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Use Of Russian And Canadian Asbestos Rising In India

By Gopal Krishna

13 November, 2007

Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer). Lack of health surveillance of asbestos exposed workers and consumers is an invitation to disaster from wholesale public exposure, especially babies and infants in India. Some 45 countries have banned this killer fiber. Asbestos consumption is rising dramatically in India even as U.S. Senate passed Ban Asbestos in America Act on October 04, 2007 unanimously. Asbestos is banned in Europe since 1 January 2005.

But countries like Russia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Brazil continue to produce, trade and promote this ticking time bomb in India. The Russian Federation has also been found to be exporting asbestos industry waste to India. Research is showing asbestos epidemics across the globe even in countries where it is currently banned, as the consequence of past exposure.

Stories of the toll asbestos takes on people are yet to hit the headlines in India as has been the case in US, Europe, Australia and Japan. The recent UN statistics indicates that India imported roughly 306,000 MT of asbestos in 2006. Out of which 152, 820 MT was imported from Russia, 63, 980 MT from Canada, 48, 807 MT from Kazakhstan and 34, 953 MT from Brazil.

It is noteworthy that International Conference on trade unions & chrysotile asbestos in Moscow (25-27 April, 2007) issued an appeal to World Health Organisation opposing the “WHO Policy on elimination of asbestos-related diseases” in favour of controlled use of chrysotile asbestos. The appeal concluded saying, “We are sure that chrysotile must not be banned for the sake of health and social welfare of hundreds of millions of people in the world (especially in developing countries), who suffer and prematurely die from having no shelter and clean water. A wide use of low-cost chrysotile-cement products is necessary to resolve this problem” ignoring the WHO finding that no safe level can be proposed for asbestos use because a threshold is not known to exist.

Asbestos production and marketing started in the Urals at the start of the 19th century. By the onset of World War I, Russia was the world’s second biggest asbestos producer, although well behind Canada. In 1975, Soviet Russia overtook Canada as the world’s leading asbestos producer. Russia remains the leading world asbestos producer. The country’s principal asbestos mine (Uralasbest) was privatized and was owned by new Russian capitalists. It was even declared bankrupt in 1997 but it resumed its activities afterwards.

There has virtually been no debate on asbestos either under the Soviet regime or since. Following the banning of asbestos in the European Union, the Vladimir Putin government did set up a panel of experts to give an opinion on a possible Russian asbestos ban. The panel’s report is an impassioned defence of asbestos use. The pro-Russian asbestos lobby like their counterparts in Canada, Zimbabwe and Brazil too claim that it holds relatively little danger for health. The Russian authorities continue to deny the health havoc wrought by asbestos. Russian media, civil society and academia must sensitize the Russian citizens to desist from exporting asbestos to gullible Indians.

Currently mining of all kinds of asbestos (Blue, Brown and White [chrysotile] Asbestos) is banned in India. Trade in asbestos waste is also banned. Besides all other forms of asbestos other than chrysotile asbestos (White Asbestos) is prohibited in India. While white asbestos mining is currently banned in India, its import, export or use in manufacturing is permitted.

In September 2007, Independent Peoples Tribunal (IPT) on the World Bank Group (WBG) was presented with evidence of Bank officials suggesting how it finances huge infrastructure projects all over the world including India despite this there is no formal restrictions on the use of asbestos-cement (A-C) sheets and pipes in these projects. Over 90 percent of all asbestos used today is in A-C sheets and pipes, and this production is concentrated in poor countries. Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) called for urgent action in India and elsewhere to end the needless slaughter caused by this environmental and occupational health catastrophe. The 4-day IPT was held from 21 –24 September at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

It was demanded, “The World Bank should adopt a formal policy of forbidding asbestos in all of its projects and require the use of safer substitute construction materials. Such substitution is feasible as shown by the bans in more than 40 countries.. The World Bank should also adopt best practice guidelines for the minimization of asbestos exposures in projects where in-place asbestos materials are disturbed by renovation or demolition activities.” It has called upon the World Bank to support the asbestos action program just started by the WHO and use its influence and leverage to press for cessation of asbestos use all over world.

The report of World Bank environmental official Robert Goodland, "Sustainable Development Sourcebook for the World Bank Group's Extractive Industries Review: Examining the Social and Environmental Impacts of Oil, Gas, and Mining" (3 December, 2003). Policy options for asbestos (p. 141) included, "5. The WBG should work with the rest of the UN system to foster a global ban on asbestos."

The voice of asbestos victims has been totally disregarded by Indian political parties of all hues both in the states and at national level unlike US and Europe. Indian homes are often built of asbestos cement roofs, and people cut their own windows and doorways. The occurrence of asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, is growing out of control. Studies estimate that during the next decade, in India victims will die of an asbestos related disease at the rate of 30 deaths per day.

Indian government should disassociate itself from the Russian and Canadian asbestos lobby and take lessons from the nations that have banned this fiber to safeguard its workers and citizens.


The author is an environment and health analyst .



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