Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

Once considered a miracle material it kills more than 107,000 people each year-WHO
By Malaka Rodrigo

Asbestos was once tagged as a miracle material for its strength. But the move last month under the Rotterdam Convention, to list asbestos under hazardous materials, which need the prior consent of other countries in international trade, again highlighted safety drawbacks of asbestos.

Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Charitha Herath, who represented Sri Lanka at this symposium, said the move to list white asbestos as a material that required Prior Informed Consent (PIC) did not materialize, adding however that the CEA has initiated an evaluation of asbestos in Sri Lanka. Mr. Herath said the committee comprised representatives from asbestos manufacturers, the Ministry of Health, Customs Department, Board of Investment, National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Technology Institute, World Health Organisation (WHO) and other experts. The CEA, together with the University of Moratuwa, is already in the final stages of preparing an Asbestos Situation Report in Sri Lanka, he said.

Haphazard disposal of asbestos

There are many forms of asbestos, with blue asbestos already banned in Sri Lanka since 1997. But white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos) made by mixing asbestos fibre with cement, continues to be used mainly as roofing sheets. However, a WHO study reveals that all forms pose a health hazard. Asbestos is a fibre deposited in mineral format that needs to be extracted through a mining operation. This fibrous material is chemically known as hydrated magnesium silicate. Roofing sheets account for more than 80% of local asbestos use, but asbestos is also being used for vehicle friction parts such as brake pads.

While this tiny fibre-cement bond does not cause any harm, if it is released into the air and is inhaled over a long period, it can cause lung cancers and other asbestos related diseases. According to a WHO analysis, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, resulting mainly from occupational exposure. The asbestos-cement bond is said to be safe. But when the roofing sheets are being assembled and disposed, the fibre release is much higher. The bond also tends to loosen when the sheets age, while fungus attack too could cause release of the fibre. Applying a thick layer of paint can reduce this risk, points out some sources.

“The asbestos already on the roofs don’t add much fibre into the air, while trying to remove it will add more fibre into the air. It is the occupational exposure that is more harmful,” said Dr. Harishchandra Yakandawela, National Consultant, Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management WHO- (SAICM), set up under the Rotterdam Convention.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) revealed that several categories of workers working closely with asbestos related products are at higher risk. It lists asbestos factory workers, carpenters who work on roofing projects, labourers of asbestos stores facilities and workers at building demolishing sites as high risk categories. Motor mechanics are another group exposed to risk as brake pads also contain asbestos fibre. The NIOSH advises workers to use protective equipment, especially when cutting asbestos related materials, which releases lots of dust containing asbestos fibre.

Under its programme with the CEA, the Moratuwa University, also attempts to analyse Sri Lanka’s Cancer Registry, to evaluate a link with occupational related cancer. Around 18,000 are annually diagnosed with cancer in Sri Lanka, but collection of data relating to occupations of the cancer patients has been a difficult task. Dr. Yakandawala also reminded that it can takeabout 20-30 years for the real cancer to emerge, which makes it harder to track its root causes.

Sri Lanka has three main asbestos roofing sheet manufacturing companies and are said to be using precautions to safeguard their employees. However, it is important that the authorities constantly monitor the situation, as these employees can be in the line of direct exposure. Concentration of asbestos fibres in the air, duration of the exposure, frequency of exposure and the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled are some of the factors to which the seriousness of the asbestos related health risks is subject to. Carpenters working on roofs are the other category highly exposed to asbestos related health hazards. The NIOSH says it has given instructions and is prepared to conduct health checks on employees of asbestos manufacturing plants, but says it is too difficult to reach the informal working sector such as individual carpenters working on their own. This informal working group is very hard to monitor.

Many of them are even ignorant of such a danger, and just cut the asbestos, even without covering their noses, exposing themselves to high danger levels, where experts advise using 100% body cover when exposed to asbestos.

However, like e-waste, asbestos debris should also be disposed of with extreme care, points out Head of Hazardous Waste Unit CEA, Sarojinie Jayasekara. The CEA sets guidelines for the waste generated by asbestos manufacturing plants, but many of the household asbestos is being disposed of irresponsibly. According to the guidelines, these have to be buried much deeper in the earth. The 2004 tsunami was a good example, where a large number of houses with asbestos sheets were destroyed and disposed of at normal dumping grounds in Sri Lanka’s coastal belts.

“We cannot ban asbestos in Sri Lanka immediately, until we find a suitable alternative” said Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The CEA chairman adds that awareness is the key to minimise asbestos related health hazards.

The Rotterdam Convention

The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals. The convention handles the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides that have severe effects for health or environmental reasons. The Convention came into operation in 2004 and Sri Lanka ratified the convention in 2006.

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