Environment activists express concern over the reported use of carcinogenic asbestos onboard aircraft-carrier warship INS Vikramaditya

Even as the delivery of India’s second aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, has been pushed back towards the end of 2013 owing to repairs in the malfunctioning boiler section, activists and environmental advocacy groups have expressed concern over reported use of asbestos-based insulation in the warship.

Given the health hazards that asbestos poses and the fact that International Maritime Organisation (IMO), of which India is a member state since 1959, has banned installation of all types of asbestos-containing materials as of January 1, 2011, activists have expressed “shock and surprise” over India’s willingness to accept use of asbestos in the aircraft carrier’s insulation in the boiler section.

In a letter to Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi, Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) coordinator Mohit Gupta pointed out that IMO circular of 2011 was binding on all IMO member states.

“There cannot be any safe ‘controlled use’ of asbestos anywhere in the world, including in highly advanced industrialised countries and therefore over 50 countries have banned all uses of asbestos,” Mr. Gupta said in the letter sent last week.

He said that the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer and numerous bodies of physicians and health scientists have recognised the disastrous effects of asbestos on human health and called for its ban. As many as 55 countries have already banned its use and more are joining the fray.

Mr. Gupta urged the Navy Chief to reconsider the decision to allow use of asbestos in the aircraft carrier and consult with countries which have successfully and safely substituted asbestos with safer material.

Responding to a query on repeated delays in delivery of Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened as INS Vikramaditya, Admiral Joshi said on Navy Day on December 4 the decision was taken by the contractors who were refitting the old warship.

“The insulation inside the boilers had become misplaced. Initially, it (the insulation) had been kept asbestos free, which was a contractual stipulation. We had nothing to do with that decision. It was an internal decision of the supplier,” the Navy Chief said, adding that the Navy became aware of the asbestos issue only after the snag developed during high speed trials in the Barents Sea.

Admiral Joshi said that the boiler would be a sealed unit and the environmental degradation factor externally would be negligible. Sources familiar with the materials used in the warships said that use of asbestos would be negligible in INS Vikramaditya and the sealed boiler unit, containing other insulation material as well, would never come in contact with the outside atmosphere. Sources said that all shipyards the world over were familiar with the IMO guidelines and adequate safety measures were being taken by the shipbuilders.

Calling for making all buildings asbestos free in the country, Gopal Krishna, convener of Toxics Watch Alliance (TWA), an Indian advocacy initiative, recently wrote a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, pointing out asbestos roofing was being used in the schools, offices, courts, hospitals and automobiles.

“Though India has banned mining of asbestos, its use has not been completely stopped. Chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos, is a fibrous substance which is mixed with cement to create a fire-retardant mixture that is applied to corrugated sheets and pipes,” Mr. Krishna said. Inhalation of chrysotile dust can cause lethal lung diseases.

Mr. Krishna said that there were multiple alternatives available to asbestos and several industries and countries that have banned it have managed to do without it. Realising the lethal-effects of asbestos, the railways have also started replacing its asbestos roofing at several railway stations, he pointed out.

The WHO has classified asbestos as a “carcinogen” which causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. “Instead of going about it in phases, India needs to completely ban mining, trade, manufacturing and use of all forms of asbestos-based products,” Mr. Krishna said.

Asbestos has been widely used in various types of naval ships, including warships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, frigates and submarines. Ships repaired or built in the pre-1970 period were more likely to contain the toxic substance. The glass-like asbestos fibres were a major ingredient in many components of the ship, from pipe insulation to gaskets, in engine and boiler rooms, mess halls, navigation rooms and even in sleeping quarters.

Today, the U.S. Navy and civilian shipbuilders are eliminating its use and repair workers are making efforts to eliminate asbestos-containing materials found on current or older vessels.

Scientific studies over the past three decades have proved the dangers involved during asbestos exposure. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs when unprotected workers inhale the asbestos fibres; they pass through the lungs and get embedded in the pleural mesothelium, a wall of tissue surrounding the lungs.