Understanding silica, the ‘dust of death’

The white dust is free crystalline silica, the “powder of death” — lethal byproduct of quartz crushing that causes the incurable and irreversible respiratory disease, silicosis.

Written by Aditi Raja | Godhra | Published:May 19, 2016 1:30 am
silicosis death, silicosis death case, 238 death silicosis, NHRC, gujarat news, Supreme court, Gujarat news, indian express There is so much quartz that the industry can survive for the next 300 years without even needing to dig too deep, claim people connected with the industry.

For impoverished tribals in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the town of Godhra provides an escape from debts. The quartz crushing industry here, along with the one in Balasinor in neighbouring Mahisagar district, attracts many migrant labourers. But on the ground, the winding tracks left by pickup trucks on the white dust around factory clusters trace the hideous side of this pulsating industrial success story.

The white dust is free crystalline silica, the “powder of death” — lethal byproduct of quartz crushing that causes the incurable and irreversible respiratory disease, silicosis.

The town supports 20 stone crushing units that procure freely available quartz from open lands spread across the districts of Panchmahals, Mahisagar and Dahod. There is so much quartz that the industry can survive for the next 300 years without even needing to dig too deep, claim people connected with the industry.

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“All it needs is a truck driver who fetches stones from landowners, who are mostly farmers. The owner is paid Rs 2,000 for a truck full of quartz, and the labourers make Rs 500 a day unloading it at factories,” said a quarry owner.

The silica obtained after crushing the quartz is despatched mainly to glass companies and silicate industries that provide raw material for manufacturing steel, cast iron, aluminium alloys, ceramics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paper, paint and insecticides among other things.

A lot of the quartz is allegedly procured illegally. The industry has been lobbying with the government to auction open lands in the three districts as mines to factories, so the procurement can be regularised, a source said.

The stone-crushing factories began booming in the town in the late 1960s. Now, the factories produce about 45,000 tonnes of crushed quartz per month, generating a monthly turnover of over Rs 7 crore, said Suman M, owner of Hindustan Mineral Products and president of the industry’s association in Godhra. The units are now mechanised to reduce manual labour and keep a check on health hazards, Suman said.

“Earlier, workers would manually drag the heavy bags of stone, put them into the crusher, fill the powder into bags and load them on to trucks. Today, we have mechanised the entire process. The quartz goes into the crusher via a conveyor and is automatically filled into trucks from the silo. No packing and sealing is involved,” he said.

That may not be true for all factories. At a lot of units, the most hazardous step of the process — the collection of the crushed powder and sealing of gunny bags — continues to be done manually, a decade after studies first linked the deaths of over 200 workers to the factories. In factories where automation levels are low, the silica dust in the large concrete rooms makes it difficult to see objects even at the distance of an stretched hand.

Most factory units in the town are heavily guarded and strictly monitored by CCTV cameras. Operations are mostly carried out by night. “We have been forced to keep visitors off limits because people portray a very negative picture of the industry. The truth is that deaths occur mostly in the factories where this crushed powder is taken for further processing,” said an owner.

Jagdish Patel of People’s Training and Research Centre, Vadodara, which filed the petitions for the deceased tribals of Gujarat, says not a single factory has dust control devices to measure actual levels of respirable silica dust. For labourers who live with their families, including children, on the premises, thin handkerchiefs mostly make for breathing masks. Each worker makes between Rs 200 and Rs 500 a day.

Patel points out that silicosis is still not being diagnosed independently and is often termed as tuberculosis. “This is because silicosis renders the respiratory immune system vulnerable to infection, which in turn becomes a terminal disease. Silicosis is a compensable disease under the Employees State Insurance (ESI) Act and the Workmen’s Compensation Act,” he said. As per NHRC recommendations, half-yearly occupational health and dust surveys must be made mandatory in suspected hazardous industries, and all workers must be examined before entering employment.

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