Canada's booming asbestos market The cancer-causing mineral is prized in India, even as it is reviled here. Jennifer Wells investigates the demand for a product we shun – but still mine Jennifer Wells AHMEDABAD, INDIA Perhaps it is the drought that has teased the leaves from the neem trees. They skitter across the roadway, dry and brittle and tossed by the early winter wind. For the women of the Chamanpura slum, lowered on their haunches conducting the modest rupee transactions of the morning market, the season has brought eggplant and cauliflower, potatoes and onions. Steel bowls crowd the dusty ochre ground, the bowls heaving with chicken feet and chicken wings and, captivatingly, chicken eyeballs. An old woman purchases the bony spine of a dried bumla fish, which is wrapped in newspaper and – snap – secured with elastic. Goats, dogs and sheep roam past an impossibly gleaming white horse. Donkeys amble with their right forelegs tied to their right rear legs. Traffic control, comes the explanation. Why do I tell you this? Because the Chamanpura slum rolls back endlessly from the roadway market, making no claim on privacy. No toilets. No clean water. Acres of hutments are roofed with pieces of tin, if the residents are relatively lucky, or tarp, if they're not, weighed down with stones or arms of wood, the occasional tire, broken this and that. Such despair – it cannot be seen as anything but – spreads throughout the land, a million ground zeros for what a powerful group of Indian companies spy as a commercial bonanza, replacing the tin and the tarp, the elbows of wood, with a great big sea of corrugated cement that demands as its essential ingredient a near-indestructible mineral born of nature's strange alchemy: asbestos. Not just any asbestos. Canadian asbestos – the scourge of a worldwide network that seeks to ban it from all shores; a surprising export for Canadians who assumed, wrongly, that its sale ceased decades ago; a gangbuster growth opportunity for an Indian corporate elite largely invisible beyond the subcontinent. Perhaps most surprising, asbestos holds future commercial promise for Canadian companies that insistently see resurgent asbestos mining here at home. NEW DELHI The bats have begun to stir. During the day, they hang upended, dripping in their inky shrouds from the limbs of the trees on Janpath. Janpath, a broad, blowsy boulevard defying modernization, is still dotted with the white Lutyens bungalows that have for decades housed judges and politicians and bureaucrats of a high order. The bats are an arresting cinematic touch. Gaddam Vivekanand is standing at the gate of his government residence, ready to greet a visitor. He is a small, compact man with a voice that can turn high and reed-thin. Last year, Vivekanand, a member of the ruling Congress Party, was elected to the Lok Sabha, one of India's two houses of Parliament, where he assumed the seat vacated by his father. Vivekanand is foremost an industrialist who in 1981 launched Visaka Industries Ltd. with the single purpose of manufacturing asbestos cement sheets and roofs. Today Visaka has seven factories and it will be commissioning an eighth, in the massively impoverished state of Orissa, in the New Year. Vivekanand's political position does not circumscribe his role at Visaka. He and his family control 25 per cent of the company's shares. His wife, Saroja, has moved into the role of managing director, at least in title. Vivekanand himself is vice-chairman. The ceiling fans stir the light winter air in a sparse living room with few adornments. Portraits of Indira Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi are propped against one wall. The plaster is cracked in places, signalling that the Janpath bungalow is less a home and more a stopping place when political life calls. Vivekanand was just 24 when he launched Visaka. "The majority of the rural areas here have thatched roofing," he says, revisiting the genesis of the enterprise. "The best alternative for them, both in price and usage wise, was asbestos cement. We thought it would be a good market." Business has, in fact, been very, very good. Demand has risen year on year between 10 and 15 per cent. Two decades ago, India produced roughly half a million tonnes of asbestos cement roofing annually. Today that number is on the march to four million tonnes. Visaka is India's third-largest producer. Canada has historically been a robust supplier and India remains the No. 1 importer of Canadian asbestos. "We buy from all the sources – from Canada, from Brazil, from Zimbabwe, from Russia," Vivekanand says. Superficially, the product's properties are winning. The asbestos roof eliminates the noisy hell of a monsoon rain on a tin housetop. The roof is easily secured and will not gust away like a tarp in a high wind. It is cheaper by a long shot than polypropylene substitutes: 