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Asia Inhales While the West Bans the Deadly Carcinogen

by Melody KempSpecial to CorpWatch
February 16th, 2010

Dr Domyung Paek addresses ANROAV at Phnom Penh 2009.
Seoul University’s Dr Domyung Paek addresses the ANROAV meeting Phnom Penh 2009.

In parts of Asia, carrying 500 grams of one white powder can draw a death sentence, but importing 1,000 tons of another lethal white dust is both legal and profitable. Asbestos, a known carcinogen banned in much of the world, is a common and dangerous building block in much of Asia’s development and construction boom. This other white powder causes 100,000 occupational deaths per year, according to Medical News Today.

While images of kids with heroin-loaded needles stuck in their arms spark public outrage, clouds of asbestos fibers in factories and on construction sites often draw official shrugs and denials. Illicit drug use does not rank among the top ten causes of death in young adults, according to a 2009 global study of adolescent health by the Murdoch Children’s Research Center in Melbourne in 2009. But in some Asian nations including China, asbestos is in the top ten causes of occupational disease in laborers, some of whom were exposed as working children. The numbers are generally thought to be higher since much of Asia's data rely on a highly mobile workforce with high a turnover rate.

Like a sleeping grizzly bear, asbestos can be deadly when disturbed, and all along the mining, manufacturing, installation, cutting, and deconstruction processes, the mineral is turned into air-borne fibers that lodge in the lungs and cause fatal respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma.

Across much of Asia, white asbestos, also known as chrysotile, is widely used to make asbestos-cement construction material such as roofing tiles, wall panels, and expansion joints, as a fire proofer, and in brake linings and gaskets in large vehicles. As part of the process of development, people are trading bug-filled, flammable grass roofs for asbestos cement tiles and walls.

A few years ago at a state-owned roof tile factory in Vietnam young male workers clad only in shorts carried bags labeled “Asbestos-Kazakhstan.” The air was thick with white dust huffing up like steam from lava. Visiting occupational health and safety experts held their breath as long as they could; some smothered their faces in dust masks. The workers did not have that luxury. Their only protection was handkerchiefs tied bandit-style over their mouths and noses as they climbed the sides of the hoppers.

“I know it’s dangerous,” said the manager spreading his hands and shrugging, “but it’s also cheap, and people only want to buy cheap tiles.”

Drugs or Dust

“It's just a PR campaign when they say that asbestos can kill,” Uralasbest's Viktor Ivanov told AFP in 2007, when he headed the Chrysotile Association, an industry group based in the Russian town of Asbest. The website for Uralasbest, the Ural Asbestos Mining & Ore Dressing Company, calls the company the world's “oldest and largest manufacturer and supplier of chrysotile.” In 2005 the Russian firm produced about a quarter of the world's chrysotile asbestos and exported it to 35 countries (pdf): 53 percent outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (to China, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, etc.), and 13 percent within the CIS nations that had been part of the former Soviet Union (Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, etc.).

Very little of the product ends up in the West. More than 60 countries have partially or completely banned asbestos, including the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea. The EU nations and others have completely banned both brown amphibole and white chrysotile asbestos, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified all types as a human carcinogen. Although some studies have found that chrysotile's small fiber size makes it less virulent than brown amphibole, the WHO is unequivocal: “no threshold has been established for the carcinogenic risk of chrysotile.”(pdf)

But asbestos merchants, disputing World Health Organization (WHO) data and overwhelming scientific evidence, claim that chrysotile is safe. Uralabest's website decries “the wave of anti-asbestos psychose [sic] [that] was spread over Western Europe.” “Today’s asbestos industry is totally harmless,” Tatiana Kochetova of the Asbest-based Institute for Asbestos Projects told the Russian Journal. “There hasn’t been one case of asbestos caused disease here for many years. Locally produced asbestos does not cause any harm.”

Researchers Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale document that the rates of malignancies dropped in Asbest only after the introduction of dust control technologies (and the dispersal of ill workers). Those same safety measures that, in any case, mitigate rather than eliminate risk are largely lacking in the countries to which Russian asbestos is exported. (McCulloch J and Tweedale G 2008 Defending the Indefensible: The Global asbestos Industry and its Fight for Survival. OUP.)

Russia's Exports

Uralabest's product comes from Asbest, a classic monogorod, or single-industry town in Bazhenouskoye in north of Kazakhstan, along the eastern slope of the Ural ridge. The open-pit mine covers 90 sq. km. and stretches 11.5 km long, 1.8 km wide and almost 300 meters deep. There, some 10,000 workers turn out more than 500,000 tons of chrysotile asbestos annually.

