Friday, November 19, 2010

Asbestos - The most expensive word in history

One of the most conspicuous features of our modern world has been the 'scare' or you may call it "hysteria" - some threats to human health get vastly exaggerated, provoking a hugely costly economic, social and political mayhem.

We analyse many of the major scares of recent years, showing how they follow a remarkably consistent pattern.

A crucial part in almost every scare is played by supposed scientific experts who misread or even manipulate the evidence, usually by putting two things together and theorising, wrongly, that they are linked. (Scientific studies in the recent times also get directed by vested business/product promoters' interests.   Examples:  Some say milk is good and essential.   Other studies say it is NOT.   Some studies say Eggs are great for health.  Others say - eggs may better be avoided).

A classic instance of this has been the great scare which has swept the Western world in recent decades over asbestos, based, as it turns out, on a fundamental scientific confusion which has cost businesses, homeowners, insurance companies and  economies in the Western world (especially USA) truly astronomic sums.

Most people these days imagine that asbestos has been identified as one of the most dangerous substances in the world, and that even the slightest contact with its 'deadly fibres' can cause cancer.

They might be startled to know that more than 90 per cent of this alarm is wholly unfounded. This is because the unscientific term 'asbestos' is used to describe two different minerals, with quite different properties.

On one hand are what are known as 'blue' and 'brown' asbestos or 'amphiboles'. These are iron silicate, the hard, sharp, acid-resistant fibres which can accumulated in the human lung over many years, causing two very nasty forms of cancer.

On the other hand is the very much more widespread white asbestos or chrysotile. This is a magnesium silicate, chemically similar to talcum powder, the soft, silky fibres of which dissolve so readily in the lung that their half-life is only 11.4 days.

By far the commonest use of white asbestos is as a binding agent used with cement to make a wide range of products - mostly roofing sheets and drinking water pipes. The fibres holding the cement together undergo a chemical change which makes them no longer respirable by the lungs at all.

The essence of the great asbestos scare has been that the genuinely dangerous properties of the amphiboles have been projected onto white asbestos, which in manufactured form, poses no measurable risk to health whatever (like any dust, such as flour, chrysotile is only dangerous when workers are exposed to its raw fibres in very high doses).

The alarm over asbestos began in the early 1960s when a much higher than normal mortality rate was discovered in US shipyard workers who had been exposed to very high concentrations of amphiboles (blue and brown asbestos, because of their acid-resistance, were extensively used for insulation in shipbuilding).  Asbestos-excess-inhalation-related diseases may manifest in a human being after 15 to 20 or even 30 years from the initial exposure. Particularly when it was revealed that manufacturers had long been suppressing evidence of the damage inflicted on workers, this led to a fast-growing avalanche of compensation claims.

And it was at this point that the confusion between the different forms of asbestos crept in, a basic error which the lawyers and more alarmist scientists did nothing to discourage.

By the end of the 1980s these soaring compensation claims were becoming a major threat to the global insurance industry (in the early 1990s they brought Lloyds of London to its knees).

The panic over asbestos was now so great that in 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to ban its use in the USA altogether, making no distinction between amphiboles and chrysotile.

In 1991 the federal courts reversed the proposed ban on white asbestos, stating that, on the EPA's own data, it was likely to cause many fewer deaths than 'the ingestion of toothpicks'.

By now, however, the panic had given rise to two separate commercial scams, both immensely lucrative. The first was being run by the compensation lawyers, who by now had brought hundreds of thousands of claims, the vast majority of which, as eventually emerged, were bogus (a celebrated expose in Fortune magazine dubbed it 'The $200 Billion Miscarriage Of Justice').

The other scam was worked by the new profession of licensed contractors who, under new laws on both sides of the Atlantic, were now alone legally permitted to work with asbestos. This enabled them to exploit the general fear and confusion by charging absurdly inflated sums for removing supposedly 'deadly' asbestos from buildings, more than 90 per cent of which was in fact harmless.

The colossal sums of money now at stake had called into being a powerful political lobby, supported by the law firms and contractors, along with the multi-national manufacturers of asbestos substitutes, who had a vested interest in perpetuating the confusion between the different types of asbestos; and in 1999 they won a signal victory in persuading the EU to introduce a total ban, making no distinction between amphiboles (long since been withdrawn from the market) and chrysotile.

On the back of this muddying of the scientific and legal waters, the various commercial interests have continued to enjoy an extraordinary bonanza, ripping off the public on both sides of the Atlantic on a colossal scale.

