VAISHALI, India — The executives mingled over tea and sugar cookies, and the chatter was upbeat. Their industry, they said at a conference in the Indian capital, saves lives and brings roofs, walls and pipes to some of the world’s poorest people.
Their product? Asbestos. Outlawed in much of the developed world, it is still going strong in the developing one. In India alone, the world’s biggest asbestos importer, it’s a $2 billion industry providing 300,000 jobs.
The International Labor Organization, World Health Organization, medical researchers and more than 50 countries say the mineral should be banned; asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs and cause disease. The ILO estimates 100,000 people die from workplace exposure every year.
But the industry executives at the asbestos conference, held in a luxury New Delhi hotel, said the risks are overblown.
Instead, they described their business as a form of social welfare for hundreds of thousands of impoverished Indians still living in flimsy, mud-and-thatch huts.
“We’re here not only to run our businesses, but to also serve the nation,” said Abhaya Shankar, a director of India’s Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association.
Yet there are some poor Indians trying to keep asbestos out of their communities.
Not in my back yard
In the farming village of Vaishali, in the eastern state of Bihar, residents became outraged by the construction of an asbestos factory in their back yard.
They had learned about the dangers of asbestos from a school boy’s science textbooks, and worried asbestos fibers would blow into their tiny thatch homes. Their children, they said, could contract lung diseases most Indian doctors would never test for, let alone treat.
They petitioned for the factory to be halted. But in December 2012, its permit was renewed, inciting thousands to rally on a main road for 11 hours. Amid the chaos, a few dozen villagers demolished the partially built factory.
“It was a moment of desperation,” a teacher said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the company. “There was no other way for us to express our outrage.” The company later filed lawsuits, still pending, accusing several villagers of vandalism and theft.
Durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was long a favorite insulation material in the West.
Medical experts say inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to deadly diseases 20 to 40 years later including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, or the scarring of the lungs.
Dozens of countries, including Japan, Argentina and all European Union nations, have banned it entirely. Others, like the U.S., have severely curtailed its use.
The asbestos lobby says the mineral has been unfairly maligned by Western nations that used it irresponsibly. It also says one of the six forms of asbestos is safe: chrysotile, or white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95 percent of all asbestos used since 1900.
Medical experts reject this.
“All types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,” the Societies of Epidemiology said in a 2012 position statement.
Russia now provides most asbestos on the world market. Meanwhile, rich nations are suffering health and economic consequences from past use.
American businesses have paid out at least $1.3 billion in the largest collection of personal injury lawsuits in U.S. legal history. Billions have been spent stripping asbestos from buildings in the West.
Umesh Kumar, a roadside vendor in Bihar’s capital, has long known there are health hazards to the 10-by-3 foot asbestos cement sheets he sells for 600 rupees ($10) each. But he doesn’t guide customers to the 800 rupee tin or fiberglass alternatives. “This is a country of poor people, and for less money they can have a roof over their heads,” he said.
The two-day asbestos conference in December was billed as scientific, though organizers admitted they had no new research.
One could say they’ve gone back in time to defend asbestos.
The Indian lobby’s website refers to 1998 WHO guidelines for controlled use of chrysotile, but skips updated WHO advice from 2007 suggesting all asbestos be banned. Its executive director, John Nicodemus, dismissed the WHO update as “scaremongering.”
Many of the speakers are regulars at asbestos conferences in the developing world.
Toxicologist David Bernstein said that while chrysotile could cause disease if inhaled in large quantities or for prolonged periods, so could any tiny particle. Bernstein consulted for the Quebec-based Chrysotile Institute, which lost its Canadian government funding in 2012.
He presented an animated video showing a type of white blood cell called a macrophage breaking down a chrysotile fiber and carrying it out of the lungs. “We have defense mechanisms. Our lungs are remarkable,” Bernstein said.
Other studies indicate, however, that chrysotile collects in the membrane lining the lungs, where the rare malignancy mesothelioma develops and chews through the chest wall, leading to excruciating death.
Research such as Bernstein’s frustrates retired U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Richard Lemen, who first advocated a chrysotile ban in 1976.
“His presentation is pretty slick, and when he puts it on animation mode, people think: Wow, he must know what he’s talking about,” Lemen said by telephone from Atlanta.
Divided and confused
In Vaishali, the permit for the asbestos plant was canceled by Bihar’s chief minister last year. But Indian officials remain divided and confused about the risks.
India placed a moratorium on new asbestos mining in 1986, but never banned use of the mineral despite two Supreme Court orders.
The position of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government is unclear.
Meanwhile, Vaishali’s resistance has sparked other protests, including in the nearby district of Bhojpur.
“Many people are not aware of the effects, especially the illiterate,” said Madan Prasad Gupta, a village leader in Bhojpur, sipping tea at the roadside tea shop he built decades ago when he had no idea what asbestos was. Over his head: a broken, crumbling asbestos cement roof.