‘Slow Poison’ Scars Indian Lungs as Asbestos Firms Sell $7 Roofs for Slum
One thing Rajendra Pevekar remembers from falling asleep on his father’s chest as a child is the smell of burnt plastic and the shiny specks of dust sticking to his clothes.
What Pevekar didn’t know was that the dust had a name -- asbestos -- and a record of wrecking the lungs of those who inhale it. Only last year did he draw a connection between the fiber from the auto-parts factory where his father worked sweeping the floor, the man’s early death, the disease that left his mother crippled and his own shortness of breath.
“This is a slow poison,” Pevekar said in an interview at his home in Mumbai’s working class neighborhood of Ghatkopar. “It destroys your lungs and you don’t even know it.”
Pevekar’s mother was among the first Indians last December to get paid about 700,000 rupees ($16,000) -- more than 10 times her son’s annual income -- from a Manchester, England-based trust established by factory owner Turner & Newall Plc. The payment was compensation for asbestosis, an occupational disease first identified in the U.K. in 1906. Last month, another 40 workers received payouts, bringing the year’s tally to a record 70 million rupees.
The lessons learned by richer nations like the U.K. and Germany, which banned asbestos in factories decades ago, are slow to take hold in India, where demand for a sturdy material to make roofs for millions of slum-dwellers serving the world’s second fastest-growing major economy has overpowered concerns about worker safety.
India is the largest importer of asbestos, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database. Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets that sell for as little as 300 rupees ($7). More than 100,000 people in India are employed by companies producing the material, according to the Asbestos Cement Producers Association, an industry lobby group.
“It is totally outrageous,” said Gopal Krishna, founder of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. “We’ve known that this stuff is deadly for many years and the government is not banning it. In fact, they are making asbestos artificially cheaper by giving incentives.”
A 15 percent duty is payable on asbestos imports, according to the Ministry of Commerce & Industry. The tariff, which stood at 78 percent in 1995, has been gradually cut over the past decade, Krishna said. Imports totaled 322,200 metric tons in 2009, UN data shows. Asbestos mining is allowed for permit holders, though the government stopped granting licenses in 1986.
Homes will be unaffordable for 38 million families in India by 2030 based on projected market prices, McKinsey & Co. estimated last year. The need for cheap roofing and piping material is fueling asbestos shipments from Russia, Brazil and Canada, where the use of the raw material is restricted in Canadian factories.
Pevekar’s troubles began when his 71-year-old mother, Indira, developed a debilitating shortness of breath in 2003, 11 years after her husband died from an ailment diagnosed as bronchial asthma. Indira has been hospitalized more than six times since then, recalls Pevekar, who ferries her to medical appointments at least once a month.
Bills began to mount.
“We pawned jewelry, borrowed from friends, relatives and money lenders to pay for all these expenses,” Pevekar said.
That held the family back, forcing him and his brother to stay in the same slum house where they grew up and continue to care for Indira, who is partially bedridden and can’t use the bathroom without help.
Pevekar said he came to understand the connection between his mother’s woes, his father’s death and his own pulmonary problems in February 2010, when he attended an event organized by a non-profit organization to inform workers and their children of what is called secondary exposure to asbestos.
“Before that, I had no idea,” he said. “At the event, I asked the organizers to check my mother for asbestosis.”
Indira and another worker’s wife were the first two women to receive compensation from Turner in India, according to Pralhad Malvadkar, head of the Occupational Health and Safety Centre, which organized the event Pevekar attended.
Asbestos is the name given to six natural fibers about 1,200 times smaller than a strand of human hair that can be woven like fabric. Their resistance to fire, heat and chemicals makes them well suited to the construction and auto industries.
The fibrous mineral has been used for the last 140 years in construction. Evidence of its harmful effects began appearing a century ago and national bans were first enacted in the 1970s.