350 rupees for a metre of polypropylene sheeting; 130 rupees for a metre of the asbestos cement version. It is fireproof – an essential selling feature that trumps the thatched roof. It won't corrode. And, crow its proponents, it is virtually indestructible. "In fact," Visaka says in its investor relations information, "it is a magic mineral and no other substitute can match its properties." An executive at Everest Industries Ltd., a Visaka competitor, says he knows of five new fibre cement production lines planned throughout the industry; each line, he says, will have a capacity of about 7,000 tonnes a month. (The executive imparts many interesting details of his homeland. Did you know that people willingly have the tip of their tongue bitten by a cobra to bring on some sort of hallucination?) Vivekanand's white singlet is visible through his white shirt. His eyeglasses are shiny gold. He tents his fingers together as the conversation inexorably moves to the mineral's pariah status. In 2007, the National Institute of Occupational Health in Ahmedabad announced the launch of a research study into the health effects of asbestos exposure in the workplace. But hopes for the study collapsed when it was revealed that it was to be funded by the industry itself. "As a token we gave them some money," says Vivekanand, brushing away the line of inquiry. "So we gave them some 10 lakhs rupees." (One lakh is 100,000 rupees; the cost of the study was originally estimated to be approximately 60 lakhs, or about $135,000.) "The NGOs made a big tamasha, saying it's an industry-funded study," he continues. The tamasha, or spectacle, zeroed in on not just the report's funding, but that it would be vetted by the industry in draft form. It has yet to be released. In conversation, Vivekanand initially says he does not believe the mineral causes cancer. "It is such an environmentally friendly product actually," he says. Later he shifts his position to focus on his own manufacturing facilities. "My product is not creating carcinogenicity in any way. If I'm not following some rules, maybe my product can. I'm a responsible person and following it." Finally, and impatiently, he reaches for the argument of relative risk. "Which product in the world is safe? Even a toothpick can be a dangerous thing. Eating chicken. I've seen a lot of people who are eating chicken – the chicken bone goes into their throat, gets stuck and people have died of asphyxia." AHMEDABAD Muthuswami Munion pulls down a webbed cot from the wall of his home and offers an invitation to sit. He has lived here in the Nathabhai chawl – a beehive of impoverished cement dwellings – for 30 years, dating to the start of his employment with a company now known as Gujarat Composite Ltd. Over that time his pay has risen from 2,000 rupees a month to 7,225 today. To understand India is to know that after three hard decades of steady work a man's pay is $165 a month. His electricity bill is $14 a month. His economic advancement extends no further than three bleak rooms. A television is perched in one corner; a few spare items of clothing and photos of Bollywood stars hang on one wall. Gujarat Composite manufactures asbestos cement products – pipes and sheeting. The asbestos cement roofing has been used on Munion's own home and throughout the shantytown. Torn pieces serve as makeshift fences. In days gone by, Munion says he would mix raw materials, including asbestos, by hand. He has moved to different jobs in the plant as his breathing worsened. At break time, factory workers mingle outside under a bright sun, wandering past row upon row of asbestos cement roofing. They say bags of asbestos are still opened by hand when machines break or are being serviced, meaning that asbestos fibres can be released into the air. A camel nibbles the leaves from a tree. An empty 40-kilogram bag of Russian cement is given as a souvenir. Russian asbestos is favoured at the facility. While the bag has a printed caution that breathing asbestos may seriously endanger one's health, there is no symbol indicating that this is a hazardous substance. The state of Gujarat, and its capital, Ahmedabad, has become the health crucible in the fight against the asbestos industry, a war most visibly fought by the Ban Asbestos Network of India. The cast of characters includes the workers who laboured at a nearby power plant; others who have retired out of a now-closed asbestos textile manufacturer. The "mistry," or masons, who mixed asbestos cement to patch boilers. The wives who would wash white-dusted clothing after a day's shift. The corrosive after-effects are documented in medical reports: lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma. Reliable statistics are impossible to come by. There are no long-term independent epidemiological studies. The one-time director of the National Institute of Occupational