A hospital in the Udaipur district in northwest India reported that three patients, all of them workers in local mines, died of complications from asbestos exposure within the last six months. The startling statistic is raising concerns about the country’s asbestos industry from labor unions, environmental lobbyists and government health officials. The Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI), the primary government agency in charge of overseeing worker safety issues, arranged for a discussion group last week among these varied participants to address potential solutions to this growing health crisis.
One alarming observation came to light at the meeting from Dr. Qamar Rehman, a retired scientist at the country’s leading research facility dedicated to studying the effects of exposure to toxic substances. Dr. Rehman presented evidence from several case studies his team carried out investigating the links between asbestos exposure and the development of asbestosis, mesothelioma and other lung disorders in women.
While similar studies conducted over the years and in countries all over the globe have established the positive link between asbestos exposure and the incidence of lung disease, most of those patients were diagnosed with the disease several years, often decades, after the initial exposure period. In Dr. Rehman’s study, he noted that women working in asbestos mines in the Rajasthan district came down with asbestosis within five years after they were exposed to the toxic mineral.
Rana Sengupta, a leader of one of the area’s labor unions, is calling on asbestos mine workers to get tested for lung disease. Sengupta also said that the recent deaths of the workers in Udaipur are just “samples” of what could develop into an imminent health crisis for the region and predicted that “there will be many more” cases in the months to come.
Currently, however, the efforts to urge workers to partake in the necessary medical screenings have not met with overwhelming success, with many mine workers passing up the opportunity to get tested for fear of what they might find or possibly losing their jobs as a result. An OEHNI official stated that many workers in the country’s asbestos mines are forced to deal with working conditions he describes as “horrendous” as well as either delayed or incorrect diagnoses of respiratory ailments in order to deflect blame from the mining companies.
The official also cited data from a Mumbai hospital that described more than one hundred cases of patients treated for mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer since 1985. The data showed that the hospital dealt with up to six new cases of asbestos-related lung disease every year, with many of those cases stemming from secondary exposure to the hazardous material. These cases primarily stemmed from spouses or other family members inhaling asbestos fibers while washing and mending the worker’s clothes, where the fibers would attach themselves to the fabric.
As the discussions continued with toxicology experts from India, Japan and the U.S. on how to deal with the country’s health issues, economic and political pressures continue to shape India’s policies toward asbestos mining. In many of the poorer sections of the country, asbestos mines are among the leading employers. Local officials in Rajasthan are lobbying the New Delhi government to lift the ban on asbestos mining in order to revive the region’s struggling economy. With massive unemployment in these regions, there appears to be no end in sight for the asbestos industry in India.
Sources: The Star, Times of India