When in 2002 Britain's Health and Safety Executive introduced new regulations to comply with EU law (flatly contradicting studies carried out by the HSE itself), its original estimate for the cost of implementation was £8 billion, making it one of the two most expensive laws ever put on the UK statute book.

Subsequent evidence of the alarming scale on which HSE-licensed contractors have continued to exploit their privileged position, by grotesquely overcharging for work often not necessary at all, suggests that even this was a serious underestimate.
Only in the past few years have a series of new studies by some of the world's leading independent scientific experts on asbestos (such as Dr David Bernstein, Professor Fred Pooley and Dr John Hoskins) finally confirmed in exhaustive detail just how insignificant is the danger which chrysotile poses to human health.

But by now, thanks to that basic linguistic confusion, the damage has been done - making 'asbestos' arguably the single most expensive word in history.

Asbestos Diseases

Asbestos inhalation in excessive doses for a prolonged period can result in 3 types of diseases, namely, respiratory problems leading to  Asbestosis,  Mesothelioma lung cancer and other respiratory 

It has been found in various scientific studies that Mesothelioma is associated with the use of Blue asbestos known as Crocidolite.   It has been observed that only Chrysotile type White Asbestos is used within stipulated pollution control levels, these diseases can be prevented.

According to (Environmental Health Criteria) Document No. 203, a World Health Organization's publication of 1998, Asbestosis occurred only at exposure levels of 5 to 20 fibres per cubic centimeter of air over a period of 40 years.   

The exposure levels in the asbestos-cement factories in general has been  well below 0.5 fibres per cc and has progressively been brought down to 0.1 fibre/cc with stringent pollution control systems.   This level renders asbestos absolutely harmless.  The Factories Act in India, stipulates a safe level of 1 fibre per cc.

Even at construction sites where ac roofing sheets, etc are installed with the help of hand-driven tools, dust concentrations were noted to be less than 0.1 fibres per cc.

It may be concluded that chrysotile asbestos fibres can be used quite safely without harming the workers in the ac factories or general public or the surrounding environment.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who Wins if Asbestos Cement is banned ?

The Indian asbestos-cement (AC) industry comprises of  AC roofing sheet production ( 90% ) and  AC Pipe production (10%).  This industry, with an annual turnover of Rs.4,500 crores  contributes about Rs. 800 crores to the State exchequer.  It employes over 1,00,000 people directly and over 2,00,000 people indirectly.   From a modest beginning  75 years ago,  the current estimated annual production is 4.2 million tons of AC sheets and pipes in the organized sector.   In the recent years, the AC sheet production has been rising at the rate of over 10% each year.   This reflects the demand for these products which are economically and durability-wise much more beneficial than the other  alternatives such as GI Sheets, Galvalume Sheets, PVC Pipes, Steel Pipes, Ductile Iron Pipes, etc. etc.

So, why is there a negative propaganda and emergence of a band of anti-asbestos activists whose sole aim is to get a ban on asbestos and elimination of asbestos based products ?  And who gets benefitted if the AC sheet and pipe industry is eliminated ?

A combination of vested commercial interests and ignorance of facts, is the cause for this propaganda.  If asbestos cement products are banned, the Metal and Man Made Fibre industries will sell an additional 4.2 million tons of their products (by taking over the AC sheet business).  In fact the figure will be larger as the weight per sq mtr of metal products is more than AC products.  When you consider a global ban on AC products, the gain for competing industries will be multi multifold.

To achieve their goal of removing asbestos products from the world, these  alternative product industries, have been, through the created NGOs, such as International Ban Asbestos Secretariat,  Indian Ban Asbestos Network, and other associated, affiliated individuals, spreading misleading information - claiming that asbestos was one of the most dangerous substances in the world - When you ask for evidence of health problems, in the recent years, country-wise or sector-wise,  these anti asbestos activists (AAAs) have no tangible answer.

Regardless of the synergies and unrelenting campaigns by the AAAs,  the Govt of India, having obviously been convinced that AC production  can be maintained in complete safety with due precautions, is allowing the industry to grow to serve the needs of the country.   The GOI's response is the last word on the subject.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mine Jeffrey Accepts Offer from Canadian-Led Investors

Guarantees Safety, Responsible Use and Jobs 

MONTREAL, Nov. 1, A Canadian-led consortium of international investors has made a successful offer to buy 100% of Quebec's privately held Mine Jeffrey Inc. All shareholders, including the workers' coop, have approved the offer. The parties hope to close the transaction by the end of the year and to resume work on the underground mining project. 

Mine Jeffrey's modern facilities have an excellent reputation for safety. The open pit operation has been in business for more than 130 years.
The consortium, which includes investors from India, will finance the completion of an underground mine project initiated several years ago. This will enable the company to produce approximately 225,000 tons of chrysotile fibre annually, while certifying safe and responsible practices from cradle to grave.   

