Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Asbestos - Victim of Junk Science and Enviro-fear Propaganda

Of late asbestos and asbestos-based products have been generating lot of concerns in media. Certain NGOs, activists and various competitive interests both in the country and abroad have been campaigning against asbestos without ascertaining truth and current facts.
To bust the myths, that surrounds Asbestos, Praveena Sharma of DNA Newspaper had a detailed discussion with Mr. John Nicodemus, industry expert and Executive Director of Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturing Association (ACPMA); here are a few excerpts:
Can you define asbestos? 
Asbestos is a generic name given to certain mineral silicates. There are six types of asbestos what we use in India and in other 150 odd countries, most commonly type is ‘Chrysotile’. If asbestos is inhaled, the fibers are deposited in the respiratory system, their molecular structure gives fibres very long lasting bio persistence within the respiratory system.  The longer the bio-persistence, the higher would be the probability of causing lung disease.  Chrysotile, the type we use here, has the shortest period of bio persistence compared to other types of fibres. Infact, The other types of fibres are no longer in commercial production or usage.

According to several epidemiological studies in India and abroad, chrysotile asbestos carries no measurable risk to human health at exposure levels below 1 fibre/cc in the manufacture of asbestos cement products under controlled conditions.  Exposure levels in Indian chrysotile asbestos cement industry are restricted to 0.1 fibres/cc at work place which is very safe.

Why is there so much negative publicity being heard about health issues pertaining this material?

For many people, the word "asbestos" inspires a negative reaction.  In some countries, especially in Western Europe, this is even an obsessive fear.  In India, due to fabricated data and wrong perceptions, certain so-called pro-people activists are taking a salvo against use of asbestos products. There is certainly a conspiracy behind such a movement, likely to be funded by alternate material industry such as steel to ban asbestos products in India. By creating such bad propaganda against asbestos, these activists may be helping steel or other alternative product industry; but at the same time they are also depriving common man with cheaper, durable and environment friendly roofing solutions.

What are the costs and other differences of asbestos cement (AC) sheets vis-à-vis other alternate materials, especially in the housing sector?
Galvanized Iron Sheets are 60-100% costlier than AC Sheets. Galvalume sheets are 150% more expensive. Colour Coated GI profiles and Aluminum sheets are 100-150% more expensive than AC corrugated roofing sheets. So in a way, by removing asbestos cement sheets, the common man’s roofing will become much more costly, thereby add to the inflation in housing sector. Further, the alternate materials, compared with Asbestos sheets are not durable and environment friendly.
You have used words like ‘environment friendly’, ‘heat resistant’ to define asbestos cement sheets, can you elucidate on it?

As of today, there is no safer or even cheaper alternative to Chrysotile with similar techno economical properties available in India and any where else in the world.  Asbestos cement roofing sheets and pipes are the most economical and durable and environment friendly products as compared to other alternatives such as metal sheets and pipes.  In the manufacture of metal and pvc sheets/pipes, energy consumption is much more than asbestos-cement production. Fly Ash, a waste generated from thermal power plants is one of the raw materials used in manufacture of asbestos products.

Driven by the demand from the rural housing sector, the Asbestos Cement Roofing sheet business has expanded by 4 times in the last 10 years. The current estimated production of asbestos cement roofing sheets in India is about 40 lakh tons.  Depriving common man with asbestos and forcing them for costlier alternate roofing solutions; you are on one hand burdening them financially, but also increasing the industrial pollution.

According to you the so called, ‘Killer dust’ associated with asbestos does not exist at all?
It is interesting to note that Chrysotile asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is found in almost two thirds of the Earth's crust.  IPCS (International Program on Chemical Safety (IPCS) publication EHC 53 (1986) page no. 34 reads " the total amount of asbestos emitted from natural sources is probably greater than the emitted from industrial sources”. Depending on the region, and independent of industrial activity, every individual breathes in between 10000 to 15000 fibres each day and drinks water containing between 2,00,000 t0 20,00,000 fibres per litre. No matter who we are and where we are, we all inhale asbestos every day. So if you call it a ‘killer dust’, how come humanity survived after inhaling it for millions of years?

But you agree that in Indian conditions where unorganized sector is known for violating safety norms, if not used without precautions and safe measures it is dangerous to inhale asbestos fibers?

Yes of course and, for that matter, any kind of raw material (especially in dust or gases form) if used without taking necessary precautions, is dangerous to the health & that includes asbestos. United States has drawn a list of 400 items (asbestos being one of them) which, if used without proper safety and precautions can cause cancer or other diseases. Lead, copper are one of those items; however, no one is asking to ban those items, why isolating asbestos alone. And the United States which is highly sensitive to the health issues is also using asbestos products, such as pipes for drinking water. If asbestos is such a dangerous item, do you think, they would have allowed it for the use of drinking water!       

