Asbestos - Is the whole world wrong? March 2018 issue

Asbestos roofing continues to be used in huge numbers in India, particularly in rural and semi-urban parts of the country

Asbestos - Is the whole world wrong?

Asbestos – A mineral which was once known as magic for mankind, but later, was accused of being the reason behind thousands of deaths. What’s puzzling though is despite majority of nations banning its use, India is the world’s top importer of it. Why? The Dollar Business investigates

Vanita Peter D’souza | The Dollar Business

India has just two asbestos mines and almost all the demand is met by imports. Surprisingly, even the import duty on asbestos is relatively low


She said, “The male member of my family is more important than me.” Kakuben – a resident of Talwadina Chhapra slum in Amraiwadi – was exposed to asbestos while washing clothes of her husband who was a worker at an asbestos factory in Ahmedabad. While he was being treated with an asbestos related disease, poverty forced her to avoid treatment. There are hundreds of families like Kakuben’s in our country. If asbestos is really harmful, then we are breathing it right now!

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals with current or historical commercial usefulness due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack.” As per a factsheet released by the organisation, 107,000 people die each year due to asbestos-related diseases.

Profit estimate for Asbestos imports

No explanation

Even though banned in over 50 countries, India is the largest importer of asbestos. According to Ministry of Commerce, GoI, in FY2013, India imported $349.01 million worth of asbestos. But during the last fiscal year, imports slipped by about 36.6%. Imports have started to surge again, with the figure reaching $170 million just in the first six months of FY2015. Russia is the largest exporter of asbestos to the world and India. About 60% of this chemical imported into India comes from Putinland. Other countries that export asbestos to India include Brazil, Kazakhstan and China. Just how controversial India’s asbestos trade can be gauged from the fact that several asbestos importers chose not to speak to The Dollar Business!

Technically, India has banned mining of asbestos by placing a moratorium on new asbestos mining in 1986. The government, hence, has stopped granting new licenses and renewing old licenses. But according to Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturing Association (ACPMA), there are two active asbestos mines in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district.


Who’s right?

Look out of your window and you will find a lot of asbestos products. The cement roofing of the house next to you could be made of asbestos. The cement pipe in your backyard also has asbestos. In fact, AC (Asbestos Cement) roofing sheets cover thousands of houses in India. Why? Because these sheets are considered to be cheaper and reliable. 6-8% asbestos Chrysotile asbestos fibers are mixed with the cement and encapsulated to manufacture cement roofing sheets or pipe. Even though ACPMA propagates that the uses of asbestos in West is ‘irrelevant’ to India, where warm climatic conditions negate its bad effects, others disagree. Amit Thakkar, Proprietor, Sun Refractories tells The Dollar Business, “We simply uses asbestos because it’s cheaper and there are no proper regulation or certification to regulate the asbestos industry.” Thakkar’s company is involved in removing asbestos by EPA approved methods, by glove bag or poly covering and creating the negative and positive pressure systems and buildings of decontamination units.

On the other hand, Ban Asbestos Network India (BANI) has its own story to tell. On asbestos being cheaply available in the market, BANI’s convener, Gopal Krishna told The Dollar Business, “Asbestos products are cheaper because it has been made artificially cheap by the government. Customs duty has been reduced and a tax regime has been created to make alternatives appear costlier.”

India's Asbestos Imports2-TheDollarBusiness
Although asbestos used to used in various products in earlier years, today, it is mostly used to making roofing sheets


Worker’s lives

More than you and us, it is the labourers who work in the industry whose lives are at risk. WHO says all form of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans and it estimates that about 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace. In January 1995, the Supreme Court of India directed, “All industries and the official-respondents to compulsorily maintain and preserve health records of each workman for a period of 40 years from the date of beginning of the employment or 10 years after the cessation of the employment, whichever is later.”
So, does the industry follow these orders? To find out, The Dollar Business caught up with someone from the distribution chain of asbestos products. Speaking on this, Siddharth Jain, Marketing and Operations Head, SK Jain Distributors, said, “The industry claims they follow all guidelines mentioned by the government. But honestly, none of us are aware of the inside story.”