The consortium has committed to provide a stable supply of its high-quality fibre—but only to large companies certified for safety and environmental responsibility. This will protect workers' health and safety, as well as strategic commodity requirements in Asia, the world's largest market for the product. 

This investment will secure 500 jobs in Quebec for the next 25 years, in a region that is currently economically depressed; it will also maintain Canadian control over an important commodity.  

According to Bernard Coulombe, President and Principal Shareholder of Mine Jeffrey, "The new investors will not be involved in the day-to-day running of the company, which will be entrusted to the existing management and workers."   

Michael Vineberg, senior partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg and legal advisor to the investor consortium, said that "Mine Jeffrey will remain under Canadian control. The controlling interest in the consortium will be held by Canadian investors. They are looking forward to working with Monsieur Coulombe and current management."  

Chrysotile fibre is currently used legally in Canada, the USA, and countries in South America and Asia.  

Chrysotile fibre is used in developing countries predominantly to manufacture affordable and sturdy roofing sheets and pipes. A small percentage of chrysotile fibre is mixed with cement, thus binding the fibre. None of the fibre produced at Mine Jeffrey is used in loose form, as was the case in legacy environments, and as may still happen among smaller companies that would not qualify as buyers of Jeffrey's product.

Chrysotile fibre was first discovered in Quebec in 1876. There are currently two producers in the province.  

Chrysotile fibre, previously known as asbestos, is classified as a hazardous product. However, like hundreds of other hazardous materials, it is used safely under controlled conditions around the world. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Why the West encountered problems with Asbestos

During the periods of ignorance  of health risks related to asbestos usage due to lack of direct evidence of asbestos-related-diseases (ARDs) and scientific studies and investigations, asbestos was used extensively in the Western countries for insulating large structures, public buildings and homes.  Asbestos fibres mixed with adhesives were sprayed in order to provide insulation and fire protection.  All this was done without any pollution control systems, resulting in excessive concentrations of airborne asbestos dust.  Inhalation in excess quantities of foreign matter could always result in respiratory problems and later worse illnesses.

Apart from uncontrolled dust levels, even the asbestos fibres used during those ignorant periods was a mix of  fibres which predominantly were Amphibole types known as Crocidolite (blue asbestos) and Amosites (brown asbestos), which were proven to cause mesothelioma cancer.

The above practices, applications and fibre types have since been discontinued - but in the Western countries, the consequences are still manifesting leading to negative campaigns and litigations.

But, in India  those spraying applications for insulation and fire rating were never prevalent.  

Moreover, the risky variety of asbestos (blue and brown types) having been banned all over the world,  India uses only the Chrysotile variety of asbestos which is allowed to be mined largely in Russia, Canada, China, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Zimbabwe in controlled conditions.

It is worth nothing that in India 95% of chrysotile asbestos is used in asbestos-cement roofing sheet and pipe manufacture.  In these products, the asbestos fibres are locked in the cement matrix and cannot get released or airborne.  And therefore, there is no risk to public in general.

Even at the ac  manufacturing stage, various engineering controls are in place to eliminate any asbestos fibres getting airborne.  Many studies by Government Agencies have shown that chrysotile asbestos can be safely used.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Asbestos; Indian industry and government policy

Asbestos is a mineral quite old and was known both to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Both civilizations were aware of it miraculous qualities.  In these and other ancient civilizations it was largely used in ceremonial and ritual clothing like funeral dresses for the cremation of kings.  

There are six types of asbestos having great commercial properties including amongst others like outstanding insulation of sound, heat and electricity.  Except white asbestos which is also known as chrysotile, use of all other varieties is banned all over the world for their harmful effects.    Chrysotile or white asbestos fibres are thicker due to their curly nature compared to other varieties whose fibres are needlelike.   Chrysotile fibres are unable to penetrate as far. 

Almost the entire chrysotile which is mined all over the world is largely used in the production of asbestos cement corrugated roofing sheets.   A minuscule percentage is used in production of asbestos cement pipes, clothing for industrial applications and in automobile parts like clutches and brakes.  Around 1880, a number of deposits were found in Russia and Canada.  Almost at the same time the industrial revolution taking place in England and other parts of the world catapulted a high growth in the use of asbestos.

Asbestos is a risk to health only when it is inhaled ( breathed in ) as fine dust.   The risk to health increases with the number of fibres inhaled and with frequency of exposure.  When asbestos dust is inhaled, larger fibres tend to be cleared by protective mechanism in the lungs and respiratory tract.   The finer fibres, however, are more difficult to remove and may become deposited in the lungs, or penetrate further into body.     

