Fibres of subterfuge
It is high time that India banned the mining and usage of this 'magic mineral'. A Toxics Link report.
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July 2002: Things seemingly innocent often hide a seamy underside. Asbestos, widely used in making roofings, cement pipes, and conduits for electrical cables, has ruined the health of many a worker either mining it or making things out of it. Finished asbestos products in themselves may not be harmful, but there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that it poses a health hazard for the worker exposed to its fibres.

Magic mineral?

The word 'asbestos' in Greek means 'indestructible'. Greeks called asbestos the 'magic mineral'. Asbestos is a generic term, referring usually to six kinds of naturally occuring mineral fibres. Of these six, three are used more commonly. Chrysotile is the most common, accounts for almost 90 per cent of the asbestos used in the industry, but it is not unusual to encounter Amosite or Crocidolite as well. Though Crocidolite asbestos is banned in India, it can still be found in old insulation material, old ships that come from other countries for wrecking in India.

All types of asbestos tend to break into very tiny fibre, almost microscopic. In fact, some of them may be up to 700 times smaller than human hair. Because of their small size, once released into the air, they may stay suspended in the air for hours or even days. Asbestos fibres are virtually indestructible. They are resistant to chemicals and heat, and are very stable in the environment. They do not evaporate into air or dissolve in water, and they do not break down over time. Because of its high durability and with tensile strength asbestos has been widely used inconstruction and insulation materials - it has been used in over 3,000 different products.

Where do we use it?

After mining and milling (crushed/grinding), Asbestos is processed through various methods and used for making cement products, gasket sheet material, friction material, heat resistant textiles, some special applications like in paints, thermoplastics etc.

In India, asbestos is used in manufacture of pressure and non pressure pipes used for water supply, sewage, irrigation and drainage system in urban and rural areas, asbestos textiles, laminated products, tape, gland packing, packing ropes, brake lining and jointing used in core sector industries such as automobile, heavy equipment, petro-chemicals, nuclear power plants, fertilizers, thermal power plants, transportation, defence.

A global health hazard

According to the United States National Toxicology Programme database , there is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of asbestos and all commercial forms of asbestos in humans. In the European Union, Chrysotile Asbestos has been classified as a category 1 carcinogen. The facts speak for themselves. Asbestos has been responsible for over 200,000 deaths in the United States, and will cause millions more deaths worldwide. In western Europe alone past asbestos exposure will cause a quarter of a million deaths from Mesothelioma (a cancer) over the next thirty-five years. The number of lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos is at least equal to the number of mesotheliomas, suggesting that there will be more than half million asbestos cancer deaths in western Europe over next 35 years. In Sweden, the number of deaths caused each year by malignant mesothelioma is greater than the number of deaths caused in that country by all workplace injuries. (Source: International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, UK)

The strictest occupational exposure limits in the world for chrysotile asbestos (0.1 f/cc) are estimated to be associated with lifetime risks of 5/1,000 for lung cancer and 2/1,000 for asbestosis - An irreversible and progressive lung condition where the tissue is scarred and thickened by the action of the asbestos fibres in the alveoli, the air sacs. According to experts, these exposure limits can be technically achieved in the United States and few other highly industrialised countries, but the residual risks still are too high to be acceptable. In newly industrialised countries engaged in mining, manufacturing, and construction, asbestos exposures are often much higher, and the potential for epidemics of asbestos disease is greatly increased.

In India the occupational exposure limits to all kinds of asbestos in the work environment is 2 f/cc, where as in rest of the world it is between 0.1 f/cc-0.5f/cc. According to Dr S K Dave of National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, "we have to bring down the occupational exposure limits to .1f/cc at any cost. Also we have to completely ban activities of all kinds of amphibole asbestos, especially tremolite. It is extremely injurious to health and hazardous for workers. The tremolite mining in Rajasthan is done under very hazardous conditions and should be immediately banned."

Routes of exposure

In a symposium organised by the Indian Association of Occupational Health on Banning Asbestos in April 2002, experts from all over the world deliberated on the dangers posed to the human health by asbestos and demanded immediate ban on all the activities related to asbestos and its products. An Asbestos Resolution supported by the participants was passed at the symposium.

The world over thirty-six countries have already banned asbestos and even World Trade Organisation has given an judgement against it, upholding France's decision to ban import of asbestos from Canada. In the US, asbestos usage is down to 2% of the peak level used in 1974 due to public health concerns, regulations and liabilities involved. Alarmed at the continuing asbestos usage in India, its dangerous consequences and very little public knowledge about it, Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) has been launched to raise public awareness about the hazards of asbestos.

