Shri Sushil Kumar Modi
Deputy Chief Minister
Department of Environment & Forests
Government of Bihar
Subject-Stop Asbestos Cement Plants in Bihar
This is to draw your urgent attention towards the proposed asbestos cement roofing sheet factory in Chainpur, Muzaffarpur which is facing massive and unprecedented opposition by the villagers since July 2010. It has come to light that similar plants have been proposed by Chennai based Ramco Industries Limited in Bihiya, Bhojpur and Kolkata based Utkal Asbetsos Industries, in Panapur, Vaishali.
I wish to inform you that The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2009 is pending in the Rajya Sabha. Some 52 countries have already banned it. There is a compelling logic to initiate the process of banning asbestos manufacturing, trade and use in Bihar as well.
It is estimated that "currently about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. According to WHO estimates, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposures. One in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to be caused by asbestos. In addition, it is estimated that several thousands of deaths can be attributed annually to exposure to asbestos in the living environment." There is a list of documents reflecting WHO's assessment of the risks of the different forms of asbestos and WHOs' technical directions and recommendations for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases. Please find attached a scientifically referenced fact sheet on elimination of asbestos prepared by WHO.
When the world is preparing and planning to get rid of all forms of asbestos, it makes us look stupid in Bihar, India to be still importing it, we should devote our scarce resources to prevent the impending public health disaster by phasing out this killer fiber as soon as we can.
Safer substitute materials for white asbestos are available, they should be considered for use. White (chrysotile) asbestos, which represents 100% of the global asbestos trade is not yet completely banned in India but all the relevant UN agencies have called for its immediate elimination because its safe and controlled use is impossible.
The United Nations (UN) document, Environmental Health Criteria 203 for Chrysotile Asbestos concludes, “Exposure to chrysotile asbestos poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a dose-dependent manner. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks.” This criterion has been created by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ILO and WHO.
Strangely, India has banned mining of asbestos which used to be done in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand by banning non-renewal of pre-existing leases including chrysotile asbestos mines due to health hazards from its lethal fibers but allows countries like Canada to dump their asbestos in India. Asbestos waste trade is also banned in India. Besides White Asbestos, all the other forms of asbestos such as Blue Asbestos, Brown Asbestos are banned in India. But Chrysotile (white) asbestos is yet to be banned despite incontrovertible evidence against it.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been used commonly in a variety of building construction materials for insulation and as a fire-retardant. Either through wind erosion or through normal wear and tear, when asbestos-containing materials are damaged or disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition activities, microscopic fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, it leads to significant incurable health problems. It became a popular building material since the 1940 because its a health hazards were suppressed by the asbestos industry.
Asbestos exposure leads to diseases like mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis, pleural thickening. Mesothelioma is a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs (pleura) and the lining surrounding the lower digestive tract (peritoneum). It is almost exclusively related to asbestos exposure and by the time it is diagnosed, it is almost always fatal.
Asbestos-related lung cancer is the same as (looks the same as) lung cancer caused by smoking and other causes. It is estimated that there is around one lung cancer for every mesothelioma death.
Asbestosis is a serious scarring condition of the lung that normally occurs after heavy exposure to asbestos over many years. This condition can cause progressive shortness of breath, and in severe cases can be fatal.
Pleural thickening is generally a problem that happens after heavy asbestos exposure. The lining of the lung (pleura) thickens and swells. If this gets worse, the lung itself can be squeezed, and can cause shortness of breath and discomfort in the chest.
According to UK Government’s Health & Safety Executive, “Asbestos is a hidden killer that can cause four serious diseases. These diseases will not affect you immediately; they often take a long time to develop, but once diagnosed, it is often too late to do anything.” Not surprisingly, European countries were the first to ban the mining, manufacturing, trade and use of this killer fiber. Asbestos is being promoted freely in our country whereas the developed countries are keeping away from it. Canada which is one of the bigger suppliers of asbestos has decontaminated its parliament (House of Commons) and has adopted a no home use policy.
