updated 9/6/2006 3:09:16 PM ET 2006-09-06T19:09:16

Almost one in every six workers dismantling old boats at India’s Alang shipyard suffers from asbestos poisoning, experts said in a report sure to fuel criticism of an industry long dogged by charges of unsafe working conditions.

The experts, appointed by India’s Supreme Court to look into conditions at Alang, also found a fatal accident rate six times that of the country’s notoriously unsafe mining industry.

The president of the Alang Ship Breaking Association, Raj Bansal, said he hadn’t seen the report, but dismissed its findings, reported in Wednesday’s edition of the Indian Express newspaper.

“All I can say is that it is not possible at all. We provide safety equipment and take all necessary measures for the safety of workers,” he told The Associated Press.

International and local environmental and labor groups have for years urged Indian authorities to sharply curtail — or simply stop — the work being done at the yard, where old ships are run aground in the shallows just offshore and then dismantled largely by hand.

The dangers faced by the 5,000 workers at the yard on the shores of the Gulf of Cambay in the western state of Gujarat were spotlighted in February when protests by environmental groups forced the French and Indian governments to call off plans for the decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau to be broken up at Alang.

The environmentalists said the ship was filled with up to 1,000 tons of asbestos, along with other toxic waste.

The expert committee, appointed by the Supreme Court during the controversy over the Clemenceau, found 16 percent of the workers at Alang suffer from an early stage of asbestosis — an irreversible lung condition that could lead to lung cancer, according to the Indian Express, which obtained a copy of the unpublished report.

“In ships brought for breaking, free asbestos is usually present as thermal insulation of boilers and floor tiles. When this asbestos is removed, its particles become airborne and attack the lungs,” the report said, according to the newspaper.

It normally takes more than 10 years for full-blown asbestosis to develop, but its onset is hastened with higher levels of exposure, the report said.

The Express said the report was given to the Supreme Court last week, but neither court officials nor members of the expert committee were immediately available for comment Wednesday.

However, a member of India’s Ban Asbestos Network of India, Gopal Krishna, said he had seen the report and could confirm the account given in the Express.

The Gujarat Maritime Board, which oversees Alang, has told Greenpeace that 372 workers have died there since the ship-breaking industry first was developed in 1982.

But Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights say, based on worker interviews, that the number could be as high as 50 to 60 deaths a year.

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