The consumption of asbestos in India is going up by 10 per cent every year. Barry Castleman, international campaigner and consultant to the World Health Organisation, calls for better awareness and controls to regulate its use in a chat with T. Nandakumar.
Kerala can set an example for the rest of the country by declaring a total ban on asbestos, Barry Castleman, international campaigner and consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO), says.
Dr. Castleman, who works with public interest groups and governments around the world on asbestos control and ban efforts, says India is the second highest consumer of asbestos in the world after China. “Asbestos has been recognised as a major pollutant affecting human health. As many as 50 countries have banned the production and use of the material. In India however, the consumption of asbestos is going up by 10 per cent every year, underlining the need for a national-level plan and better awareness and controls to regulate its use.”
Dr. Castleman earlier met Labour Minister P.K. Gurudasan and talked to him about the need to ban asbestos in the State. “I received a positive response from the Minister,” he says.
Citing reports by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), he says the support of political leaders and a section of the media has enabled the asbestos industry in India to keep itself afloat. “Illegal mining and hazardous usage of asbestos continue with impunity, regardless of the health hazards. Kerala, however, is an exception because of the low demand for the material.”
Dr. Castleman says Canada’s export of asbestos to India had become a national scandal in that country, triggering public outrage.
Explaining the health hazards of asbestos, he says construction workers are the most vulnerable.
Trained as a chemical and environmental engineer, Dr. Castleman took his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. In the 1970s, he started investigating the health impact of asbestos. “It has been proved that even one day of exposure to asbestos dust can lead to lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancers of the pleura and peritoneum. While workers in the asbestos industry are more vulnerable, the hazards can extend to the families of the workers and people living in the neighbourhood of asbestos industries as well.”
He was dismayed to find that despite the hazards, the construction sector in the U.S. was using asbestos as a fire retardant material on steel girders of tall buildings and breweries were using asbestos filters.
Armed with the information, Dr. Castleman testified at congressional hearings.
Since 1975, he has worked as an environmental consultant for government agencies, NGOs and international organisations.
He has investigated the export of hazardous industries and products to developing nations and the manipulation of international scientific organisations by business interests.