In view of the above, I wish to seek your urgent intervention in the matter of a serious unprecedented environmental and occupational health crisis with regard to imminent asbestos epidemic in Bihar in general.
Even if one asbestos fibre reaches the right place, it causes irreversible damage - leading to asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Earlier on August 18, 2003, Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare informed the Parliament that: "…long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma."
This was not the first official acknowledgment of the asbestos hazard. Government of India's Office Memorandum NO.6 (6)/94 - Cement, (Sept 1, 1994) of the Ministry of Industry states: "The Department has generally not been recommending any case of Industrial License to any new unit for the creation of fresh capacity of asbestos products in the recent past due to the apprehension that prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to serious health hazards".
It may be noted that in 2006 alone there were more than 1,000 mesothelioma deaths (asbestos related fatal disease) in Japan which along with some 52 countries has banned asbestos. Some 10, 000 people are dying of asbestos related diseases in the US. Indians in general and people of Bihar in particular face and await a similar fate.
These asbestos factories are proposed unmindful of the fact that World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) too have called for the elimination of asbestos of all kinds. Delay in stopping asbestos plants in Bihar is a victory for those who do not wish to put health and the environment ahead of commercial interests.
Although the Supreme Court of India has ruled that the Government of India must comply with ILO resolutions, so far the ILO resolution (June 14, 2006) stating "the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place are the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposures and to prevent future asbestos-related disease and deaths" has not been acted upon.
The WHO document says, “Elimination of asbestos-related diseases should take place through the following public health actions: a) recognizing that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos; b) replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement; c) taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement), and; d) improving early diagnosis, treatment, social and medical rehabilitation of asbestos-related diseases and establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos.”
I am an environmental health researcher. I have worked with national and international organizations working on environmental and occupational health. I am an applicant in the Supreme Court in the hazardous wastes/shipbreaking case.
It is high time you took note of the possible exposures to the residents, consumers and workers from the Asbestos Plants in Bihar and took immediate remedial measures. The exposure of asbestos fibers defies regulatory control efforts in any country.
I wish to draw your urgent attention to the order of Kerala Human Rights Commission (KHRC) that has ruled that exposing Indians to asbestos is a human rights violation. This paves the way for the eventual complete ban on asbestos and its products. On January 31, 2009, the KHRC ruled that the government should take steps to phase out asbestos roofing from all schools in the state.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has passed an order recommending that the asbestos sheets roofing be replaced with roofing made up of some other material. The Annual Report of NHRC 2003-2004 refers to a Report entitled “Asbestos – Health and Environment – an in-depth Study” submitted by the Institute of Public Health Engineers, India. NHRC is currently examining an application to make our country asbestos free at the earliest.
As per the survey of U.P. Asbestos Limited, Mohanlalganj,Lucknow and Allied Nippon Pvt Ltd, Gaziabad, (U.P), the lung function impairment was found to be higher in subjects exposed for more than 11 years. This was the result of a Central Pollution Control Board sponsored project entitled "Human risk assessment studies in asbestos industries in India". This has been reported in the (2001-2002) Annual Report of Industrial Toxicological Research Centre, Lucknow. It has also been published in the 139th Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment, Forests, Science and Technology and presented to the parliament on 17th March, 2005.
Given the ubiquitous presence of the fiber, there is no alternative to getting it banned in right earnest. Scientists, doctors, public health researchers, trade unions, activists and civil society groups has been working to persuade the central government and state governments to give up its consistent and continued pro-asbestos industry bias and lack of concern for the asbestos-injured who die one of the most painful deaths imaginable.
World over, public health researchers, civil society groups, trade unions and human rights groups have demanded an immediate ban on all uses of asbestos including an immediate end to the import of chrysotile. They seek measures to identify, compensate and treat the asbestos-injured and regulations to minimize harmful exposures are also being proposed. They demand criminal prosecution of those responsible for asbestos exposures such as factory owners and company directors who knowingly expose unsuspecting people to killer fibers of asbestos.
