when the sun of the asbestos-related deaths starts setting in the West it will start rising in India

T.K. Joshi, India’s leading anti-asbestos advocate, is on a tour of Canada. A surgeon by training, he is director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi. He spoke to The Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt

The Canadian government promotes what it calls a “controlled-use” policy regarding asbestos, or that the mineral can be used with little cancer risk provided proper safety precautions are taken. Is that a realistic proposition in rapidly industrializing countries like India, which buy virtually all of Canada’s asbestos?

If the developed countries, Europe, the other advanced countries, could not find the will to use asbestos safely, how can you expect it to be used safely in a country like India with such a large number of illiterate people and where such a laxity in enforcement of occupational health standards exist? How can you ensure that controlled use is possible? Controlled use is a myth.

Why is it important that the Canadian government end its promotion of asbestos? Would it have international ramifications?

If Canada reversed its stance, this would weaken the position of other major exporting countries like Zimbabwe or Russia or Brazil. Canada, through its reputation, is providing oxygen to the whole movement to use asbestos, to the defence of asbestos use globally.

What policy should the Harper government adopt on the asbestos trade?

I think it should announce a phase-out of the industry and offer rehabilitation and alternate employment to the few hundred workers left in this business. This would internationally not only improve Canada’s reputation, but in the long run, in a couple of generations from now, people would look back and admire this as a very sensible step.

If Canada stopped selling asbestos, wouldn’t countries with even fewer scruples like Russia and Kazakhstan just take its place ?

We can take them on once Canada gets out of the business because Canada, on environmental issues, has been in the forefront. Those industries using asbestos in India have always been quoting Canada, that asbestos is safe to use. If Canada stops selling it, then it becomes a big win situation for us.

What’s your assessment of public support in Canada to ban asbestos sales to India and other developing countries?

People and the scientific community, the trade unions, workers, and civil society groups, they are all absolutely on our side. I think it’s a tiny fringe of decision makers who are the obstacle and the stumbling block to this very good development, if it happens.

What is the death toll in India from asbestos, where it is used mainly as an additive in cement?

India, like the other rapidly industrializing countries, is not collecting enough data on the morbidity and mortality coming from workplace diseases. The number of workers exposed could easily run into the millions because the construction industry now employs 21 million people. India is going to spend $500- to $600-billion over the next five years on infrastructure projects alone. So you could imagine the number of workers who will have an interface with asbestos exposure. This is frightening.

There is no kind of arrangement for the safe disposal of asbestos when it is pulled out of old buildings. It’s just in heaps lying on the roadside or mixed up with the general garbage.

Widespread asbestos use in India started in the 1980s, just as it was winding down in the West. Given the latency period for asbestos cancers, this will become, after 2020, 2025, a kind of major epidemic, just as the one due to asbestos in industrialized countries starts to wind down. I’ve always said that when the sun of the asbestos-related deaths starts setting in the West it will start rising in India.

Does Canada carry some of the responsibility of deaths in India due to asbestos?

Sure. It’s like one can kill directly or one can actually abet and assist in the crime. But in the legal language both have the same kind of responsibility for committing the crime.