Health, Dr. S.K. Dave, (pronounced Dah-vey) today sits on the Ministry of Environment and Forest committee whose job it is to approve new asbestos cement facilities. "Expansion of the cement asbestos industry is going on a very wide scale in India," he says. "Every month there are one or two proposals for either expansion or new development." Twenty years ago, Dr. Dave was sounding the alarm over levels of asbestosis in the state. Today he has adopted the argument of relative risk. He advises a trip to the Chamanpura slum. "Let me tell you, madam, let me tell you, madam, let me tell you, madam: It's the worst situation. Fifty per cent of the people sleeping on the footpath. ... The ladies don't have toilet facilities. Two hundred women passing stool at four in the morning. You have to put your nose like this" – he pinches his nose – "I'm not abusing my country. My country is my country." DELHI The meeting had been swiftly set and not without an air of mystery. Manohar Matta, a gentleman I did not know, suggested lunch at the Imperial Hotel, the gated, restored tribute to colonial India. At the appointed hour, Matta appeared quite suddenly, moving ever so silently across the hotel's marble floors, through the cloying jasmine-scented air toward the "1911" veranda lounge where tycoons and tourists can gaze past the azure-blue columned portico upon verdant lawns that offer no hint of the dusty, klaxon-filled air of the Delhi beyond. Matta is the exclusive agent in India for LAB Chrysotile Inc., which operates one of Canada's two remaining asbestos operations, in Thetford Mines, Que. It is Matta's job to ensure that LAB's asbestos is being safely used. He frowns when I pull out a notebook. He does not want to be quoted. He will say that LAB exports to one or two textile manufacturers, in addition to the asbestos cement producers, but he later corrects himself and says that no, LAB no longer includes any asbestos textile makers on its client list. He would later get in touch regarding some travel stories I was writing on my travels through India. "I am very happy that you wrote so well and sensitively from your heart. It read like poetic prose," he said via email. "I am only wondering won't the ink choke in the pen when it gets to write about your other mission." HYDERABAD The slum settlement outside Hyderabad, 1,500 kilometres due south of Delhi, nestles in the lee of the Deccan Plateau. The word "shelter" oversells the scene. Merchants from Asia and Europe made Hyderabad a trading mecca centuries ago, when the city was called Golconda, an exotica that still evokes great wealth not least for its fabled diamond mines and that magical blue formation, the Hope Diamond. Gold. Manganese. Asbestos. The region's mineral wealth has waxed and waned. Today Hyderabad is a go-go city with a shiny new airport and flyovers to ease traffic congestion. Twenty minutes from the city centre, Hyderabad Industries Ltd., India's largest maker of asbestos cement products, is working at top speed. The grounds outside the factory offer a bird's-eye view of the size of the asbestos cement business. Pallet after pallet of pale grey waves of corrugated cement roofing stretch as far as the eye can see. The manufacture of fibre cement products absorbs as much as 98 per cent of the mineral imported to the country. Hyderabad Industries is owned by the Birla Group, which dates its lineage to 1857. Along with Tata (chemicals, housing, telephony), Birla is credited with creating industrialized India. The conglomerate's business lines extend to National Engineering Industries Ltd. (ball bearings) and Hindustan Motors Ltd. (makers of the Ambassador car, as iconic a part of India as the Taj Mahal). The company, a $3 billion (U.S.) conglomerate, has manufactured asbestos cement sheeting since 1946. Inside the factory, bags of asbestos extend from wall to wall to wall in a storage area. Asbestos from Russia. Asbestos from Brazil. There is no asbestos from Zimbabwe, which has suffered from mine flooding, heightening demand for product from elsewhere and further teasing the appetite of Canadian producers. Some of the bags display a chunky white "JM" logo offset against a deep blue background. The "JM" signifies Quebec's Jeffrey mine, located near, appropriately enough, the town of Asbestos. Above the logo sits a white maple leaf. Beneath the logo is printed a second maple leaf, alongside the words Product of Canada. In English and in French – nothing is printed in Hindi – the package instructs workers to operate ventilation and dust control equipment when the fibre is being handled, to "repair damaged bags immediately" and to clean dust from clothing with approved vacuum equipment. The plastic-wrapped fibre bags are drawn up a conveyor belt and then into an enclosed automatic bag opener. The bags, once sliced open, release the fibre into a