In 2009, Uralasbest was forecasting production of 450,000 tons, “a significant portion of the world market,” and its FY 2006 revenues were $192 million, according to Rye, Man & Gor Securities (pdf). Russia produced 925,000 tons of asbestos in 2008, according to the US Geological Survey, almost half the estimated world production of about 2 million tons a year, and worth $900 million.

Once a state-owned corporation, Uralasbest is now privatized. More than half of Uralasbest share capital is owned through a Russian regional bank (Urals Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Stroyexport, another Russian company, owns 14 percent, and two South Africa-registered companies -- Petrov & Co and Mavrol Management -- own 21percent. The top managers control about 30 percent of the company (pdf). In 2007 Uralasbest entered into a joint venture with Swiss Minmet Financing Company to recover magnesium from its asbestos mine tailings. This move was meant as a hedge against the global decline in construction.

Perhaps more threatening to Uralabest's economic future than recession is the growing awareness that asbestos is toxic, and alternatives are available. In 2000, citing Canada's high level support for its industry as a model, Russian asbestos industry officials sought Vladimir Putin’s assistance in countering "asbestphobia."

Russian corporations also looked to Canada's -- and Kazakh's -- marketing efforts in newly rich Asian nations. That strategy has produced rich results according to the World Asbestos Reports, and the WHO confirms that some countries have reduced restrictions and increased production and use of chrysotile.

India Imports

In 2008 India – along with Pakistan, Canada, Russia – rejected the banning of chrysotile asbestos mandated under the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (PIC). PIC lists chemicals that require exchange of information on health hazards prior to trade. India, which imported 360,000 tons 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 the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI).

However, “India failed to inform the international community ... that the [health] study was funded in part by the asbestos industry,” charged Dutta. “Still worse, the study was kept under wraps, and is not accessible to public health specialists or labor groups.”

Gopal Krishna, a consultant on clean industry and also of BANI, condemned his country's rejection of PIC. “There is a political consensus in India to promote asbestos at any human cost,” he wrote in India Together in 2006.

Underlying that consensus are the 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.”

They include Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the chief minister of Bengal’s Communist government, who gave Utkal Asbestos Ltd. an Environment Excellence Award which it used in its advertising. Rebranding itself in 2006, the company dropped the word asbestos from its name. Now called UAL Industries Ltd., it is a major producer of fiber cement corrugated sheets and accessories under the brand Konark, and its website boasts that it “has left no stone unturned to achieve its motive of becoming the leading player in Eastern India.”

Visaka Industries’ chairman, G. Vivekanand, is the son of G. Venkataswamy, a member of Parliament, deputy leader of the Indian Congress Parliamentary Party, and a former Union Textile Minister. Vivekanand put out a fact sheet claiming that chrysotile is safe, and blamed Western media coverage of past events for generating unfounded fear.

Indian media reported that Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi encouraged Visaka industries to set up in her constituency Rae Bareli, and saw the plants as a way to boost employment and electability. The plans were fast tracked, breaking records for passage through the Departments of Environment and Forests. Visaka annually produces 600,000 tons of asbestos sheets, mostly used in roofing. One of its main marketing targets is India's rural population, 80 to 85 percent of which now live under thatched roofs, the company website notes.

In October 2009 Visaka Industries announced it is setting up a 100,000-ton capacity asbestos cement sheet plant at Sambalpur in Orissa at an estimated cost of $8.6 million “to meet the rural demand.” It is also ramping up the capacity of its Pune plant from 65,000 to 100,000 tons per annum, according Vivekanand.

In 2007 an Indian news channel showed workers hand-mixing asbestos into rice, while a voice-over intoned that chrysotile is safe enough to use as a husking agent. The rice was later sold as premium basmati.

Dying to Work

“I have seen young men suffering from the cancers caused by this material [asbestos],” says a guard at an asbestos cement sheet factory in Guangdong, China. “The bosses don’t care, and the government intimidates us [who are] working for safety. They say we are sabotaging China’s development. Sometimes I get very frightened and cannot sleep thinking I will be arrested. I may get the disease, as the air is full of dust. I hope that someone would help me if that happened. I can’t quit. Where would I go? I have no skills and jobs are hard to find.”

This worker's story is echoed throughout the Asia. In China alone, the official incidence of industrial lung diseases is around 100,000 per year. Experts familiar with Beijing's official statistics would multiply that figure by three or four to get close to the real toll.