Global Asbestos Imports-TheDollarBusiness


“Most of the labourers, working in the organised asbestos industry, are contract workers and casual workers. They are hired through contractors. This is to outwit the Supreme Court order to prepare health record for 40 years,” Krishna of BANI adds. Because of the mobility of the workers, the documentation naturally becomes difficult. And this is a smart strategy adopted by the industry to get away with the compensation cost.



Today’s Realities

“Ban Asbestos, it kills,” Thakkar said when The Dollar Business asked for his opinion. In the last Parliament session, Vijay Jawaharlal Darda, introduced a private member bill in the Rajya Sabha. The Asbestos Bill, 2014, seeks a ban on the use and import of white asbestos into the country. BANI doubts the future of asbestos imports. Krishna, who is also the Director of Toxic Watch Alliance, adds, “Last year, in Rajya Sabha, a private member bill has been introduced to ban asbestos. This bill was earlier introduced in 2009 and it then lapsed. It has been reintroduced in the last session of parliament. The bill has the endorsement of the apex court’s order, WHO and ILO.”

Surprisingly, during an interview with The Dollar Business, John Nicodemus, Executive Director, ACPMA, seemed to be very optimistic about the future of the asbestos industry.

Asbestos roofing continues to be used in huge numbers in India, particularly in rural and semi-urban parts of the country


Born Tough

Krishna predicts that asbestos will be banned in the next six months or so. But once banned, the work load will increase. “All the buildings that have asbestos (in any form) will have to be documented and registered, so that, these buildings can decontaminated from Asbestos. A registrar needs to be created for victims of asbestos-related diseases. Thirdly, a compensation regime for consumers, workers of the asbestos factories and their respective families will have to be worked out.” adds Krishna.

Whether it’s banned or continues to be imported in large volumes, the fate of this cement ingredient will only be decided in time. For now though, for commodity traders, the margins – though in low-digits – appear appealing.


“Vested interests have ensured the use of asbestos continues in India” – Lauri Kazan-Allen, Coordinator, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat

Lauri Kazan-Allen, Coordinator, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat


TDB: Tell us a bit about your movement against asbestos. How successful do you think your efforts have been?

Lauri Kzan-Allen (LKA): Over the last fifty years, there has been growing opposition from workers, asbestos victims and campaigners to the use of asbestos. The ban asbestos campaign is a grassroots, multinational movement which has, working with its allies, achieved: national asbestos prohibitions, obtained rights for the injured and improved conditions for at-risk workers.

TDB: Why do you think despite all the noise, India continues to be the top asbestos importer in the world?

LKA: India and other countries continue to use asbestos, despite the overwhelming evidence that all types of asbestos are carcinogenic, because of the pressure from vested commercial and political interests. The actions of asbestos stakeholders, who prevent action being taken to protect citizens, are as immoral as they are reprehensible. I have no doubt that in the future, Indian courts will uphold claims for the injured against the powerful individuals, who prevented the Indian government from addressing the asbestos hazard.

TDB: Your opponents claim that certain vested interests fund organisations like yours to further their cause. How would you respond to this?

LKA: These accusations are from organisations such as, the now defunct Canadian Chrysotile Institute (formerly the Asbestos Institute), and trade associations in Russia and Brazil, that are funded by asbestos companies. The job of these propaganda machines is to counter the claims made by asbestos victims and campaigning groups regarding the harmful repercussions of asbestos use.

Support for the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS) is provided by groups and individuals who believe, as we do, that humankind should be protected from exposure to a known carcinogen: asbestos.

"We are supported by groups who believe that mankind should be protected from asbestos"

TDB: Is there any truth in the claim by ACPMA that health issues regarding asbestos is not relevant in India because of different kind of usage?

LKA: There are no grounds for the claims made by the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers’ Association (ACPMA) that white asbestos used in India can be used safely. In fact, the concept of the “safe use of asbestos” is one which was invented by the asbestos industry. It seems that almost every day reports are published of workmen exposed to asbestos incorporated within the British infrastructure. If the hazard cannot be controlled in a country which has been regulating asbestos exposures since 1931, how can anyone possibly believe that it is safe to use asbestos in countries which have no such legislation and/or poor enforcement of safety standards?

TDB: How close/far do you think India is as far as banning asbestos is concerned? Do you think banning asbestos will have a significant impact on those involved in the trade?

