Last July, 41-year-old Rajesh Vyas, a resident of Ahmedabad, died of mesothelioma – cancer of the protective layer of the lungs called mesothelium. Medical experts believe that exposure to any form of asbestos can cause mesothelioma.

Rajesh Vyas did not work at an asbestos factory but his father Kalidas Vyas worked as an engineer at Gujarat Composite, a factory in Ahmedabad that manufactures asbestos cement roof sheets. The family lived in a colony for the factory’s workers and their house was in front of an asbestos waste dump site. This is where Rajesh Vyas grew up and it is likely that he was exposed to asbestos there.

The Occupational and Environmental Health Network India, a network of victims groups, trade unions, civil society groups and labour groups across India, has identified at least three more cases of cancer linked to asbestos exposure among workers at Gujarat Composite – one with cancer of the tongue, another with cancer of the epiglottis and one man who, like Rajesh Vyas, died of mesothelioma.

Asbestos – specifically chrysotile asbestos also known as white asbestos – is used in a number of industrial processes like the manufacture of asbestos-cement sheets and pipes, brake shoes, brake linings, clothes and ropes. It is also used in cement construction like roofing, jointing and gaskets and asphalt coats and sealants. Asbestos is one of the most hazardous materials that workers at Alang shipyard, who dismantle old and decommissioned ships, handle.

Thousands of people in India are directly exposed to asbestos while working in factories and handling the material. As asbestos gets stuck to the clothes and hair of these workers, they might pass particles of asbestos on to other people they come in contact with and thereby millions more have secondary exposure. Asbestos fibres, when inhaled, and reach the lung start to damage the lung cells and result in asbestosis, which is chronic inflammatory and scarring of the tissue of the lungs resulting in shortness of breath, a cough, loss of appetite and weight, chest tightness and pain and clubbed fingers. The risk of lung cancer among people exposed to asbestos is seven times higher compared with the general population. Moreover, the symptoms of asbestos exposure take between 10 and 40 years to manifest.

The asbestos burden

The World Health Organisation finds that the global burden of mesothelioma is unclear but points to studies that indicate that about 43,000 people around the world die of the disease every year. The average incidence of asbestos-related cancer in the United States is one case every year in every 1,00,000 people, according to the records maintained by the National Cancer Institute for the years between 1975 and 2010. Mesothelioma deaths in the United Kingdom progressively increased from 153 deaths in 1968 to 2,360 in 2010 and have stayed at this level.

The Central Labour Institute in India finds that there is a 7.25% prevalence of asbestosis among workers in the country. Approximately 80% of mesotheliomas occur in men exposed to mineral fibres at workplaces and sometimes in their family members or in persons who live near asbestos sources, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.

Although asbestos is banned in many countries around the world, it continues to be used in India, the largest importer of the material. Asbestos and asbestos-containing products are manufactured in more than 150 factories in India. About 77% of these units are located in Gujarat and Maharashtra alone. According to a report of the Working Group on Environmental and Occupational Health in India there are between two million and three million active workers suffering from exposure to asbestos and other dangerous fibres.
This is why the Conference of Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, three conventions drawn up with the aim of protecting people from hazardous chemicals, that is currently underway in Geneva is important for workers in asbestos-related industries in India.

The three international treaties

  • The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations.
  • The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international environmental treaty that aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants. 
  • The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to importation of hazardous chemicals

Representatives of the Government of India are participating in the conference where there will be discussions to include asbestos on the Prior Informed Consent list. Countries exporting substances on this list need to notify and get informed consent from the importing country before sending the materials across. Asbestos-exporting countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Zimbabwe are likely to do everything they can to stall the inclusion of asbestos in this list.

Asbestos has been banned in 55 countries. Nepal banned the toxic material in 2014 and Sri Lanka is in the process of phasing it out. India, however, has been reluctant to stop the import and use of asbestos.

India’s stand at previous convention discussions has been inconsistent. In 2011, a representative of the environment ministry argued that it must be declared a hazardous material. In 2013, India opposed listing chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance. India has also resisted the inclusion of asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent list, citing lack of data.

No data is available to establish the prevalence of Asbestos disease in small and medium scale enterprises using Chrysotile asbestos. Lack of such data has been an issue of greater concerns of the stakeholders and the Government for making a policy decision for inclusion of chrysotile asbestos under the Annex-3 of the Rotterdam convention to which India is a signatory to ban the same.

— Report of the Working Group on Occupational Safety and Health for the Twelfth Five Year Plan

Even if asbestos is included in the list, asbestos will not be banned in India, as it should be.

In 2009, the United Progressive Alliance government introduced The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2009 in the Rajya Sabha, but it never became law. Now, Anil Dave, the new environment minister in the Narendra Modi government has said that the use of asbestos should be minimised and should eventually end.

The hope is that now, the Indian representatives will back the minister’s words with action at the Conference of Parties and insist on its inclusion in the list – a move that could help save thousands of workers, their families and communities.

The writer is the national coordinator of the Occupational & Environmental Health Network India.