Harvard University and the World Health Organization 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 of workplace illness throughout the world than are killed by global terrorist attacks, wars, drugs, or by the various pandemics (such as avian and swine flu) that attract huge institutional funding, according to Sanjiv Pandita, director of the Hong Kong based Asia Monitor Resource Center.

If you consider that 100,000 per year die of asbestos alone, it is not hard to extrapolate that figure to match Pandita’s assertion. Meanwhile, the systematic erosion of trade union power and labor standards by globalization has exacerbated the problem and undermined opposition/occupational justice.

Working for Safety

Workers and activists around Asia are not convinced by industry reassurances and are getting organized. At a September 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. Delegates charged that globalization has led to "state sponsored pimping"-- governments selling workers’ bodies and lives in return for investment.

The importance of the issue, and frustration from waiting for governments and employers to act are evidenced by steadily increasing attendance at ANROAV's annual meetings over its ten years' existence. “While lots of money is made by CSR [corporate social responsibility] consultants, we see little change in the death rates” said Hong Chee, a Hong Kong delegate.

Mandy Hawes, an American occupational health and safety advocate, reminded delegates that occupational standards may be legal but not safe. “We should bring environmental and occupational standards into line,” she said.

Opposition to asbestos is growing and is fueled around the world by a flood of compensation demands. Claimants, dragging desperately on oxygen, have pleaded before TV cameras for compensation and an end to asbestos use.

A regional coordinating group was set up earlier in 2009 at a meeting in Bangkok. A-Ban is seeking an Asia-wide asbestos ban. It has its work cut out. As the anti-asbestos activists know all too well, bans on international trade in asbestos have been 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 percent of global production, says Ye-Yong Choi of BANKO, the Korean movement that recently achieved a ban on asbestos.

He recommends 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.”

Anatomy of Asbestos

Despite industry and government denials, evidence of chrysotile's harm was clear in lung X-rays showing unmistakable white patches indicating the inevitably deadly progression of mesothelioma--a cancer directly linked to asbestos exposure. Etched into the medical data on the corner of each film was the word “chrysotile,” the supposedly safe form of the mineral.

The X-rays belonged to Dr. Domyung Paek, chest disease specialist and epidemiologist from the University of Seoul, Korea. His collection of medical transparencies showed that work-and environment-related chest disease leaves a distinctive radiological calling card that is easy to differentiate from tuberculosis and other lung diseases.

All the victims in Paek's X-rays were Asian workers, belying the myth propagated by some Asian labor officials that asbestosis and mesothelioma are "Western" diseases. Paek predicted that Asian nations would see tsunamis of asbestos-related diseases, marked by the gasping deaths of the pale, drawn - and often young - victims. His view is supported by Japanese researcher Ken Takahashi, who on reviewing historical and global trends, found that marked rises in incidence and prevalence 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 Alimpta and Platinol can lengthen a patient’s life by up to six months, but are well beyond the capacity of Asian 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 agonizing and requires the other 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 legal scheduled opiates.

Around Asia

But there is no shortfall in asbestos. In addition to the raw mineral imported from Russia and other countries, Europeans keep sending old ships to India and Bangladesh to be broken up. Bangladesh needs the steel, but along with it comes tons of old friable asbestos including the more dangerous brown variety.

China, in addition to its role as major importer, also exports asbestos. The sourcing website Alibaba.com lists at least ten Chinese companies, some with ISO 9001 certification, that sell asbestos products. Tsyuyoshi Kawakami of the U.N.'s International Labor Organization’s Bangkok office found Chinese asbestos in Lao cement factories on the outskirts of Vientiane. The Lao government, currently enjoying a resources boom, is thinking of exploiting its lodes of asbestos, according to a Lao NGO worker.

There are some bright spots. Thailand, until recently one of the region's major users (brake linings, gaskets, and roofing tiles), has reduced both importation and production of asbestos-containing goods.

Other Asian countries are beginning to rethink asbestos use. Joint research done by BANKO and Indonesian’s own fledgling anti-asbestos organization IBAN in 2009, documented asbestos on the windowsills of schools and homes surrounding two asbestos cement works in Cibinong (West Java).

Cambodia, too, is starting to recognize that its burgeoning construction industry may bring the hazardous materials along for the ride. Dr. Leng Tong, director of Occupational Health and Safety in Cambodia’s Ministry for Labor and Vocational Training told the ANROAV delegates that “Cambodia strongly commits … to eliminate asbestos from the workplaces in the region.”

“If he is serious,” Choi of BANKO commented, “it would not only gain Cambodia a huge amount of prestige in the world, but also provide a wonderful example to neighboring countries.”