Seven years ago, Fareed Ahmed died of tongue cancer at the age of 55. He was working as an engineer at a building and construction factory. Doctors said his death was due to asbestos poisoning.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral used extensively in construction, may cause cancer when inhaled. It has been banned in 52 countries of the world, but Pakistan remains an exception.
Since 2007 when Fareed died, his brother Haroon Ahmed has been campaigning to ban this product in Pakistan. He filed a petition in the Sindh High Court and the case now awaits a decision by the Supreme Court.
Findings by a commission, which worked under the Supreme Court directives, revealed that due to asbestos exposure workers at the factory where Fareed worked were suffering from severe lung and chest infections, according to a report published earlier in The News.
As part of an ongoing campaign to highlight the dangers of this cancerous mineral, the first event kicked off through a conference held on Saturday, where renowned doctors, educationists, politicians and lawyers of the country urged the need to legislate to ban asbestos.
There are six types of fibres being used in Pakistan. One such fibre is chrysotile, a type of asbestos, which is 400 times thinner than the human hair and is not visible to the naked eye, said Syed Haroon Ahmed, the president of Syed Fareed Ahmed Memorial Mesothelioma General Hospital Foundation, which was established to raise awareness about asbestos and form a community against the use of asbestos in Pakistan and worldwide.
International organisations, including International Programme of Chemical Safety and International Labour Organisation, have declared all forms of asbestos cancerous. “But despite this nothing has been done to ban it by the Pakistani government,” he said. Hundreds of workers exposed to asbestos in Gadap Town are suffering from lung diseases. So are the workers at the Gadani ship-breaking yard.
According to the World Health Organisation, 150,000 people die across the world every year due to the asbestos-related diseases. Dr Huma Tabassum, an occupational health and safety expert, shared that asbestos was used extensively in construction of roofs, water pipes and sanitation but it could cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening.
Muhammed Yaseen Azad, a former president of Supreme Court Bar Council, said: “We need to value human lives. I do not care if a factory employing hundreds closes down if it is responsible for taking even one life.”
He promised that he would look into the pending cases related to asbestos poisoning in the Supreme Court and also requested the chief justice to take up the issue. “For any society to develop, health and education should be the priorities. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the two are the lowest ranking issues in the budget.”
Karachi Commissioner Shoaib Siddiqui said: “The city government is trying to promote all campaigns which promote a good living. While working with Karachi Water and Sewerage Board as an employee in 2005, we also detected traces of asbestos in drinking water as the cancerous material was used in construction of pipelines,” he claimed.
Justice Khwaja Naveed of the Sindh High Court was of the view that there should be laws to ban hazardous substances. Meanwhile, an alternative to the material should also be found and builders should be informed about it.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Khalid Maqbool said he came to know about the hazards of asbestos in his second year of medicine. “We as students tried to spread awareness about it on our campus. It has been 30 years and this is the first seminar I am attending about asbestos.”
Ishtiaq Virik, a representative of Building and Woodwork International, an international labour rights organisation, said that 1.5 million construction workers around the world were ill because of the use of asbestos.