As western countries have outlawed asbestos, the industry has turned its focus to the developing world. Melody Kemp looks at the challenges facing campaigners for change.
In a grainy black and white Chinese-government film, shown to me by a labour activist in Hong Kong, a man walks unsteadily toward the camera, his chest skewed to one side. He looks to be in great pain. An unidentified person in clinical clothing turns the man around, indicating a tumour the size of a small backpack pushing it’s way though the skin over the his shoulder blades. He died shortly after. The cause of death the voice over intones was mesothelioma from inhaling crocidolite fibres.
The man was a farmer in Sichuan province, south-west China. The film, shot in 1984, recorded hillsides where crocidolite, commonly known as blue asbestos, had been exposed after erosion and landslips. The exploitation of huge areas of virgin forest in both Sichuan and Yunnan provided timber and land for agricultural use but also exposed substantial reserves of crocidolite. The villagers used it to make bricks and stoves, mixing it with clay. A local tradition had new brides given a basin with asbestos to whitewash the walls of the kitchen for the newlyweds.
The area is dry and windy. The crocidolite, so dense that the film’s researchers noted the soil looked blue, was blown into the faces of farmers and road builders who had mortality rates of more than 30%, according to the narrator. The voiceover added that the asbestos was vital to China’s defence industries. Submarines, tanks and battle ships all used large amounts of asbestos, it said. The research reported in the film won several science and technology awards in 1990. Yet in 2010, China remains the world’s second largest producer of asbestos and the world’s largest user.
Although the trade of asbestos in China dates back to the Silk Road, the substance was little known as an industrial product in the country until 60 years ago. In 2006, the website ChinaMining reported that “China now has more than 160 asbestos mines and asbestos-manufactured products enterprises, most of which are small. Asbestos mines in western China have been developing rapidly and now become (sic) the main base of asbestos production in China.”
China has reportedly abandoned the use of prisoners in forced-labour asbestos mining, but production is unceasing. In 1997, China's total asbestos production was 437,000 tonnes, ranking third in the world. Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai, in north-west China, are among the three most important producers of asbestos, yielding 56.5% of China's total. Sichuan, in the south-west, Jilin, in the north-east, Guangdong, in the south-east and Hebei, in the north, are also notable suppliers. The extent of the current supply of Chinese asbestos can be seen on trade website Alibaba.com. Over two thousand products are available from 15 major suppliers.
In 2009, China’s production rose to 450,000 tonnes, with an additional 210,000 tonnes imported. In human terms, that means 120,000 workers in 31 asbestos mines are exposed, along with 1.2 million workers making chrysotile products and 8 million workers in other manufacturing involving the use of asbestos, such as heavy-vehicle assembly, according to environmental-technology firm Itgium.
The number exposed during demolition of buildings is hard to estimate but the same source in China posits that 80 million householders are exposed to asbestos used in roof tiles, insulation, crumbing stoves and wall panels. The spate of earthquakes bringing shoddily constructed buildings to the ground leads one to believe that a significant public health issue is in the making.
In 2008, 18,000 reportedly died of what is referred to as lung cancer associated with fibre inhalation. it is not clear if this figure includes mesothelioma, peritoneal and other organ cancers attributed to asbestos, or simply lung cancer. China’s major confounder would be the large number of smokers that accelerate the onset of disease. The cost to the health system and families of this death toll should be taken into account when talking about economic miracles and growth.
Unlike the infamous coal mines, accidents in asbestos pits are less well reported. But it is the daily inhalation of fibres at work – and in the surrounding environment – that causes the painful life-shortening diseases. One such mine is the Shimiankuang Asbestos Mine found at a giddying 3,200 metres above sea level, on the border of Qinghai and Xinjiang, in western China. One visitor wrote online: “Though the asbestos is certainly deadly for most of the workers, many of whom seem not to be wearing masks of any kind, it may not be dangerous for the visitor to just drive through. However, if the idea concerns you, you may want to avoid this route.”
There is no doubt that China is conducting detailed and collaborative research on asbestos diseases. Journals such as Industrial Health and the Annals of Occupational Hygiene are littered with studies. But the pragmatic and development-minded Chinese government considers worker deaths as secondary to economic and export development and shows no signs of diminishing production. They are, however, reported to be doing intensive investigation into substitutes and do, at least, attempt to record morbidity and mortality, something that India is less diligent about.
In 2008, India – along with Pakistan, Canada and Russia – rejected the banning of chrysotile asbestos mandated under the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, which lists chemicals that require exchange of information on health hazards prior to trade. India, which imported 360,000 tonnes of asbestos in 2006, claimed that evidence of chrysotile's lethality was not conclusive and that it was awaiting the results of a major health study before joining the convention, according to Madhumitta Dutta of Corporate Accountability Desk, a member of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI).
