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Asbestos pushed in Asia as product for the poor

Beyond this wall in Bihar state in India is a Ramco Industries factory that manufactures asbestos products. It’s an industry that provides about 300,000 jobs in the country.

Saurabh Das/Associated Press

Beyond this wall in Bihar state in India is a Ramco Industries factory that manufactures asbestos products. It’s an industry that provides about 300,000 jobs in the country.

VAISHALI, India — The executives mingled over tea and cookies, and the chatter was upbeat. Their industry, they said at a conference in the Indian capital, saves lives and brings roofs, walls, and pipes to some of the world’s poorest people.

Their product? Asbestos. Outlawed in much of the developed world, it’s going strong in the developing one. In India alone, the world’s biggest asbestos importer, it’s a $2 billion industry providing 300,000 jobs.

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The International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, medical researchers, and more than 50 countries say the mineral should be banned; asbestos fibers lodge in the lungs and cause disease. The International Labor Organization estimates 100,000 people die from workplace exposure every year.

But the industry executives at the asbestos conference, held in New Delhi, said the risks are overblown. They described their business as a form of social welfare for impoverished Indians.

‘‘We’re here not only to run our businesses, but to also serve the nation,’’ said Abhaya Shankar, a director of India’s Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association.

Some poor Indians are trying to keep asbestos out of their communities, though. In the farming village of Vaishali, in the state of Bihar, residents were outraged by the construction of an asbestos factory. They had learned about the dangers of asbestos from a schoolboy’s textbooks, and worried asbestos fibers would blow into their tiny thatch homes. Their children, they said, could contract lung diseases most Indian doctors would never test for.

They petitioned for the factory to be halted. But in December 2012, its permit was renewed, inciting thousands to rally on a main road for 11 hours. Amid the chaos, a few dozen villagers demolished the partially built factory.

‘‘It was a moment of desperation,’’ a teacher said. ‘‘There was no other way for us to express our outrage.’’ The company later filed lawsuits, still pending, accusing several villagers of vandalism and theft.

Durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was long a favorite insulation material. But inhaling any form of asbestos can lead to deadly diseases 20 to 40 years later, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, or scarring of the lungs.

Dozens of countries, including Japan, Argentina, and all European Union nations, have banned asbestos. The United States severely curtailed its use.

The asbestos lobby says the mineral has been maligned by nations that used it irresponsibly. It says one of the six forms of asbestos is safe: chrysotile, or white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95 percent of asbestos used since 1900.

Medical experts reject this.

‘‘All types of asbestos fiber are causally implicated in the development of various diseases and premature death,’’ the Societies of Epidemiology said in a 2012 position statement.

Russia now provides most of the asbestos on the market.

American businesses have paid out at least $1.3 billion in the largest collection of personal injury lawsuits in US legal history. Billions have been spent stripping asbestos from buildings in the West.

The Indian lobby’s website refers to 1998 WHO guidelines for controlled use of chrysotile, but skips updated WHO advice from 2007 suggesting all asbestos be banned. Its executive director, John Nicodemus, dismissed the WHO update as ‘‘scaremongering.’’

Many of the speakers are regulars at asbestos conferences in the developing world.

Toxicologist David Bernstein said that while chrysotile could cause disease if inhaled in large quantities or for prolonged periods, so could any tiny particle.

‘‘We have defense mechanisms. Our lungs are remarkable,’’ Bernstein said.

Other studies indicate that chrysotile collects on the membrane lining the lungs, where the rare malignancy mesothelioma develops and chews through the chest wall.

A retired US assistant surgeon general, Dr. Richard Lemen, advocated a chrysotile ban in 1976. Bernstein’s presentation, he said, “is pretty slick, and when he puts it on animation mode, people think: Wow, he must know what he’s talking about.’’

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