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Glare on asbestos risk U-turn

New Delhi, May 15: India’s environment ministry has ignored domestic laws and reneged on its own pledge by telling a global convention there is not enough evidence to show that asbestos is hazardous to health, a non-government group said today.

The group, called Toxics Watch Alliance, has complained to the Centre that the ministry delegation’s position at the UN’s Rotterdam Convention in Geneva earlier this month was contrary to Indian laws and the ministry’s own earlier decision.

Toxics Watch Alliance said the ministry delegation had told the convention that studies by Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) had shown no hazards from white chrysotile asbestos, widely used in the construction industry to make asbestos-cement material.

The convention was debating the need to include chrysotile asbestos into a special list of hazardous substances that would make it obligatory for exporting countries to alert importing countries about shipments.

In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Toxics Watch Alliance has said it appears (asbestos) industry representatives have “overwhelmed government representatives who were made to take a position against human health and the environment”.

The group has cited several domestic laws that classify asbestos as a hazardous substance. The ministry’s own vision statement says: “Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent possible and use of asbestos may be phased out.”

Toxics Watch Alliance also cited a concept paper by the Union labour ministry circulated at an India-European Union conference on occupational health that said the Indian government was “considering a ban on the use of chrysotile asbestos in India to protect the workers and general population against primary and secondary exposure to chrysotile form of asbestos”.

It said the ministry stand this year was a “volte-face” over its support for the listing of asbestos as a hazardous substance indicated by the environment ministry’s own delegation at the previous Rotterdam Convention meeting in 2011.

“In 2011, India received a standing ovation for its support, we are saddened by what happened this year,” said Gopal Krishna, a representative of Toxics Watch Alliance in New Delhi.

The Union environment secretary and the head of the environment ministry delegation to the convention this year were not available for comment. Another member of the delegation declined to provide any response.

Toxics Watch Alliance has said documents it obtained through the Right to Information Act have shown that the chrysotile asbestos industry had provided Rs 16 lakh to the NIOH study that cost about Rs 60 lakh.

The non-government group said the documents also reveal that a review committee of the NIOH study had said that the report of the findings would be “finalised after due discussions with the asbestos industry”.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer had said in 2009 that “there is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of all forms of asbestos”.