Harm occurs when the asbestos fibers are inhaled. They bruise the lung tissue, leaving behind scars that accumulate and cripple the organ’s ability to process oxygen, said Arthur Frank, a professor of public health at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“If you think of the lung as a balloon that expands and contracts, it’s as if the capacity of the balloon is reduced,” Frank, who specializes in asbestos-related diseases, said in a telephone interview. Chest X-rays identify the scars with characteristic squiggle marks.
The fibers can also lead to the development of lung cancers, including a rare malignancy of the lining of the lungs and abdomen known as mesothelioma, which often causes stabbing chest pains and can be fatal within 18 months.
“Even a day or a month at an asbestos factory can do you in,” said Frank, adding that there is no safe minimum level of exposure. It can take 20 years or more for symptoms to appear, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s website.
Rockets and Millionaires
India has ranked behind China as the briskest-growing major economy for much of the past decade, sending rockets into space and giving rise to a class of entrepreneurs and billionaires. The speed of industrialization has outpaced improvements in infant survival, infrastructure and workplace conditions.
“It’s a difficult issue,” said David Heymann, chairman of the U.K. Health Protection Agency. “Some countries say: ‘We’re developing just like you did during the industrial revolution.’ The difference is that, now, we know what asbestos does.”
India’s use of the material since the 1980s is equal to the amount used by the U.K. during its entire industrial history, according to estimates by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, a London-based umbrella group of non-profit organizations.
As many as 55 countries including Japan and all members of the European Union have banned asbestos in factories, buildings and car parts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency selectively bans the material in products such as spray-on paint and pipe insulation.
Mine in Quebec
The Quebec government approved in April a C$58 million ($60 million) loan guarantee to a group of Canadian and Indian investors, enabling them to expand production at the Jeffrey Mine, said Jolyane Pronovost, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s economic development ministry. The assistance is conditional on the investor group securing C$25 million in additional financing by July 1, she said.
To secure the loan guarantee, the owners of the Jeffrey mine had to commit to annual checks by an independent auditor of their clients to ensure that the white, or chrysotile, form of asbestos is being used safely and meets Quebec standards, Pronovost said.
“Our position hasn’t changed,” she said in a May 31 telephone interview. “We support the safe use of chrysotile.”
The decision, opposed by public health groups including the Canadian Cancer Society, may allow one of Canada’s last remaining asbestos mines to produce 250,000 metric tons annually, said one of the investors, Baljit Chadha, an India-born businessman who made his fortune trading nuts and dried fruit.
At that capacity, the mine would produce more than an eighth of global asbestos production, according to 2010 estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey. About 40 percent of the mineral may end up in India, and sales will generate $130 million in revenue, Chadha estimated.
“I’m going into this with an absolutely clear conscience,” said Chadha, who disputes the risks asbestos poses, citing an open letter from six European and North American doctors published last year which said the chrysotile that emerges from the mine isn’t dangerous for workers as long as it’s “properly controlled.”
All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic, according to the World Health Organization. The Geneva-based UN agency estimates that one person dies every 5 minutes from an asbestos-related disease somewhere in the world, causing 107,000 deaths annually.
Canada’s Natural Resources Ministry declined to comment on asbestos exports to India and deferred questions about the Jeffrey mine expansion to the Quebec provincial government.
While living under an asbestos roof may be less harmful than working with it in a factory, the risk isn’t negligible, said Drexel University’s Frank. In the monsoon season, rainwater can seep through the roof, mixing with the fiber. Data on the dangers from drinking asbestos-tainted water isn’t conclusive, though some studies have found a small increase in deaths from cancers of the stomach and colon among people who ingested it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pevekar installed a plastic sheet under his roof last year after learning about the risks of asbestos, stopping tainted water from dripping onto his sleeping children like it had for years before.
Giant Mixing Vats
In India, government regulation about asbestos exposure is lax, said Jagdish Parikh, a retired deputy director of the National Institute of Occupational Health in the west Indian city of Ahmedabad. Factory owners often don’t ensure that pollutant levels are below regulatory limits and inspections are infrequent, he said.
