Invader in white

Activists demand an immediate rollback of Canada’s decision to resume mining of carcinogenic asbestos that causes a range of health ailments to people in countries where it is exported to, including India

Published - July 29, 2012 10:24 am IST

Stacking up against: Asbestos, a hazardous substance. Photos: P. Sivakumar

Stacking up against: Asbestos, a hazardous substance. Photos: P. Sivakumar

After the only two remaining asbestos mines in Canada’s Quebec province wrapped up operations in 2011, the country became asbestos-mining free for the first time in 130 years. But, in a recent move that has stunned several environmental, health, labour and human rights organisations, the government of Quebec has sanctioned a $58 million loan to revive the inoperative ‘Jeffrey Mine’ to resume asbestos mining.

With an estimated 90 per cent of Canada’s asbestos being exported to developing countries like India, advocacy campaigns in both India and Canada have strongly condemned this turn of events, renewing calls for a ban on the mining. Toxics Watch Alliance (TWA), an Indian advocacy initiative and one of two members of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) movement, has stepped up its lobbying with the Central government to stop asbestos usage by banning imports.

In a statement, TWA said: “India has taken a position which considers white asbestos a hazardous substance. Mining of asbestos is technically banned in India. Trade in asbestos waste (dust and fibres) is also banned. The government should take the next logical step and phase out asbestos use.”

Despite calls for bans, India remains particularly infamous as the one of the largest importers of asbestos. On the proliferation of asbestos usage in India, TWA’s convener Gopal Krishna said: “Artificial pricing through governmental patronage has made asbestos cheaply available.”

Chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos used in India, is a fibrous substance often mixed with cement to create a fire-retardant mixture applied to corrugated steel sheets and pipes. Called “the poor man’s material”, it is often used in roofing structures by the poor in India because of its high resistivity and low-cost.

On the availability of alternatives to asbestos, Mr. Krishna said: “There are multiple alternatives to the multiple uses of asbestos.” He stressed that industries and countries that have banned asbestos have managed to do without it because of the availability of substitutes. Commonly cited alternatives to asbestos are cellulose and agricultural fibres.

Affordability nevertheless can come at the cost of contracting lethal lung diseases, caused by inhalation of chrysolite dust — a common occurrence in asbestos plants, where safety regulations are minimal and often not enforced.

An investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reporter Melissa Fung in June 2009 revealed how Indian workers were shockingly ill-equipped when handling asbestos. “Many workers were found to be working wearing little more than bandanas, sometimes no protective gear at all,” revealed the investigation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies asbestos as a known carcinogen, estimating that over 1,07,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. It remains banned in over 50 countries.

Canada exported 1,00,000 tonnes of asbestos in 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson, Council of Canadians — Canada’s largest social justice organisation — said: “Canada has repeatedly blocked asbestos from being listed as a hazardous chemical by the United Nations, even while governments spend large amounts of money back at home helping remove asbestos from Canadian homes and offices.”

While Indian delegates distanced themselves from Canada’s position on asbestos trade at the U.N.’s Rotterdam Convention in 2011 by favouring listing asbestos as a restricted chemical, the Supreme Court of India refused to ban the substance in January 2011, instead directing state governments to regulate its use and manufacture.

In Canada, the asbestos issue is subject to frequent politicisation, with the official Opposition party — The New Democratic Party (NPD), holding 58 of 75 federal seats in Quebec, noted as opposing asbestos mining and exports.

Ms. Barlow added: “The Indian government must not listen to the handful of investors and big business operators in their demand for Canadian asbestos. The health and safety of the people is paramount and we join the people of India in their opposition to Canadian asbestos imports.”

In the midst of demonstrations by villagers against asbestos plants in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha among others recently, TWA has urged the government to begin a compensation fund for the victims of asbestos related diseases, in addition to phasing out all use of the substance. “The only way to prevent deadly diseases is to prevent mining, trade, manufacturing and use of all forms of asbestos and asbestos-based products,” said the release. The figure of asbestos’ victims in India remains elusive as no official estimate has been collected. For victims and campaigners, however, the struggle against asbestos continues.

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