shredder. The asbestos has the appearance of a torn load of laundry being churned through a wringer washer, before it is processed into a slurry with water and fly ash and cement. The asbestos comprises approximately 8 per cent of the slurry. Without it, the product would be friable and unmarketable. The wet cement rolls off a drum in sheets, which dry on corrugated moulds for 12 hours before being stacked and cured for 21 days. This is large-scale production and the country's best face of asbestos product manufacture. The essential "wet" process is meant to contain the fibre's desire to become airborne. The air is continuously tested. The bags of fibre are never to be opened manually. The Canadian fibre is much admired for its consistency and its quality. There's a great deal of variation in the Russian fibre, says Jagadesh Sunku, Hyderabad Industries' general manager of research and development. "Every time we have to correct the system." Visaka Industries also has a production facility on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Showing its age after 25 years, the factory has gone on a cleanup tear. Much of the equipment has been freshly painted an alarming deep yellow, including the duct-like tape that covers the machine labelled "Bag Shredder" in cartoon-like big black letters, as if anyone would mistake it for anything else. The shredder, installed in 1987, is not fully automatic. Instead, a worker reaches in through protected arm covers and manually rips the plastic casing off the fibre. Vangala Pattabhi, who worked for Hyderabad Industries for 40 years starting in 1963, sits on Visaka's board of directors. He additionally promotes a non-asbestos fibreboard company he has created called 3S. "It's like 3M," he says of the decision to give the company a snappy moniker. "You know, a little more familiar." The clove-scented aroma of his favourite betel nut fixation wafts through the air as he speaks. Pattabhi has seen recklessness in the use of asbestos, which he files away as a circumstance of the past. He says it was his own presentation in 1980, "From Ship to Shop," that spurred a change in the shipping of bulk asbestos into shrink-wrapped units, preventing what he says was the dropping of bags and the consistent spillage of asbestos on a ship's floor. And today? What are the effects of mishandled fibre? "The first thing it can do is it can produce asbestosis," he says matter of factly. Industry critics, including the Ban Asbestos Network of India, have taken their fight not just to the factory floor, but the aftermarket. As millions of metres of cement roofing are raised over shops and above rickety homes, purchasers are somehow meant to know that the material is never, ever to be cut with power tools, causing the release of potentially asbestos-tainted dust. "We have given instructions that you should not use abrasive discs to cut the sheet," says Pattabhi. "If they want to cut, they have to dip the damn thing in water. It's as simple as that." These "instructions" may get as far as the construction industry at the time of bill of sale, but it's unlikely they get any further. In 1979, when Pattabhi was still witnessing asbestos spillage on the ship floor, and before the launch of fully automated production, the government of Canada adopted the so-called "controlled use" of asbestos directive. Last July, Lisa Raitt, minister of Natural Resources Canada and thus the overseer for asbestos exports, explained controlled use in a letter to Colin Soskolne, professor of epidemiology at the University of Alberta. "This means that, through the enforcement of appropriate regulations, the Government is able to rigorously control exposure to chrysotile," Raitt wrote, referring to the type of asbestos mined in Canada. Yet NRC has no means or jurisdiction to control the use of exported fibre. Instead, as the ministry itself has repeatedly made clear, workplace health and safety is a sovereign responsibility – that is, the responsibility of the importing country – and Canada's role is more along the lines of Elmer the Safety Elephant. The federal government provides funding support to the Chrysotile Institute, an industry body, which in turn provides information on how to manage the risks associated with chrysotile. "Since its inception," says NRC in an email in response to a request for clarification, "it has conducted research, organized information and dust control seminars for unions and workers, has held training programs on medical monitoring and has assisted knowledge and technology transfer in more than 60 countries." The ministry says it is unaware of any instances in which the federal government has stepped in to prevent the export of chrysotile asbestos. AHMEDABAD Narendera Pandya is surprised by my visit. Though retired, he remains a director of Eagle Asbestos Pvt. Ltd. and is at his home office with