Inhalation is the primary route by which the general population might be exposed to asbestos.  Small quantities of asbestos fibres are common in air, arising from natural sources like windblown soil from hazardous waste sites etc.

Generally, asbestos containing materials that are in good condition will not release asbestos fibres.  There is no danger unless fibres are released and inhaled to lungs.  The risk from exposure to asbestos in the non-occupational setting is considered to be low since the concentrations of asbestos fibres are low. 

The number of fibres that are released depends on :

  • the percentage of asbestos in the material
  • the way it is handled, used or worked on
  • how tightly fibres are bound
  • the degree of damage or wear

In India the emission standards for asbestos fibre from asbestos based products manufacturing industries have been notified under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.  Similarly, under Metalliferous Mines Regulations, 1961, permissible limit of airborne respirable asbestos fibre dust are also prescribed.  The Industry Pollutants Emission Limit for all types of asbestos manufacturing units (including all processes involving the use of asbestos) Pure asbestos material 0.2 fibre/cc, Total Dust 2 mg / nm3.  Fibre of length more than 5 micrometer and diameter less than 3 micrometer with an aspect ratio of 3 or more.

Mining, manufacture of asbestos and asbestos based products is regulated as per the provisions and procedures of EIA notification, 1994.  Similarly, the manufacture, handling and processing of asbestos and its products have been brought under the category of hazardous processes as given in First schedule under the Factories Act, 1948.  The State Governments have framed rules under Section 87 and schedule on handling and process of manufacture or otherwise in which asbestos is used in any form has been notified by them on the basis of Model Rules prepared by Director General Factories Advice Service and Labour Institutes(DGFASLI) Besides, Bureau of India Standards (BIS) have also prescribed various standards to ensure safety in handling and use of asbestos and its products.

Of late asbestos and asbestos-based products have been generating lot of interest in the society. Certain NGOs, activists and various competitive interests both in the country and abroad have been campaigning against asbestos.   There are several scientific studies concerning asbestos usage, its effects on health and the environment. These studies have generally come to the conclusion that use of asbestos (Chrysotile variety) in the manufacture of Asbestos-based products under controlled conditions is entirely safe for human health and environment. Likewise, studies have concluded that people residing under asbestos cement roofs are not subjected to any health risks. It is quite safe if asbestos products are processed and manufactured under controlled conditions. These studies have similarly arrived at same conclusions about usage of its products.

There are more than 50 modern manufacturing units located in various States and equipped with latest environmental and pollution control equipments as well as implementing all prescribe measures in regard to prevention of any health related problems.   Most of these units are engaged in manufacture of asbestos roofing sheets.  The production of a.c. sheets is in the range of 3.5 to 4 million ton and consumption of asbestos (chrysotile) fibre is around 4 lac ton per year.  It is interesting to note that the entire requirement of asbestos fibre is met through imports from Brazil, Canada and Russia.  The annual turnover of the industry is around Rs. 5000 cr.

The policy in regard to asbestos and its products of the Government of India as on date is quite clear and transparent as would be revealed in its replies to the Parliament for last more than 10 years.  Some relevant portion of the Government replies to the Parliament will clarify the policy of the Government of India.

“The Government has put in place various measures to safeguard the health of employees which, inter alia, include mandatory environmental clearance for asbestos based industries (new and expansion/modernization) irrespective of investment as per the provisions and procedures under EIA Notification 1994. Strict adherence to medical health care, occupational health monitoring and compliance to various BIS standards are prescribed while granting clearance. Further, Government has amended the Factories Act, 1948 in April, 2001to make stringent and permissible exposure limit for Chrysotile asbestos as 1.0 fibre/cc.”

Similarly in regard to a question whether the Government propose to shut down asbestos sheet manufacturing units in India as it can cause lung cancer to the workers exposed to it etc. the reply was ;
“there is no conclusive scientific evidence on the harmful effects of asbestos. Further, the units manufacturing asbestos sheets have to follow various safety norms prescribed by Bureau of Indian Standards to protect workers employed in these units against the harmful effects of asbestos. Therefore, in the absence of any conclusive evidence to suggest that manufacture of asbestos sheets causes lung cancer amongst workers employed in these units, it is not desirable to ban production of these sheets.”

The Government further amply clarified another very critical issue whether the asbestos cement (AC) pipes used for drinking water projects is a health hazard, the response of the  Government was “from the available literature, there does not appear to be any health hazard from asbestos cemented pipes used for drinking water.