Three of the landlord’s maintenance team, all Keralite bandits who had taken up building maintenance as light relief after their previous careers as Indian Ocean pirates, were gathered in my kitchen hacking at a lump of asbestos which they wanted to use to back a fuse they were repairing. They were completely flummoxed at the fuss I made, were rather put out to be thrown out of the kitchen, asbestos chunk and all, and even more confounded at my point blank refusal to let them use the material in the house at any price. To them, this stuff was the most brilliant construction material of all time: easy to cut, strong, light, fire-proof and infinitely flexible. I was being utterly unreasonable, obviously. And the very thought that it could cause disease had them rolling their eyes and giggling at me: I'd obviously been pegged as the local English eccentric.
We’d arrived at a major cultural disconnect. In the UK, even the word asbestos is enough to bring in teams of environmental health officers dressed in biochemical hazard suits, carrying canaries in cages and shouting 'Stand clear!' into high powered bullhorns. And yet asbestos is still not only manufactured but used widely as a construction material in the Indian subcontinent. In fact, it is also still widely promoted – even if we have substituted the word ‘asbestos’ for ‘fibre cement roofing sheet’.
You can start to see why the landlord’s guys were so puzzled at my horrified reaction. Amazingly, it is still a subject of debate in India – with an active lobby calling for a ban in the manufacture and use of the material – and seeming to have something of an uphill struggle, too. Meanwhile, in the States, asbestos litigations have been estimated to have reached an overall value of $250 billion, involving in excess of 750,000 litigants. That’s a lot of sick people.
I suppose the question I was left with was how the hell they were importing the stuff into the Emirates. You know, with the world class strict building regulations and standards we enjoy and all that. How much of this very nasty material is being used in the houses we’re living in? Take a close look at any grey corrugated roofing you see around you – but don’t take too deep a sniff! As of 2006, asbestos was one of the top five imports to the UAE from the Czech Republic, one of the many places around the world where the material is still made – for export to developing markets, obviously, not for domestic use. It's far too dangerous for domestic use, after all!
It is, when you think of it, just a little bit evil, isn’t it? European countries selling materials that are known to be highly toxic (and that are banned in the EU) to ignorant, eager consumers in developing world markets. Including this one.