India’s Asbestos Roofs

The photo shows a communal washing area in the Mumbai slums, India – complete with asbestos roofs.

Corrugated asbestos-cement roofing is a very popular material in the slums and informal settlements of Indian cities – it’s rigid, not too heavy, waterproof, easy to cut and fix together, fireproof and most importantly: cheap.

But as is well known in the West, asbestos is a dangerous carcinogen, with asbestos fibres causing damage to the lung (asbestosis) when inhaled, and potentially, after a latent period of typically thirty years, the always fatal form of lung cancer mesothelioma.

As a consequence the importation, supply and use of asbestos has been banned in most Western countries for many years: since 1985 in the UK for ‘blue’ and ‘brown’ asbestos, and 1999 for ‘white’ asbestos (crysotile) the fibre that is mixed with cement to produce corrugated sheeting.

Asbestos sheeting maintained in good condition releases few fibres into the air, but once damaged, cracked, frayed or fragmented, a large number of dangerous fibres can be released, presenting a significant health hazard. On the roofs of Indian slums, where it is sawn and fixed by hand, it’s difficult to avoid releasing fibres.

Asbestos materials are still legal in India, and the risks poorly understood by those using them. It seems likely India is storing up a health timebomb for the future, amongst its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

And you might be surprised to learn where India imports the majority of this asbestos from . . . Canada !

Photo by pandrcutts, via Flickr

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