Asbestos was banned in most of the countries more than five decades ago as the studies had then linked lung-related diseases causing lakhs of deaths to this material. The four main diseases associated with breathing in asbestos are non-malignant pleural disease; asbestosis, a non-malignant scarring of the lung tissue; asbestos-related lung cancer; and mesothelioma, a can mainly affecting the lining of the lungs. The World Health Organization estimates that 107,000 people die annually from asbestos-related diseases. However, recent proposal of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in USA under the reformed Toxic Substances Control Act to make the toxic substance legally available again in a list of building materials may help this deadly material a new lease of life in the construction industry.
Though the material has been banned in more than 52 countries since 1970s, the US had been one of the only few countries to place restrictions on the substance without outlawing it completely. It is still used in variety of products such as brake pads, automobile clutches, certain roofing materials and corrugated sheeting. The majority of raw chrysotile asbestos imported to the U.S. is used by chlorine manufacturers.
If the new proposal finds acceptance, then asbestos may soon find usage in adhesives, sealants, roof and non-roof coatings, high-grade electrical paper, pipeline wrap; reinforced plastics, roofing felt, separators in fuel cells and batteries, vinyl-asbestos floor tiles and any other building materials other than cement.
However, the new proposal of EPA has drawn sharp criticism from anti-asbestos advocates who believe the rule could open the door to new or revitalized asbestos uses. However, EPA believes that the proposal if implemented would strengthen asbestos regulation, adding more oversight to uses that are not currently illegal. But there are not many takers for this view. American Institute of Architects, for example, completely opposes EPA’s new proposal. “The EPA should use their existing regulatory authority to establish a blanket ban on the use of asbestos,” AIA said in a statement.
Interestingly, US President Trump himself has long been an advocate for asbestos, according to a Washington Post report: “In 2012, he tweeted that the World Trade Center would not have burned down had asbestos, which is known for fire-resistant properties, not been removed from the towers.”
In India, mining of asbestos was banned long back in view of the deleterious effect of asbestos mining on the health of the workers. In 1986 Department of Mines had issued a letter advising the state governments to take necessary measures to stop further expansion in mining of asbestos and to issue instructions not to grant any lease for mining of asbestos. And in 1993, the Central Government had directed all State Governments not to renew the existing mining leases for asbestos. In short, through these two directions the government has ensured that no fresh mining leases are granted for asbestos nor are the renewals of existing asbestos leases allowed. However, mining of asbestos from the leases granted before 9.7.1986 was allowed to continue. There are only three mines in India (all of them in Andhra Pradesh) producing asbestos but their production is negligible.
However, it doesn’t mean that use of asbestos is banned in the country. White (Chrysotile) Asbestos is used for various purposes, viz., asbestos cement pipes, roofing of households, asbestos based manufacturing products like brake linings etc. India’s asbestos requirement is mainly met through imports from Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil and China.
Import of asbestos in India
(Quantity in thousand tonne)
(Source: Indian Bureau of Mines, DGCI&S)
*Only up to September for 2017-18
There are many manufacturers in India producing asbestos based products, especially roofing sheets, at present. However, uncertainty regarding the regulatory framework for the product has forced many manufacturers to look out for alternative revenue sources. For example, Visaka Industries, the second largest cement asbestos product manufacturer in India with installed capacity of 802,000 tpa and market share of 18% is slowly reducing its dependence on asbestos based products for its revenue growth by introducing new products. The company recently introduced an integrated solar-roofing system ATUM. The company also has boards and panels division making reasonable contribution to topline. HIL, the largest asbestos based cement roofing sheets manufacturer in the country with an installed capacity of 1.15 MTPA, has recently introduced “Charminar Fortune” which is basically a green roofing solution and is non-asbestos based product. Currently, this CK Birla company derives nearly 53% of its revenue from roofing sheets which in the coming years will go down as the company has introduced several new products including PVC pipes for plumbing.
As many government departments are phasing out use of asbestos based products in their construction, manufacturers have started feeling the heat. For example, Indian Railways, one of the largest consumers of asbestos based roofing sheets, has decided to phase out the use of asbestos based sheets. Most railway stations in India, there are nearly 8000,have asbestos in their premises. The product is used as roofing and partition material for stations, workshops and worker’s quarters.
Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) in consultation with the Central Pollution Control Board and the Directorate General of Mines Safety has prepared draft guidelines laying down the safeguards for mining of asbestos, which were approved by the Ministry of Mines. IBM has been instructed to circulate these guidelines viz. ‘Guidelines for Carrying out Chrysotile Asbestos Mining’; and ‘Guidelines for Carrying out Amphibole Asbestos Mining’ to all concerned.
However, use of asbestos is not banned in India and the advocates of discard-asbestos fear the material can make a come-back any time if a country like USA allows its use. Remember, there are more than 100 asbestos manufacturers in India employing 300,000 workers. Today, India consumes an estimated 350,000 tons of asbestos annually, trailing behind China as the world’s most prodigious consumer of the naturally occurring carcinogen. Further, asbestos is $1 billion industry which is a big enough size to influence and direct any government action. However, all eyes are now on USA and its action will determine future growth of the industry in India too.