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Asbestos: Housed in controversies
Pratap Ravindran

How safe is white asbestos?

ARE chrysotile asbestos (or white asbestos) products hazardous to health? The Chrysotile Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association (CACPMA) asserts that they are not. Mr Arun Saraf, Chairman of CACPMA, has been quoted in The Hindu Business Line (September 24, 2004) as saying: "White asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral with no harmful effect when used in a controlled manner. Asbestos-related diseases are associated with crocidolite or blue asbestos and other amphiboles. It is not used in India, since its import was banned in 1994."

The Association cites a World Health Organisation (WHO) report which says that the "exclusive use of chrysotile (white) fibre in the manufacture of asbestos cement products is not associated with any excess of lung cancer" — but is discreetly silent on the call by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for global trade restrictions on the sale of all forms of asbestos. The Association has, further, made any debate on the subject difficult by implying that anyone who expresses doubts about the safety of white asbestos automatically becomes an agent of certain "vested interests" — meaning steel makers!

Activists, however, maintain that they are hazardous. A report by Ms Bindu Shajan Perappadan published in The Hindu (June 3, 2004), says: "Though it is prohibited in 36 countries, India continues to keep at bay a ban on white asbestos, directly resulting in daily exposures of nearly nine lakh construction workers to serious health hazards."

"And though there are reams of paperwork on the matter, the use of white asbestos in India continues, while there is a ban on blue and brown asbestos."

"White asbestos is used mainly for water pipes or as roofing sheets in construction industry. Asbestos dust can be inhaled while drilling, cutting a pipe, repairing, renovating or demolishing a building and 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."

The report goes on to quote the environmentalist, Mr Gopal Krishnan of Toxic Links, as saying that although the government is aware of the health hazards associated with white asbestos, "Indian government representatives surprisingly 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." As for the Indian government, its stance on the issue is predictably confused.

It may be recalled that Mr Suresh Ramrao Jadhav, Member of Parliament, had raised the question in Parliament in May 2002, as to "whether the government proposes to shut down asbestos sheets manufacturing units in India as it can cause lung cancer to the workers exposed to it" upon which Dr Raman Singh, the then Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, had answered: "There is no conclusive scientific evidence on harmful effects of asbestos. The units manufacturing asbestos have to follow BIS prescribed safety norms to protect workers against harmful effects of asbestos. Therefore, it is not desirable to ban production of these sheets."

Fair enough. But, on August 18, 2003, the then Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Ms Sushma Swaraj, made the following statement 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." And, then again, following the receipt of reports linking the incidence of cancer to the inhalation of asbestos, the Union Environment Ministry had appointed a 12-member committee, headed by the former Joint Secretary, Mr V. Rajgopalan, and currently the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) chairperson, to look into the hazardous effects of asbestos. Nothing is known about the findings, if any, of this committee.

Given the diversity and incompatibility of views on the subject, a look at we know for certain about white asbestos:

We know that chrysotile or white asbestos is the dominant form of asbestos in international commerce today. It accounts for about 99 per cent of current world asbestos production.

It is known that a large number of scientists the world over agree that chrysotile is an extremely hazardous material. According to them, clinical and epidemiologic studies have established incontrovertibly that chrysotile causes cancer of the lung, malignant mesothelioma of the pleura and peritoneum, cancer of the larynx and certain gastrointestinal cancers. Further, they say that chrysotile causes asbestosis, a progressive fibrous disease of the lungs. The risk of these diseases increases with cumulative lifetime exposure to chrysotile and rises also with increasing time interval (latency) since first exposure. These scientists dispute the claim that chrysotile asbestos can be used `safely' under "certain conditions." This claim, they say, is simply not accurate.

Comparative analyses have apparently established that chrysotile is two-four times less potent than crocidolite asbestos in its ability to cause malignant mesothelioma — but of equal potency of causation of lung cancer. In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO has declared chrysotile asbestos a proven human carcinogen.

We know that the sale of chrysotile asbestos has virtually ended in Western Europe and North America because of their recognition of its health hazards. However, asbestos sales remain strong in Japan, across Asia and in developing nations worldwide.

Collegium Ramazzini, an international society globally recognised as an authority on environmental and occupational medicine, has called for an immediate worldwide ban on all sales and uses of all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile.

The rationale for this ban is threefold:

- that safer substitute materials are readily available,

- that `controlled' use of asbestos is not possible, and

- that the health risks of asbestos are not acceptable in either the industrialised or the newly industrialisin nations.

Finally, alternatives to chrysotile are available in PVC and sheet metal to replace asbestos cement. Substitution of asbestos involves the use of other fibres in t- place of chrysotile. The major asbestos-cement product categories worldwide are profiled sheet, flat sheet, and building board, slates, pressure pipes, and moulded goods. Most commonly, PVA and cellulose are used as substitutes, particularly for sheet and slates. Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) substitute fibres do not seem to constitute a promising substitute for pressure pipes because of strength requirements, but alternative materials can be used — unplasticised polyvinyl chloride, for instance.

Prudence dictates that when there is disagreement on the safety of a product or a product category, it should be banned or rigorously regulated by the government till the disagreement is resolved. It is intriguing that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, which claims to represent the interests of the common man, has chosen not to exercise prudence with regard to the production and use of white asbestos products in India.


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