its cooling porch and appealing swing. He hurries to comb his hair before a picture can be taken. Pandya has been in the "asbestos line" for 40 years, not in asbestos cement, but asbestos textiles. "From raw asbestos we can make 36 products," he says, from rope to cloth used for pipeline insulation. He drops a plastic bag on his desk that contains a creamy-coloured fibrous stick. The fibres are long, three to four inches. "Beautiful," he says. "I have never seen better fibre." This asbestos comes from Cuddapah, in Andra Pradash, an ore reserve that is no longer mined. Eagle has had to look elsewhere for its best fibre. Canadian? Pandya makes the A-okay sign with his thumb and forefinger. Eagle uses Russian fibre, "but it's very short in length. With Canadian fibre, we can make thread and out of thread we can make rope." Last June, CBC-TV filmed the interior of an Eagle plant in which asbestos was exposed to the open air, everything the officially condoned "wet" process is meant to avoid. Pandya isn't particularly fussed by the revelations that the operation does not comply with safety norms. That facility, run by his son, still uses the dry method, he says, and still purchases asbestos from LAB Chrysotile. The conduit? "I know Mr. Matta very well." "No, that's wrong. Totally wrong," says LAB vice-president Jean-Marc Leblond in a recent telephone interview. LAB, says Leblond, has placed between five and 10 companies on its so-called black list. Eagle is one of them. The manufacturers have been denied fibre for failing to comply with safe practices, exposing the frailty of the "controlled use" directive. "We tried to rely on our own people to tell us if it was used or going to areas or users that were actually approved or respecting the norms," Leblond responds. "They had approval by the Indian government to manufacture asbestos-related products. Obviously, we should not have relied on the Indian government's approval." As to where the Indian government's approval comes from, Leblond is not sure. "The department of industry, I imagine," he says. "I don't really know. Maybe labour, environment. ... Look, you've been to India. It can be pretty confused some times." This is undoubtedly true. Exhibit A could be the director of industrial safety for the state of Gujarat. The scene is something out of a theatrical review as bureaucrats stream constantly in and out of his office, which is chiefly marked by the bucket catching a consistent drip from an air conditioner and the shrill ring of his phone, which sounds like a smoke alarm going off. When asked about guidelines for factory compliance he retrieves a hardbound copy of the Factories Act, featuring "new amended" Gujarat factories rules. The book bears a copyright of 1963 and begins to fall to pieces as he leafs through it. The director is a jolly, round-faced fellow who oversees 52 field workers who in turn have the daunting task of inspecting 34,000 factories. "How can I manage safety in Gujarat state?" he asks impatiently. "You please tell me." CHENNAI The monsoon rains have left small eddies by the roadside, which will quickly bake off under the high heat of this southern coastal city. The colours here are so sharp the city is a kaleidoscope. Saris in tangerine, hot pink, fuchsia and turquoise. Madhumita Dutta is dressed in a white kameez with a bronze dupatta gracefully placed about her shoulders. As one of the founders of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, Dutta works tirelessly for worker rights, compensation, medical relief. She is sitting in a vegetarian restaurant on Elliot's Beach Rd. A bright green banana leaf is placed before her. She cleanses the leaf with water in preparation for her dosa lunch. "We believe it's pretty straightforward," Dutta says of the BANI initiative. "We believe asbestos can't be used safely." Probing the differences between different types of asbestos and their relative dangers is of no interest to her. "That's not something we want to engage in," she says. "This is a disease that has been caused deliberately for profit." BANI was launched in 2002, part of a global network seeded in Britain. BANI has raised robust opposition here, keyed to the global affirmation that asbestos in all its forms is a deadly carcinogen. Canada does not disagree. A report prepared for Health Canada by a panel of experts who hold widely opposing views concluded there is a "strong relationship" between exposure to chrysotile asbestos and lung cancer. Thousands of miles away winter has arrived in Quebec. The asbestos issue, on the political front burner in the summer, has cooled again, dampened by the belief that the mines are all but depleted, that the industry has run its course, that the country can close its eyes to the issue as asbestos mining dies a natural death. This is not what the Canadian asbestos industry has in mind.