While workers receive regular medical check-ups by a company-approved doctor, the reports aren’t routinely given to employees, who may not be informed that that they are suffering from an occupational disease, said Malvadkar at the Occupational Health and Safety Centre. The claim was repeated by more than 10 current and former laborers at asbestos factories in Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
At Everest Industries Ltd. (EVI)’s roof factory in the village of Lakhmapur, a four-hour drive from Mumbai, cement, asbestos, water and materials including discarded denim fiber are mixed in giant vats. The cavernous shop floor, large enough to accommodate two jumbo jets, has no visible exhaust system.
“It is a well ventilated area as per the requirement,” said K.K. Rameshan, the plant’s general manager. “No exhaust system is needed here.”
About two dozen workers whose clothes carried traces of gray dust were seen operating machinery, cleaning, and handling raw materials and finished roof sheets during a factory tour last month. Only two of the workers were seen working with a face mask. One was assigned to the “asbestos room,” where 110- pound sacks from Russia and Kazakhstan are stacked around a machine with green, peeling paint that crushes chunks of the mineral for mixing with cement.
“The entire unopened bag is put into the machine and there is no exposure to air,” said Rameshan, shouting to be heard over the rumble of machinery as he led visitors through the factory. “It’s completely safe.”
The plant’s in-house doctor, Dinesh Thakare, said workers get their lung function assessed as part of a broader checkup, and chest X-rays are conducted every three years. So far, he hasn’t seen any sign of asbestosis, he said.
“The reason is this is a very slow-progressing disease, it takes 15 to 20 years, and in these kind of modern units all kinds of precautions are taken,” said Thakare, who keeps a copy of the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, a 4,000- page reference book, on his desk.
Once workers suffer health problems, the process of seeking damages is arduous. Patients need an official certificate from the government-run Employee State Insurance Corporation to be eligible for disability compensation. Only 54 workers in asbestos-related industries received compensation from the agency up to 2009, says Madhumita Dutta from the Ban Asbestos Network in the southern city of Chennai. She didn’t have an estimate for 2010.
“It’s shocking that so few have been compensated, given that hundreds of thousands of people have been working in this industry for decades,” Dutta said in a May 30 interview.
Compensation is often elusive because proving that exposure at work is the direct cause of disease is difficult, said P.K. Nag, director of the National Institute of Occupational Health, a government agency that studies work-related diseases. Asbestos “is harmful, there is no doubt about that,” Nag said.
Some employees don’t apply for fear of losing their job. Those who do seek redress are often frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles, said Raghunath Manwar, a union activist who is trying to get compensation for workers making roofing sheets and other asbestos products at a factory owned by Gujarat Composites Ltd. in Ahmedabad.
“I have been going to the government office for the last five years, but they keep sending me back,” said Chinnappan Chinnakannu, 57, one of the workers who Manwar is helping.
A request to interview Gujarat Composites managers made in person outside its gated compound was refused by five staff members, who said that asbestos is safe and poses no risk to workers. They declined to allow access to the factory or give their names.
“We maintain all the safety procedures that are required,” said D.K. Dutta, the factory’s general manager, in a May 17 telephone interview. He declined to elaborate on safety measures.
Factory worker Chinnakannu doesn’t hold his employer completely to blame. It took two years for his case to go to a medical board appointed by the state of Gujarat, where Ahmedabad is located, he said. That’s in part because Manwar’s group had to file a request under the Right to Information Act, the Indian equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act.
Chinnakannu gathered medical records according to the government board’s guidelines, only to be told the chest X-rays and lung function reports weren’t presented the right way, he said. The medical board has heard his case three times over the past three years, he said.
“They tell you how to conduct the tests and then don’t accept the reports,” Manwar said in an interview. “It’s just a delaying tactic.”