LKA: The scale of the asbestos challenge in India is enormous as are the risks. Hundreds of thousands of people are being hazardously exposed on a routine basis at work, at home, at school and in the environment. Non-governmental organisations and trade unions in India are challenging the industry’s pro-asbestos rhetoric and are working with citizens opposed to the expansion of the asbestos industry; unfortunately, vested interests enjoy the support of political allies at home and asbestos lobbyists abroad. The objective of the deadly asbestos alliance is the expansion and maintenance of asbestos markets.

I have no doubt that asbestos will eventually be banned in India but not before many more people die from the cancers and respiratory diseases caused by asbestos. With political support, financial investment and community involvement, the transition to an asbestos-free economy can be achieved without loss of employment.

TDB: After a fall in asbestos imports in FY2014, there has been a big surge in the current fiscal? What has been the reason for this?

LKA: For years, India has been the world’s biggest asbestos importer. The latest figures confirm this. A coordinated and multi-faceted campaign by asbestos stakeholders, to encourage use, silence opponents and discourage sales of asbestos-free alternatives is responsible for increasing consumption. While India’s asbestos fat cats grab the profits, the country is being polluted and the people are being infected.


“We think BANI is being funded by EU Multinationals” – John Nicodemus, Executive Director, Asbestos Cement Products, Manufacturers’ Association (ACPMA)

John Nicodemus, Executive Director, Asbestos Cement Products, Manufacturers’ Association (ACPMA)


TDB: Give us a sense of the current asbestos cement market in India.

John Nicodemus (JN): In the year 2000, production and sales of asbestos cement roofing sheets were of about 1 MMT. Now, production is of 4 MMT, i.e., a 4x increase. This should give you a sense of the growth in demand for asbestos.

TDB: Why are we still one of the largest importers of asbestos?

JN: Asbestos is also known as Chrysotile asbestos fibre. It is a mineral fibre. Only four-five countries produce asbestos, with Russia being the largest producer, followed by Brazil, Kazakhstan and China. In India, according to Indian Bureau of Mines, there are two asbestos mines in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district. They produce only 250-300 MT of asbestos per year, whereas the global production is 2 MMT per annum, with India consuming almost 20% of it. Hence, the need for imports.

TDB: What are the primary uses of asbestos, apart from being used to manufacture cement roofing sheets?

JN: In ancient times, asbestos was used in over 3,000 products. But these days, 95% of the production goes into asbestos cement products. Most of the products are roofing sheet, plain sheet, and asbestos cement pipes. And also, to some extent, it is used by friction materials, textiles, insulation and brake lining. Asbestos mineral is a thin and fine powder. They are mixed with cement and flier and some are ready for sale. In a roofing sheet, by weight, only about 7-8% Chrysotile fibre is used. They are all manufactured in Indian factories. The fibre is imported from Russia, China or Kazakhstan.

TDB: Last year, asbestos imports came down but are rising again. Why?

JN: US geological data, supplies import figures of various countries. Last year, according to them, there was a slowdown because previous year’s stocks were carried forward. It is not necessary what is imported by India, would be consumed in the same year.

TDB: How is the packaging of imported consignments sealed securely?

JN: Calcutta Port, JNPT (Mumbai), Chennai port are the major ports. It is packed impermeable in such a manner that the powder does not come out. A lot of 20 bags are then covered with polythene and other materials. They are then kept on a wooden pallet which forms one unit. 20 bags make one tonne and they can be moved with 20 foot containers.

TDB: There are various alternatives to asbestos like galvanised metal sheets that are available in the market. Are they cheaper and better than asbestos?

JN: No. They are expensive. Among the roofing products, especially in developing countries like India, asbestos cement roofing is the most ideal as it is long lasting and economical than others.

The first asbestos cement roofing sheet factory started in Indian in 1934 or 1935. There are instances where even after more than 75 years, roofs made of asbestos sheets don’t require any replacement. And they actually gain strength when exposed to elements and with age. That is why it is much more in demand from the weaker sections of society.

TDB: You have accused BANI of being funded by EU multinationals and steel sheet/pipe manufacture. Do you have any proof to substantiate your claims?

JN: This is our assumption because if an NGO is behind one particular product, what is their interest in it? They wouldn’t be spending so much money for one particular reason. There is no proof which can be given, only assumptions can be made.