Although non-asbestos technology certainly exists in India, in fact in some factories the two technologies exist side-by-side, consumers will inevitably opt for the cheaper product: more demand will translate into higher sales which will generate more chrysotile rupees that can be used to obtain political support.
As the quid-pro-quo relationship between Government officials and asbestos businessmen exists outside the media spotlight, journalists and the public remain unaware of the pernicious reasons which motivate the decisions being taken; decisions which will expose current and future generations to the deadly asbestos hazard. Hopefully, the asbestos industry’s blind profit mongering will not succeed in silencing the officials in Bihar. A people’s government will keep public health ahead of commercial interest. The proposed asbestos plants in Bihar are attest case for the same.
The pattern of asbestos disease in Bihar is all set to follow the diseases pattern seen in the developed countries. Concerned with the global and national evidence about the increasing death toll of asbestos workers, trade unions, labour and environmental groups have sought immediate phase out of chrysotile asbestos.
Despite the fact that even the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has given an appropriate judgment against it, upholding France's decision to ban import of asbestos from Canada, successive governments in India have promoted this killer mineral fibre ignoring public health.
Dr S R Kamat, a renowned lung specialist, former head, Respiratory Medicine, KEM Hospital, Mumbai notes that in the 5 surveys done in the country, large number of the subjects showed asbestos lung diseases. All of them showed breathing problem, many had cough, some had sputum, chest pain finger clubbing and chest pain. He notes, "Disability in the cases of asbestos diseases is permanent."
Union Ministry of Labour has concluded that even in controlled conditions asbestos workers continue to suffer and safety gear made no material difference in their condition. It took note of Prevalence of Asbestosis and Related Disorders in an Asbestos Fiber Processing Unit in West Bengal as early as in 1996.
Taking note of the fact that public concern, regulations and liabilities involved have ended the use of asbestos from the developed countries, residents of Bihar wonder, "why is it that the concern of the countries, which have banned asbestos not relevant to India?." Exposing communities to asbestos must be equated to murder and legal provisions must deal with it accordingly.
"Experimental as well as epidemiological studies proved asbestos as carcinogen as well as co-carcinogen. Risk assessment and control of occupational exposure are very poor in developing countries like India," says Dr Qamar Rehman, a renowned toxicologist, former scientist with Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow.
In the light of these findings and developments, in short I seek your immediate intervention to stop the construction of proposed asbestos cement plants in Bihar.
We earnestly request you to direct all the workers and consumers in your state to take immediate steps to ensure that there no more exposures take place from now on.
I submit that Bihar government must consider putting an end to the use of the of all kinds of asbestos products that is being used and encountered daily, because none of the schools, offices, legislatures, courts, hospitals, automobiles, private and public buildings in our state are asbestos free.
Therefore, it is necessary to initiate preventive action in order to protect present and future generations from asbestos fibers, a silent killer which is akin to a time bomb in the lung.
I will be glad to share more relevant information against asbestos of all forms including white asbestos (chrysotile) that is proposed to be used in the plants in Bihar.
Thanking you in anticipation.
Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI)
Mr Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister, Bihar
Mr Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of Environment & Forests
Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare
Ms. K. Sujatha Rao, Secretary, Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare,
Mr R. K. Srivastava, Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), Government of India
Ms. Sudha Pillai, Member Secretary, Planning Commission, Government of India
Chief Secretary, Government of Bihar
Principal Secretary, Department of Health, Government of Bihar
Prof. Subhash Chandra Singh, Chairman, Bihar State Pollution Control Board
Prof. S. P. Gautam, Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)
Mr Anand Kishore, District Magistrate, Muzaffarpur
Mr Sunil Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Muzaffarpur
Dr (Ms) Safina A N, District Magistrate, Bhojpur
Mr Anil Kishore Yadav, Superintendent of Police, Bhojpur
Mr Sanjeev Hans, District Magistrate, Vaishali
Mr Sujit Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Vaishali