For more information on BANI, contact Toxics Link
Asbestos fibres are released into the environment from the natural occurrence of asbestos in the earth and as a result of wear and deterioration of asbestos products. Asbestos minerals are emitted into the atmosphere and water systems from the mining and milling of asbestos ores. Applications of asbestos materials to buildings and vehicle brake linings account for a significant amount of emissions to the atmosphere. Demolition of buildings with asbestos insulation or fireproofing, mostly in the western country where buildings are all insulated, may cause high atmospheric concentrations for relatively short periods of time. The primary routes of potential human exposure to asbestos is inhalation and ingestion. Asbestos is used so widely that the entire population is potentially exposed to some degree.

For India, no such accurate figures can be stated as quantification has not been done. Going by a few studies that have been done in the small-scale sectors (organised sector), it is very clear that no such decrease has been observed. According to an expert committee report "the problem of environmental pollution and thereby health afflictions of workers in small scale sector, assume greater significance due to peculiar situations in which the units operate. Constraints of finance, technical know-how and competence regarding the environmental pollution control and to some extent, lack of preference of health in relation to financial gains are some of the important factors which influence the appropriate development of health and safety strategy." Other factors include migratory nature of workers and non maintenance of medical or other records by the factory owners for the migrant labourers which makes it difficult to track the exposure-related diseases.

According to Dr Dave, NIOH had done an environmental evaluation in August 1999 of chrysotile mining in Cuddapah, Andhra Pardesh and tremolite mining in Rajasthan and found that "in Cuddapah the fibre levels has been brought down below the permissible limits, but in Rajasthan it's 7 to 10 times higher than the permissible limits." Worker exposure is a concern in the mining and milling of asbestos, during the manufacture of all asbestos products, and in the construction and shipbuilding industries. In India, according to a technical committee report ".uncontrolled milling activities, especially manual operations, as currently practised in tremolite mills, cannot ensure the safety of workers."

In India, there are no comprehensive studies on the secondary exposure of asbestos and its impact, but individuals have observed and documented some cases of secondary exposures. Dr S R Kamath, a physician who has worked with asbestos workers for a long time, has observed number of asbestosis cases where patients who have not directly worked with asbestos had contracted the disease. ".patient was an industrialist's son, owner of an asbestos boxing plant...was exposed to the dust and diagnosed with asbestosis. In another case, the patient had an office in the first floor of a building which had asbestos boxing shed in the ground floor. The patient got exposed to asbestos fibres and dust through the AC ducts into the office...he was diagnosed with asbestosis too. A railway master was diagnosed with asbestosis due to the constant loading of asbestos in the rail wagons."

The Central Pollution Control Board monitored eight major asbestos products manufacturing units in India and found that six of them were not complying with the emission norms and for two compliance or non-compliance couldn't be ascertained. In most cases there were no monitoring platforms; bag house; chimneys and stacks were not properly maintained, and operations were intermittent.

Health studies in India

NIOH has done a number of studies that clearly indicate the prevalence of asbestosis amongst asbestos workers in the country. There are no studies or data on prevalence of mesotheliomas or lung cancer caused due to asbestos exposure in India. But that does not mean that these diseases are not prevalent in India. According to Dr S K Dave of NIOH, "mesothelioma or lung cancer may occur years after a person has stopped working in a asbestos factory or mine and it is difficult to track these workers and do cohort studies. We do not have such infrastructure in the country. Also a person with Mesothelioma or lung cancer, both debilitating diseases, won't be working, they will be either in hospital or would have died".

Compensation to workers

In 1995, The Supreme Court of India identified NIOH as the final authority to certify asbestosis cases. Compensations are given through the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). Though figures are not available on the total number of compensations given by the ESIC, according to NIOH:

  • Special medical board of ESIC gave 100% compensation to the dependents of two workers of asbestos cement factory (Hyderabad) who died due to mesothelioma of peritoneum.
  • Two workers in Ahmedabad Electricity Company diagnosed as having asbestosis by NIOH have been compensated by Gujarat High Court.
  • Twenty-five workers in asbestos jointing and packing industry at Mumbai were compensated by the Special medical board of ESIC.

In a lawsuit filed by the Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC), Ahmedabad, in the Supreme Court in 1993, the court ruled that the industrial units must maintain a health record of every worker up to a minimum period of 40 years; insure workers under the Employees State Insurance Act or Workmen's Compensation Act; or give health coverage to every worker.

