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- Monday, July 15, 2013 - From Print Edition

The first documented death from asbestos was in 1906. The first diagnosis of asbestosis was in 1924. Asbestos was widely used as an insulation material in shipbuilding and other industries. The risks associated with all forms of it were increasingly well-documented through the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s; and by the 1980s regulation limiting or prohibiting its use was appearing around the world. Today its use is banned in 52 countries, but as revealed in a report in this newspaper the two million citizens of Gadap Town in Karachi are exposed to Chrysotile asbestos from a factory dumping site. This would have remained hidden from view were it not for legal action taken by a man called Syed Haroon, whose brother was an employee of Dadex Eternit and who he believed died of cancer caused by asbestos. A study commissioned on the direction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has found that people living in Gadap Town and nearby areas such as Naya Nazimabad are prone to cancer-like diseases linked to asbestos. These are not just poor shanty-dwellers, but the rich and powerful as well – air-borne asbestos particles being unable to differentiate between poverty and wealth.

As might be expected, a range of vested interests did all they could to frustrate the work of the SC commission, and prevent any study of the environmental hazards associated with the processes and products produced by the Dadex Eternit factory. At one point the commission had to cease its work because of the threats it was receiving. Despite all this, the report is clear in its conclusion. Health and safety practices within the factory were inadequate, dumping of residues improperly monitored and, most worryingly, the new residential site at Naya Nazimabad is built on land that was zoned as industrial but has been illegally converted to residential plots. There is unequivocal evidence of asbestos contamination of that land. No effort was made to clear it of Chrysotile asbestos before houses were built and everybody involved in the development of the land disclaims any knowledge of problems past, present or future. Greed, gross incompetence, the failure to implement safe working practices where a dangerous substance is involved, and a wilful disregard for the well-being of anybody who unwittingly buys a plot of contaminated land are all in evidence. There is ample evidence that people are already dying of asbestos-related illness, and that there is historical record that says that the problem has been known of for many years. Asbestos is a killer and has been known to be such since the beginning of the 20th century. It is going to kill or make ill an unknown number in Gadap and Naya Nazimabad in the coming years, and is a public health problem of almost unimaginable proportions – and wholly preventable. Every effort now needs to be made to at least mitigate the effects of asbestos, with mass-screening as a baseline intervention. And who will be held responsible or accountable?

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