Gopal Krishna, the founder and convenor of BANI, condemned his country's rejection of the convention: “There is a political consensus in India to promote asbestos at any human cost,” he wrote in India Together in 2006. Underlying his concerns were close links between the asbestos industry and some prominent Indian politicians. “With asbestos firms being owned by politicians or the state itself, the government seems to be following a classic ostrich policy,” Krishna wrote. “The reality is that the country's most powerful parliamentarians bless the asbestos industry.”
Among these politicians is Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the chief minister of Bengal’s Communist government, who gave Utkal Asbestos, a company that makes asbestos-cement corrugated sheets, an Environment Excellence Award. And, the chairman of asbestos-cement manufacturer Visaka Industries, G. Vivekanand, is the son of G. Venkataswamy, a member of parliament, deputy leader of the Indian Congress Parliamentary Party and a former Textiles Minister. Vivekanand put out a fact sheet claiming that chrysotile is safe, and blamed western media coverage of past events for generating unfounded fear.
Harvard University and the World Health Organisation report that occupational injuries and disease already surpass infectious disease as the major causes of death in the developing world and threaten to undermine any economic or moral imperatives gained by trade. More people die per day from workplace illness throughout the world than are killed by global terrorist attacks, wars, drugs or by the various pandemics that attract huge institutional funding, according to Sanjiv Pandita, director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre. If you consider that asbestos alone causes around 100,000 deaths per year, it is not hard to believe Pandita’s assertion.
Opposition to asbestos is growing and is fuelled around the world by a flood of compensation demands. Claimants, dragging desperately on oxygen in front of television cameras, have pleaded for recompense and an end to asbestos use.
Workers and activists around Asia are not convinced by industry reassurances and are getting organised. At a 2009 meeting in Phnom Penh of the Asian Network for the Rights of Accident Victims (ANROAV), 120 activists and Asian-based academics from 16 countries heard stories of frustration and harassment from workers. Delegates asserted that globalisation had led to “state-sponsored pimping” – governments selling workers’ bodies and lives in return for investment. A regional coordinating group, the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (A-Ban) was set up earlier in 2009. It is seeking an Asia-wide asbestos ban.
It has its work cut out. As the anti-asbestos activists know all too well, international asbestos bans have barely disturbed the industry. Like Uralasbest, companies have merely shifted their marketing focus to developing countries, where environmental and workplace standards are more lax. China now absorbs 54% of global production, says Ye-Yong Choi of Ban Asbestos Korea (BANKO), the Korean movement that recently achieved a ban on asbestos.
There are some flaws in the Korean legislation, such as very low levels of compensation for sufferers of asbestos-induced mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer, and campaigners from BANKO promise to lobby for improvements. Choi would like to see a global campaign in which activists “move much more strategically and collectively...I have felt we are too gentle in some way whilst our enemy, the asbestos industry, moves very collectively and aggressively.”
In spite of industry and government denials, evidence of chrysotile's harm is clear. Lung X-rays belonging to professor Paek Domyung, a chest disease specialist and epidemiologist from Seoul National University and a founding member of BANKO, show unmistakable white patches, marking the deadly progression of mesothelioma. Etched into the medical data on the corner of each film was the word “chrysotile”, the supposedly safe form of the mineral.
All the victims in Paek's X-rays were Asian workers, belying the myth propagated by some Asian labour officials that asbestosis and mesothelioma are “western” illnesses. Paek has predicted that Asian nations will see a tsunami of asbestos-related diseases, marked by the gasping deaths of the pale, drawn – and often young – victims. His view is supported by the research of Japanese academic Takahashi Ken, who on reviewing historical and global trends, found that marked rises in incidence inevitably preceded national bans.
Studies cited by McCulloch and Tweedale have found asbestos disease in young Russian and Kazakh workers with less than three years exposure. Victims usually die a year after diagnosis. Expensive drugs such as Alimta and Platinol can lengthen a patient’s life by up to six months but are well beyond the buying capacity of Asian industrial workers. Palliative care, a tall order in most poor countries, is the best they can hope for.
The pain of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can be agonising and requires another white powder – morphine – to provide relief. Ironically many of the countries where asbestos disease is rife, such as India, have a shortfall in the supply of legally scheduled opiates. There is no shortfall in asbestos.
Melody Kemp is a freelance writer and a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in south-east Asia.
An earlier version of this article was published as "The Other Deadly White Dust: Russia, China, India and the Campaign to Ban Asbestos”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 13-1-10, March 29, 2010.
Part one: Asia’s growing asbestos addiction
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