Asbestos production and usage in India

Asbestos mining and milling activity is concentrated in the small scale sector in India, whereas asbestos products are manufactured in small, medium and large scale sectors. The present annual consumption of asbestos is around 100,000 metric tonnes, one fifth of which is mined in India. About 2,500 tonnes of chrysotile and 35,000 tonnes of tremolite asbestos are annually mined in India. Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar are major asbestos mining belt of India with 20,000 tonnes being mined from these three states yearly. In addition, raw asbestos worth Rs 40 to 50 crores is imported annually. About 100,000 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos are imported annually. There are about 13 large scale and 673 small scale asbestos factories in the country. The annual turnover of the asbestos industry is around Rs 800 crores and gives direct employment to 6000 workers and indirectly to 100,000. The total trade volume for asbestos is 1,100,000 metric tonnes annually in India.

According to Dr Dave, "the total use of asbestos in the country is 1.25 lakh tonnes, out of which nearly more than 1.0 lakh tonnes is being imported. About 90% of asbestos is being used by the asbestos cement industry." Though India has banned the import of asbestos wastes (dust and fibre) since 1998 (ban notified on 13.10.98), the import data shows 500 tonnes of asbestos has been imported by India between April 1998-March 99 from Brazil and Canada. Asbestos wastes are mostly imported from Brazil, Canada and USA, besides Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland.

While asbestos imports and use continues to grow in countries like India, its use has decreased significantly in the developed countries. Canada exports almost all of the asbestos (more than 96%) mined in the country, especially to Asia, including India, whereas asbestos use in Canada is almost non-existent. In the US, demand for asbestos has continued to decline. Due to public awareness and concern, regulation, and liability; asbestos consumption is now 2 percent of what it was at its peak in 1974.

The developed world has responded to the asbestos health catastrophe with bans on the use of asbestos, In addition to most European nations banning Chryostile asbestos in the 80s and 90s with exceptions, in 1999, EU agreed that all 15 EU member countries will ban asbestos by 2005. As this unfolds, the global asbestos industry is transferring its commercial activities to the third world. According to Laurie Kazan-Allen of Ban Asbestos Secretariat, UK, "Multinational asbestos corporations present a deplorable history of international exploitation. These firms have opened large and profitable internal and export markets in Brazil and elsewhere in South America, and in India, Thailand, Nigeria, Angola, Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina." Consider this, Brazil is now fifth largest producer and consumer of asbestos in the world, after Russia, Canada, Kazakstan and China. While asbestos use in the United States amounts to well below 100 gm per citizen per year, asbestos use in Brazil averages more than 1,000 gm per citizen per year. In the third world countries, use of asbestos has been increasing at an annual rate of about 7 per cent.

Asbestos regulations in India

In India, asbestos is regulated under the Factories Act (1948), in which asbestosis is listed as a notifiable disease in the schedule 3 of the Act. Asbestos is also regulated under Air and Water Act and Hazardous Wastes (Handling and Management) Rules 1989 under the Environment Protection Act (1986). Besides these, Indian Standards Institution (ISI) has brought out a number of national standards and specification relating to asbestos mining, manufacturing and handling. India has very relaxed standards for asbestos emission in the environment, compared with most European countries and the USA.

Better options

Asbestos fibres are being replaced by various substitute fibres - both natural and man made. Although there is a lack of full health and toxicological data for substitute fibres, based on basic principles of fibre toxicology (based on size, diameter and propensity of a material to release fibres into the air), countries world-wide are replacing asbestos in the following products:

  • Asbestos cement products (profiled sheet, flat sheet, building boards, slates, pressure pipes and moulded goods): with Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), cellulose, Polyacrylonitrile (PAN), glass fibre, unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (for pressure pipes).
  • Friction material (brake linings, brake pads and clutch facings): with aramid fibres, PAN, some metal and semi-metallic materials are also used in combination.
  • Gaskets and sealing materials: with aramid fibres in conjunction with cellulose pulp or glass fibres with various mineral fillers. For sealing material, glass yarn and mineral wools are used.
  • Composites: with aramid fibre, glass fibre, carbon fibre, cotton, organic fibre, man-made mineral fibres and particulate mineral fillers.
  • Heat-resistant textiles: with blends of organic, glass, metal and synthetic fibres. Refractory fibres are used at higher temperatures and synthetic organic fibres at lower temperatures.

Toxics Link
July 2002

This article is made available on India Together by arrangement with Toxics Link, New Delhi. Toxics Link, H-2 Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110 014. Tel: +91 11 4328006/0711. Detailed references used for this article are available. To join cause with BANI, write to Toxics Link.