Story of a supposed hazardous material

Ad describing harmful effects of Asbestos

Asbestos is a killer! Whether it’s being mined, used to manufacture building material, used in construction, or contacted with while salvaging aging ships. Banned in Europe and 52 nations worldwide asbestos is widely considered as a major health hazard.

These are the statements we regularly hear from the various activists and organizations that have been protesting against the use and mining of Asbestos. Of late asbestos and asbestos-based products have been generating lot of interest in the society. Certain NGOs, activists and various competitive interests both in the country and abroad have been campaigning against asbestos without caring to look at the truth and current facts.

What is Asbestos cement?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral found in underground rock formations. There are two different varieties of asbestos namely, Chrysotile and Amphibole. In India only Chrysotile is in production and use for the past two decades. In most cases it is true that Asbestos is no benign substance when it is not handled carefully.

Why the bias against Asbestos?

The bias against the use of asbestos in a few countries is due to the adverse western media coverage relating to altogether different usages of asbestos in the past in those countries i.e. sprayed on asbestos and friable low-density asbestos insulation used under uncontrolled conditions at that time due to lack of adequate scientific knowledge. Though these particular usages have since been discontinued, the claims relating to the past keep appearing in the media resulting in general confusion. (there is no such usage in India). There is a common misconception that inhaling even a single fibre of asbestos is harmful but as a matter of fact we inhale thousands of such particles daily and are cleared out of our lungs through our natural mechanism.

But, once the scientific research into the risks of asbestos was set in motion, development and installation of pollution control systems took place, enabling the asbestos mining and asbestos cement industries to maintain safe and acceptable levels of dust pollution at the work places.

Once the permissible levels of exposure were defined, the Governments have stepped in and laid down pollution control regulations and the mechanisms to enforce their compliance. Compliance with these regulations and standards assure the workers in asbestos-cement industries a risk-free environment. For the consumer, the Asbestos Cement products were and are always safe as the fibres are locked in layers of cement–fly ash matrix.

In Indian context; what is the situation?

In India, only the Chrysotile variety of asbestos, which is considered safe, is used in asbestos-cement products, namely, sheets and pipes. White asbestos or Chrysotile is not corrosive, reactive, ignitable or toxic The fibres are mixed and bonded with cement and other raw material, with no chance of escaping into the atmosphere on normal usage. Recently India agreed to put asbestos in the list of materials requiring prior informed consent for use (This list includes Endosulfan and DDT). But which asbestos are we talking about? The clinically proven hazardous brown and blue asbestos varieties (the Amphibole types) are already on the list. Facts about Chrysotile are often misrepresented and contorted to present a picture far from reality.

Workers in asbestos-cement product industry in India have not had any adverse health effects in spite of decades of service, there being no risk of exposure to asbestos dust because of pollution control measures installed in the factories. Health of the workers is closely monitored as per directives and regulations of the government agencies. Transportation of drinking water in AC pipes is absolutely safe as confirmed by the World Health Organization. In India, we act on vested interests. In the absence of political agenda or commercial interest even the most poisonous substances could be sold openly while the presence of one can immediately stir up a controversy and create hysteria. The widespread concern about asbestos is one such case. It’s interesting to notice that how the practical benefits of asbestos are severely downplayed and to see lobbies rising up a storm about asbestos when we are ready to invest millions in nuclear energy.

Developing countries like India are large consumers of asbestos and asbestos cement made of Chrysotile. Primarily imported from Canada, asbestos provides with cheap and easy construction substitute suitable for affordable, low cost housing and all weather roofing. Organisations like Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association (ACPMA) and Canada based  Chrysotile Institute promote a positive view of the material and push for better industry and mine safety norms stating that within controlled conditions is not as harmful as it is projected to be.

It’s disappointing to know that even the forerunners amongst the activists against asbestos would deny the facts just to keep the agenda alive. There are shameful incidents of PILs from NGOs being rejected by courts in light of malicious intent involving connections with steel lobbies. Hence a rational resolution is difficult to achieve unless there is an open dialogue. To dismiss the massive negative PR surrounding asbestos, manufacturers should organise tours and visits for media and activists to their factories and plants so that they can see the processes firsthand. Keeping a closed door policy will only fuel the agitation. They should be made to see all the healthcare initiatives and health records which are maintained even years after the workers retire. They should also list practical applications and economical benefits of using asbestos products while doing comparative studies on the alternative materials like steel.  In some cases there is not much awareness about the risks and safety practices required. Manufacturers should improve their track records on these aspects to free this sturdy material from the stigma attached to it.

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