In spite of the health hazards, asbestos is widely used in India without any restriction and millions of people are exposed to asbestos dust. India imports approximately half the world supply of asbestos and is, therefore, the largest importer in the world. Asbestos enjoys special lower import tariff in India.There are over 100 factories in India manufacturing asbestos products including roofing sheets. Approximately 300,000 people work in these factories. Most of them do not use safety equipment even if the factory provides them. These workers bring asbestos dust home and family members are exposed. Then there are the people involved in transporting, selling and installing the products. So it is clear that many millions of people in India are affected by asbestos. The public is also directly affected by the dust flying off fresh asbestos sheets that are for sale in the open air all over India.
Asbestos makes for a miracle roof; it is cheap, it is fire resistant, it does not rust and can last for a century, and when the monsoon rains pour over the asbestos roof there is little sound compared to the drum that a tin sheet becomes. So asbestos is a roof over the head of the poor. And many small shops have asbestos roofs. So asbestos roofing sells and factories make them. The special low import tariff keeps the cost low.
But asbestos roof has one problem – it can break. When that happens, dust is released! The greater problem is for the workers who were involved in the production, transportation, storage, sale and installation.
There a new urgency now! That has to do with the rapid rate of increase in the number of new vehicles in India in the past ten years. These vehicles are made cheaper than in the developed countries. Asbestos is used in these vehicles as brake pads, engine gaskets and many other parts. The auto parts shops and auto mechanics as well as the public are now affected by this new threat from asbestos.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advised all nations in 2006 to ban asbestos. The International Labor Organization (ILO) did the same in 2007.
The Rotterdam Convention (formally, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade) is a treaty among nations to promote shared responsibilities in relation to importation of hazardous chemicals. Nations that sign on to the treaty can decide whether to allow or ban the importation of chemicals listed in the treaty, similarly for exports from the signatory nation. Indian delegation at the Convention in 2013 did not sign on for banning asbestos. The next meeting of the Convention is in May, 2015.
1. Directly and indirectly there are over 10 lacs people who earn their living from asbestos mining, product manufacturing, and working with the products in various ways. Since it is their livelihood they will not worry about the danger that lurks. Moreover the illness develops over a long period.
2. Aside from the demand for asbestos roofing, the use of asbestos in vehicle parts is a new problem due to the increase in the rate of increase of the number of vehicles.
3. The manufacturers and merchants will not let the cash cow go. They will defend asbestos with fake science and lobby the government which already protects them with a lower tariff for asbestos import.
4. The public does not worry about something until it makes news. Moreover asbestos dust is almost an invisible enemy.
It is common knowledge that India ranks high in bribery and corruption. This includes all of us as well as all political parties – after all, we are the political parties.
Here is what our nation can do without disrupting the economy:
A. Remove – in phases over several years – tariff protection of asbestos imports
B. Require face masks certified against asbestos to be worn at all times by factory workers when they are in the vicinity of spots where asbestos dust can arise. Do the same for workers in ship dismantling, sales of asbestos products and their installations or removal.
C. Ban asbestos roofing from being installed in all commercial, industrial, and government buildings and schools
D. Set a deadline – say, 2017 – when every new car will have non-asbestos brake pads (These parts can be made with non-asbestos materials as they do in other countries).
E. Set deadlines for stopping the use of asbestos in all other products, including vehicle parts and building materials (other than roofing), that can cause asbestos dust.
F. Set a deadline to ban roofing sheets while developing cheap and harmless alternatives.
These need legislation. In a democracy legislation will happen when the public wants it. That is why we campaign through this website and through BANI and encourage the holding of awareness events like long-distance running in various places each year. One day asbestos would be banned. At that time or even before we can start worrying about other hazards – See www.toxicswatch.org and www.ecorun.in – such as the manufacture or use of pesticides and other chemicals that have not been scientifically proven to be harmless to man or animals or the environment.