February 20, 2019

Hazards of asbestos use still hound poor Asian countries

Vaishali, India — In most of Asia, asbestos is still being actively pushed as a product that benefits the poor, despite research data from various reputable health organizations concluding that it can cause serious health problems.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), World Health Organization (WHO), medical researchers, and more than 50 countries say the mineral should be banned; asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs, and cause disease. ILO estimates 100,000 people die from workplace exposure every year.

WORKING WITH ‘HAZARDOUS’ ASBESTOS (AP) — A worker covers his face with a handkerchief to serve as protection from the hazards of handling asbestos sheets at a factory in Bhojpur, Bihar, India in this Nov. 23, 2013 photo. Scientists and medical experts overwhelmingly agree that inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to deadly diseases, but the Indian asbestos lobby say the risks are overblown.

But industry executives at the 2013 asbestos conference in New Delhi said the risks are overblown.

Instead, they described their business as a form of social welfare for hundreds of thousands of impoverished Indians still living in flimsy, mud-and-thatch huts.

“We’re here not only to run our businesses, but also to serve the nation,” India’s Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association Director Abhaya Shankar.

Umesh Kumar, a roadside vendor in Bihar’s capital Patna (around 70 kilometers from Vaishali), has long known there are health hazards to the 3-by-1-meter (10-by-3-foot) asbestos cement sheets he sells for 600 rupees ($10) each. But he doesn’t guide customers to the 800 rupee tin or fiberglass alternatives.

“This is a country of poor people, and for less money, they can have a roof over their heads,” he said.

Yet there are some poor Indians trying to keep asbestos out of their communities.

In the farming village of Vaishali, residents became outraged by the construction of an asbestos factory in their backyard. They had learned about the dangers of asbestos from a school boy’s science textbooks, and worried that asbestos fibers would blow into their tiny thatch homes. Their children, they said, could contract lung diseases most Indian doctors would never test for, let alone treat.

Durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was long a favorite insulation material in the West.

Medical experts say inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to deadly diseases 20 to 40 years later, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, or the scarring of the lungs.

Dozens of countries, including Japan, Argentina, and all European Union nations, have banned it entirely. Others, like the United States (US), have severely curtailed its use.

“All types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,” the Societies of Epidemiology said in a 2012 position statement.

Russia now provides most asbestos in the world market. Meanwhile, rich nations are suffering health and economic consequences from past use.

American businesses have paid out at least $1.3 billion in the largest collection of personal injury lawsuits in US legal history. Billions have been spent stripping asbestos from buildings in the West.

The two-day asbestos conference in December was billed as scientific, though organizers admitted they had no new research. Many of the speakers are regulars at asbestos conferences in the developing world.

One could say they’ve gone back in time to defend asbestos.

The Indian lobby’s website refers to 1998 WHO guidelines for controlled use of chrysotile, but skips updated WHO advice from 2007, suggesting that all asbestos be banned. Its executive director, John Nicodemus, dismissed the WHO update as “scaremongering.”


Hazards of asbestos use still hound poor Asian countries

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