That means Indian companies that use asbestos, including Everest, Gujarat Composites, Visaka Industries Ltd. (VSKI), and Hyderabad Industries Ltd. (HYI) don’t face the same kinds of disability claims that pushed Turner & Newall into insolvency, according to Dutta of the Ban Asbestos network. U.S. auto-parts maker Federal-Mogul Corp. (FDML), which acquired Turner & Newall, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. A judge ruled four years later that the company might face $9.4 billion in death and injury claims triggered by asbestos-related conditions.
A bill pending in the upper house of India’s parliament proposes a ban on the use, trade and manufacture of the material. While it’s supported by scientists and health officials, it lacks the backing of any major political party.
That means it’s unlikely to be passed into law anytime soon, said lawmaker Vijay Jawaharlal Darda. Darda, who is a member of the ruling Congress party, introduced the measure after more asbestos companies tried to set up factories in his home state of Maharashtra.
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare deferred all questions to its labor counterpart, saying the health of factory workers doesn’t come under its purview. S.R. Joshi, deputy director general, and Vandana Sharma, deputy secretary for industrial safety and health at the Ministry of Labour and Employment, declined to be interviewed.
‘Looming Time Bomb’
“I will have to study the impact,” Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said when asked whether asbestos should be banned. “I haven’t been able to put my mind to it yet.” Ramesh, who has held the post for two years, declined to comment further.
India faces a “looming time bomb” of serious health problems in workers because companies aren’t penalized for compromising on employee safety and most doctors don’t know how to diagnose occupational diseases, said Laurie Kazan-Allen, coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.
The government requires factory operators to ensure that workers aren’t exposed to air containing more than 1 fiber per cubic centimeter. That’s 10 times the maximum prescribed limit by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Employers in India must provide gloves, helmets and masks for workers, though wearing them isn’t mandatory. Employees must receive regular medical checkups, including X-rays and lung function tests, and the government notified of patients with an occupational disease.
“The onus is on the company to declare every case and the government doesn’t independently monitor the worker’s health,” said Parikh, the retired occupational health agency official.
Some Indian villagers aren’t waiting for legislative changes to begin protecting their communities.
Clashes between protesters and police erupted in December and January in a village called Chainpur, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, as local residents blocked the entrance to a plant being built by Balmukund Cement & Roofings Ltd. to make asbestos roof sheets. The Kolkata-based company stands by the claim made in its proposal to the state government that the land is barren, said P.S. Ray, a project director. The majority of villagers support the factory, he said.
Red walls that surround the factory under construction border wheat fields and are within 500 meters (547 yards) of a primary school and hundreds of straw-hut homes.
“The government thinks we are so desperate for jobs that we will accept a factory that will poison our children,” said Saraswati Devi, 50, a landless farm-laborer, pointing to a cast on her right arm she said was the result of a police beating.
Pevekar has started taking part in demonstrations against asbestos manufacturing in Mumbai.
“This needs to stop,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through.”
There isn’t one country, corporation or system to blame, said Heymann of the U.K. health agency, who was assistant director-general of the WHO for health security and environment until 2009.
“It’s not always the ‘big bad North’,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes these countries should be protecting their people and to protect them, there are certain things they should be requiring of these companies.”
Pevekar was 3 years old when he, his mother and his four siblings moved to a slum in Mumbai, where their father had found a job sweeping the floors at the Hindustan Ferodo factory, Turner’s Indian subsidiary that made asbestos brake pads for cars and scooters. By sharing a single room measuring 9-feet-by- 11-feet they all risked inhaling fine dust particles from the elder Pevekar’s clothes.
“Rajendra was the darling son,” said Indira, Pevekar’s mother. “He would fall asleep lying on his father’s chest, hugging him.”
Pevekar isn’t sure what price he may have to pay for his exposure in childhood, he said. He can’t climb more than two flights of steps, has to walk slowly, and said he has to settle for a job as a butcher in a Mumbai suburb rather than look for better paid work in the city. The crowded trains into Mumbai compound his breathing problem, he said.
“There is no peace of mind,” Pevekar said, choking back tears. “I worry about living long enough and well enough to take care of my children. I want our lives back.”