Bihar government has announced that it will not allow factories using asbestos to establish themselves in the state."
However, the fact remains that asbestos is still present in a flood of buildings in India and the public is not informed about the damage. "There is no adequate data collection regarding diseases and deaths due to environmental exposures, including exposures to asbestos fibres. But some indicative data is available," Gopal Krishna continues.
"India imported 3,61,164 tonnes of asbestos in 2019-20 according to a November 2021 publication of Government of India. A paper on Global Asbestos Disaster published in the May 2018 issue of International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reveals that for every 20 tons of asbestos produced and consumed there is at least one death of a person somewhere in the world," the lawyer explains to AsiaNews.
"A December 2016 publication of Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reveals that the prevalence of asbestosis in four cement factories (Ahmadabad, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Mumbai) varied from 3% to 5%. In the asbestos textile industry prevalence of asbestosis was 9% in workers having less than 10 years exposure, in contrast to the reported average duration of over 20 years".
Finally, Krishna concludes with a warning: "Alec Farquhar, as Managing Director, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers, Canada informed me in a meeting in New Delhi that “We now have around 500 asbestos cancer cases every year in Ontario from a population of 13 million. If you (India) continue on your current path, you will multiply our death count by 100 times. That would be 50, 000 Indians dying every year from asbestos".
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