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In this Nov. 22, 2013 photo, an old farmer holds a stick in his hand as he sits on farmland near the broken down walls of what was to be an asbestos manufacturing plant in Vaishali village, in the north Indian state of Bihar. Villagers, protesting the plant's construction, fearing asbestos fibers could blow across their wheat, rice and potato fields and into their tiny mud-and-thatch homes, pulled down the factory. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)
Asbestos pushed in Asia as product for the poor
First Published Aug 12 2014 09:19 am • Last Updated Aug 12 2014 01:20 pm

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.

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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.

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In the farming village of Vaishali, in the eastern state of Bihar, residents became outraged by the construction of an asbestos factory in their backyard.

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.


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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.

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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 20-40 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.

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