Asbestos use is illegal in India. Yet it continues to blight the country as a lingering public health concern. These issues are being highlighted in a new documentary focusing on the use of asbestos in India and Belgium, as well as issues faced the world over.
Over one hundred people attended the international release of the documentary Breathless at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on Saturday October 27th. For the parts of the documentary filmed in India, a focus was placed on the village of Kymore.
Kymore, a historical focal point of the Indian asbestos industry
Kymore represents a focal point for the Indian asbestos issue. It has historically been a village associated with asbestos mining. Asbestos Cement Ltd, a subsidiary of the British company, Turner and Newall Plc, established India’s first asbestos product factory in the industrial town of Kymore, Madhya Pradesh in 1934. In the modern day India is the second largest consumer of chrysotile asbestos in the world.
Asbestos waste and byproducts from the factory — the most hazardous of which was raw asbestos fibre — was dumped by Asbestos Cement Limited until 1989. Letters of complaint were sent to the central government in 1985 describing local residents as suffering from asbestosis.
Kymore became a dumping ground for these asbestos waste products, a fact confirmed by a survey by the Pollution Control Board, Bhopal. They stated “It is further been observed that the factory is dumping the solid wastes at Islam Nagar, Kymore, which may also be unhealthful [sic]”.
Locals continued to complain that dumping had continued. In response, numerous warnings were put out by the local pollution control board. Despite this dumping was continued until 1997 by Eternit Everest Ltd, a subsidiary of the Belgium asbestos multinational, Etex.
Dumping was continued for decades after the industry knew it to be unsafe to human health. Asbestos continued to be a widely used material in construction, and with such rapid expansions in infrastructure to Indian cities, it was inevitable that areas such as Kymore would suffer due to the byproducts of this construction.
The situation in recent years
On 15 August 2016, Anil Madhav Dave, Union Minister of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, said “Since the use of asbestos is affecting human health, its use of asbestos is affecting human health, its usage should gradually be minimised and ended. As far as I know, its use is declining, but it must end.”
This followed the banning of the use of asbestos in India on 21 January 2011. Despite the ban, as well as a ban on mining of asbestos dating far further back, it continues to be imported and used in the country.
Many industries still regularly expose their workers to the risks associated with asbestos. Construction is an obvious example of this. However, as fewer buildings use asbestos this risk is being reduced. However, it is in industries that involve the dismantling of older buildings and vehicles where these risks again present themselves.
Shipbreaking is an example of this. India’s vast shipyards generate nearly a billion dollars a year for the country. The workers of this industry work in cramped, dangerous conditions where risk of injury is commonplace. However, long term exposure to the asbestos often found in the ships they break down is creating a far longer term problem.
In the close confines of the ships they break down, breathing in asbestos particles is inevitable as they are often not provided with basic safety equipment such as masks.
The potential for long-term illness
The inhalation of asbestos is dangerous for the lungs. Fine particles can cause scarring of the lungs, referred to as pulmonary fibrosis. Scarring of the lungs can cause problems breathing which can steadily become worse over years of exposure. Long-term exposure to can result in an increased risk of cancer. Often symptoms will not present themselves for many years after exposure.
Asbestosis is the specific terminology for a type of pulmonary fibrosis that is caused specifically by asbestos inhalation. There is no known cure, with the disease constantly progressing in making breathing more difficult.
Knowledge of the negative effects of asbestos is not a new phenomenon. Greek geographer Strabo noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove it into cloth. Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, documented the same phenomenon.
Despite awareness of these risks dating back as far as ancient Greece, it is only in recent years that political measures have been put in place to curb asbestos use. By this point, asbestos is everywhere: in vehicles, factories, even in the homes of many people. It is not likely to be eradicated as a public health threat for many years.
The negative health effects of asbestos were officially acknowledged in a supreme court case in India in 1995. However, despite a ban on its use, its historical prevalence in India will see it shadow over many working in industries that expose them to it for years to come, blighting the health of those involved.