But there is a perception that this product was banned in US…

Some anti asbestos activists have held protest to ban asbestos, infact it has been claimed that "Ban Asbestos in America Act 2007" has been passed in the USA to make one believe that asbestos is banned in the USA. The truth is that, the Senate in 2007 did in fact pass the Ban Asbestos in America Act 2007; the ban bill was then passed to the House of Representatives. In 2008, the bill languished in the House and was never voted on by any of the relevant committees nor did it reach the entire House for a vote.  As a result, the proposed "Ban Asbestos in America Act 2007" died at the end of 2008 since a new Congress began in 2009.

In 2001, Catherine Glasson, Press Officer for the Minister of Transport had said "this material (asbestos) is not dangerous". The ministry estimates to use 100,000 tons of asbestos-asphalt for the repaving of its road network in an year as compared to 17,000 tons a year previously.


Interestingly, after Sept 11, 2001 collapse of World Trade Centre towers, Prof. Art Robinson, founder of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine wrote "Asbestos was an early victim of Junk Science and enviro-fear propaganda.  Had the top floors of WTC were insulated with asbestos, the towers would have stood for four hours, saving 5000 lives.

What is our government’s stand on this?

So far the Government of India has no confusion on the use of asbestos product. However, it has made rules and regulations extremely strict for using asbestos even in mechanized cement products plants.

Our Hon'ble Supreme Court in PIL passed an Order on 27 Jan 1995 containing 6 directions, which all asbestos products manufacturers are following such as:-
  • health records of workers to be maintained for 40 years from the start of service or 15 years after retirement,
  • membrane Filter Test to detect asbestos fibre, should be adopted in all factories,
  • compulsory insurance coverage for every worker whether covered under ESI Act or Workmen's Compensation Act, Union
  •  States to review exposure limit (fibres/cc) at par with international standards,
  • Union of India and States to include SSI and Ancillary Units to protect Workers.
  • Factory inspectors to send all workers examined by ESI hospitals, for re-examination by NIOH to detect if any of them suffering from asbestosis.  If found positive, worker shall be entitled to Rs.1 lac within 3 months of certification by National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH).

The Directorate General of Factory Advice Service & Labour Institutes, Ministry of Labour, Govt of India's Report on The National Study on Health Status of Workers in the Asbestos Industry (2004) examined 702 workers in 8 asbestos-using factories (including 5 asbestos-cement units) said " As no established case of asbestosis was detected during the study, attempt was not made to correlate the duration and exposure with asbestos cases).  Asbestosis is a lung disease caused by excessive exposure to asbestos fibres over a long period.”

But World Health Organization also talks about asbestos-related-diseases?

The asbestos-cement industry has addressed several letters to WHO (World Health Organization) during the past one and half years and have also met the WHO India officials seeking authentic information about the asbestos-related-diseases and mortality rate world-wide during the past 5 years, country-wise, but have received no answer till date. The World Health Assembly (superior to WHO under the UN)'s Document 60.26 dated 23 May 2007 called for a “differentiated approach to asbestos regulating its various forms in line with relevant international legal instruments.  National approaches for prevention of occupational diseases and injuries should be developed according to each country's priorities.”

Finally, how do you justify the negativity around it?
The bias against the use of asbestos in a few countries is due to the adverse Western media coverage relating to altogether different usages of asbestos in the past i.e. sprayed on asbestos and friable low-density asbestos insulation used under uncontrolled conditions at that time due to lack of adequate scientific knowledge. Though these particular usages have since been discontinued, the claims relating to the past keep appearing in the media resulting in general confusion. We would like to mention that there is no such usage in India.
But, once the scientific research into the risks of asbestos was set in motion, development and installation of pollution control systems took place, enabling the asbestos mining and asbestos cement industries to maintain safe and acceptable levels of dust pollution at the work places. Once the permissible levels of exposure were defined, the Governments have stepped in and laid down pollution control regulations and the mechanisms to enforce their compliance. Compliance with these regulations and standards assure the workers in asbestos-cement industries a risk-free environment. For the consumer, the Asbestos Cement products were and are always safe as the fibres are locked in layers of cement–fly ash matrix.
 
"Asbestos was the early victim of Junk Science and enviro-fear propaganda.  Had the top floors of WTC were insulated with asbestos, the towers would have stood for four hours, saving 5000 lives” - Prof. A Robinson, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine

Every individual breathes in between 10000 to 15000 fibres each day and drinks water containing between 2,00,000 to 20,00,000 fibres per litre. No matter who we are and where we are, we all inhale asbestos every day. So if you call it a ‘killer dust’, how come humanity survived after inhaling it for millions of years?” - John Nicodemus, Executive Director of Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturing Association (ACPMA)

USA is said to have used chrysotile in 2009 for manufacture of roof coating, cements, mastics and in diaphragms by chlor-alkahali industry (Mastics is a type of cement used on roofs, frames of windows, etc. to stop water getting in).

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