TDB: What do you think is the future of the asbestos industry in India?

JN: Like I said before, during the last decade, there was a 4x growth in the industry. The galvanised metal sheets have come. The demand for metal sheet for roofing is growing, but in warm countries like India, roofs made from asbestos are cooler as compared to metal roofs. Moreover, the lifespan of metal roofs are 10-15 years, whereas asbestos can last longer. However, the demand for both metal and asbestos for roofing purpose is growing because the overall needs are growing. I don’t see metals sheets as a major threat to asbestos. The asbestos market will either be stable or will grow like it did in the past.


“ACPMA’s existence is problematic and it has dubious credentials” - Gopal Krishna, Convener, Ban Asbestos network India

Gopal Krishna, Convener, Ban Asbestos network India


TDB: Why do you think India is the largest importer of Asbestos?

Gopal Krishna (GK): We are the largest importer of Asbestos because it has historically, enjoyed political patronage and the previous ruling party’s relationship with the local industry has contributed to this situation. Parliamentarians from the Congress Party owned white Chrysotile asbestos based factories. For instance, there is one in Raebareli in UP.

TDB: The asbestos industry and its supporting associations claim that white Chrysotile, a type of asbestos widely used in India, is not hazardous in nature. Is this true?

GK: This propaganda has been debunked in more than 50 countries. This has been proven wrong by various international level organisations like World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation. Even WTO Appellate Body endorsed the decision of European Committee to ban white Chrysotile asbestos because it’s unsafe and its controlled use is impossible. In fact in India, all types of asbestos mining is technically banned. The Ministry of Labour has announced at an international seminar, in a concept paper, that the government of India is planning to ban white Chrysotile asbestos because of its adverse health effect. The paper is available on their website.

TDB: What are the various diseases that are related to asbestos? Are there reported cases in India?

GK: Asbestos-related diseases include Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, and lung cancer, and they have been reported in India. National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is examining the case on asbestos-related diseases in compliance with Supreme Court’s order of January 1995 and the January 2011 order that reiterated the 1995 order. All the concerned central ministries, union territories and states have filed their replies about the status of asbestos victims to NHRC. And they have reported cases of asbestos-related diseases. It has been reported in the ship breaking industry as well. Cases have been reported from Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal and many others. Notably, the Kerala Human Rights Commission has recommended banning the use of asbestos in public buildings like schools and hospitals. Asbestos diseases have a very long incubation period. So if you are exposed today to an asbestos fibre, you are likely to get the disease in next 10-35 years. Asbestos is like a time bomb to the lungs and Indians will suffer the most. If it is banned today, that does not mean people will not suffer. Because of past usage, people will continue to suffer from these diseases. We not are fighting not to save just the present generation but the future generations as well.


"We will work to ensure that South Asia becomes asbestos free"


TDB: Apart from AC roofing, what are the other uses of asbestos in India?

GK: Pipes are being manufactured for water supply, it is also used for sound proofing. Earlier, it was heavily used by the shipping industry but it has now been banned by the International Maritime Organisation but, some of the old ships still have it. There is not a single building in India which could claim that it is asbestos free. Our public buildings like Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prime Minister’s residence, Supreme Court, Parliament, schools, hospitals, railway platforms, defence establishments, etc., are all asbestos laden. There is an urgent need to decontaminate them to make their occupants safe. Even our armed forces are compelled to live in asbestos-laden buildings.

TDB: Your organisation has been accused of being funded by EU multinationals and steel sheet / pipe manufacture. What do you have to say about these allegations?

GK: The ACPMA makes these baseless allegations. The fact is that their existence itself is highly problematic and very dubious. I will tell you how. ACPMA, which faced charges of cartelisation by the Competition Commission of India, is registered under The Societies Registration Act, 1860 and claims to be a non-profit organisation. Is the asbestos industry a non-profit organization? They make completely dubious and baseless claims. They have put profit ahead of public health. These associations are inhuman and corporate criminals. More than 50 countries have banned asbestos; the latest addition in this list is our neighbour Nepal. In fact, South Asia is going in this direction (banning asbestos). After the World Asbestos Congress, we will work to ensure that South Asia becomes asbestos free. We will hopefully have an asbestos-free future.