By Eric Stevenson
While many developed nations have banned or at least severely restricted the use of asbestos in manufacturing and other industries, the dangerous mineral continues to be a serious health hazard in many Asian countries, particularly India. According to a 2009 U.S. Geological Survey report, India was the second-largest consumer of asbestos, behind only China, using 340,544 tonnes of the material. And, unfortunately, that rate of use continues to grow. Even more alarming, much of their asbestos use can be attributed to the exporting of the product by both Canadian and American companies.
While the U.S. doesn’t directly export these materials, it sends over many ships to be destroyed by the ship-breaking industry, which is massive in places like India and Bangladesh. Many of the ships used throughout the 1900s in the U.S. are laden with asbestos.
Different from the U.S. practice, some Canadian businesses still mine and export asbestos out of the country in return for major revenue. While there only remains one mine left in Canada, Mine Jeffrey in Quebec is still a money maker. It’s rather unfortunate that some businesses see fit to export the material for profit. Neither country has been able to actually ban complete use of the material yet, giving some companies the chance to take advantage.
Asbestos is dangerous because tiny, needlelike fibres of the mineral can break away, floating into the air, where they can be inhaled into the lungs. When these fibers build up over time, asbestos exposure can cause lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs. Mesothelioma symptoms can take between 20 and 50 years to appear, so those in charge of the asbestos industry in India deny that there is a connection between asbestos and the cancer. However, U.S. and U.K. scientists call the link irrefutable—about 80 percent of mesothelioma cases can be linked back directly to asbestos exposure earlier in life.
Unfortunately, most states and territories in India lack the funding that would be necessary to prove to their own government that asbestos is harmful. It represents a big business in the country—the ship-breaking industry, where large quantities of asbestos are routinely ripped out as the vessels are disassembled, provides many jobs in India’s growing economy. Another hot spot for asbestos is the construction industry, where the mineral is still used in the manufacturing of cement sheeting. The demand for these construction materials is highest in rural areas with growing populations, which means that even more people are being exposed to the hazardous substance.
If the industries that make heavy use of asbestos are not able to shut down completely—and for the sake of India’s economy, they largely cannot—employers must provide proper safety gear for their workers, including a mask and respirator to filter the deadly fibres from the air. Groups like the Ban Asbestos Network India are hard at work to make on-the-job conditions safer for asbestos workers. In other countries, when workers became aware of the hazards they faced, the government and national companies could no longer deny them their basic rights to health and safety. Hopefully, once awareness spreads throughout India of this dangerous substance, Indian workers will no longer have to face this preventable threat.
Eric Stevenson is a health and safety advocate who resides in the southeastern U.S.