Asbestos war heats up
As deadline for phasing its use approaches:
The Government's decision to phase out the use of asbestos by 2018
and eventually ban it, has triggered efforts by the industry to prevent
it from happening and the health authorities insisting that it should go
Almost 98%, if not all,
chrysotile asbestos or white asbestos used by local
manufacturers to produce Asbestos Cement Corrugated Sheets (AC
Sheet) or Chrysotile Roofing are imported mainly from the
The decision has pitted the Chamber of Construction Industry, Sri
Lanka (which will hold two seminars on the subject for professionals and
doctors this week) and leading private manufacturers of asbestos
roofing, against the Poisons Information Unit of the National Hospital.
The latter has raised concern about the serious adverse health impact
from long-term use of the material in houses.
In recent discussions to raise public awareness on the dangers of
asbestos use, Poisons Information Unit head Dr Waruna Gunathilake drove
home one single message: "Asbestos is a highly carcinogenic material."
That it has been banned or its use restricted in over 60 countries
including Japan, UK, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Turkey,
Chile, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Germany , to name a few, is proof of
He said the product has been used for decades in roofing and ceilings
and recently as an insulating and fire proofing material, and rated as
the 'most popularly used roofing and ceiling material in the world,' Dr
Gunathilake said. Its popularity was based on the cost factor,
resistance to fire and its ready availability among other things.
The six plus points it has over any other roofing sheet now
available, he noted were: Strength, light weight, low cost, resistance
to heat, fire and chemicals and the fact that it does not conduct
electricity. The asbestos minerals are silicate compounds. They belong
to a group of material naturally occurring in the environment as bundles
of fibre. As long as it is well-maintained and not disturbed
disintegrating of the sheet does not cause any immediate health hazard.
But if it is scraped or disturbed by trying to replace it with something
else, it becomes deadly as it releases tiny asbestos fibres into the
air. This can cause several serious and alarming diseases. They include;
cancer of the lung, larynx, ovaries, mesolheliome, Asbestosis, pleural
plaques, pleural thickening and effusion. It can take a long time - say
between 15- 60 years to develop these symptoms . But once diagnosed is
it too late to do anything to cure them, Dr Gunathilake emphasised.
The type of asbestos sheets currently in use are white roofing
sheets. Blue asbestos was banned from Sri Lanka in 1977, he said.
Does the Construction Industry agree with his views?
Coordinator, Fibre Cement Products Manufactures Association ,( a
member of the Chamber of Construction Industry of Sri Lanka,) Anton
Edema replies in the negative with a firm 'No' Commenting on the charges
against asbestos by Dr Gunathilake who incidentally has sourced most of
his facts from the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, he counter
argues his case with more research studies which denies such negative
Asked where the sheets used by local manufacturers come from to
produce asbestos cement corrugated sheets or Chrysotile roofing he says,
almost 98%, if not all, chrysotile asbestos or white asbestos used by
the local manufacturers to produce Asbestos Cement Corrugated Sheets (AC
Sheet) or Chrysotile Roofing are imported mainly from Russian
Sri Lanka has four manufacturing plants and imports around 50,000 MT
of Chrysotile a year. They provide shelter in the form of roofing sheets
and accessories and roofing sheets meet over 35% of the SL market
requirements," he noted.
He said, "The chrysotile industry was implementing a responsible-use
program based on the controlled-use approach to regulate chrysotile.
Representatives of the world's major chrysotile exporting mines signed
an agreement where they committed to supply chrysotile fibre only to
those companies that demonstrate compliance with national health and
"The controlled-use of chrysotile allows the continued use of
chrysotile in high-density products, provided permissible exposure
limits of 1.0 f/cc or below are respected (recommendations of WHO Group
of Experts). At this exposure limit no health risks are detected. The
carcinogenic potency of amphibole (Blue) asbestos has been established
both epidemiologically and toxicologically, leading to it being no
longer used in commerce. Today, the remaining practical concern is
whether chrysotile can be used safely".
"If this regulation carries a reasonable assurance that workers are
adequately protected. Based upon current science, the short answer to
this question is that in absence of amphiboles, the use of chrysotile at
current Québec permissible exposure limits in the workplace carries no
epidemiologically and clinically detectable increase in risk", he said.
According to him a number of recent scientific studies published in
peer-reviewed journals have come to this conclusion. "From these
published studies, it can be seen that safety in the use of chrysotile
is not a simple wish, but a reality. The ILO has issued a 'Code of
Practices' titled 'Safety in the Use of Asbestos', which addresses all
pertinent issues regarding the modern and responsible use of chrysotile.
The Sri Lankan chrysotile industry supports the safe-use principle -
which is a risk assessment / risk management approach - controlled -use
to ensure public and occupational health and safety, he said.
"In the local industry three factors determine the mineral fibre
toxicology- dose, durability and dimension. The local industry not only
adopt preventive and control measures, but is built on the principles of
safe use and embraces the ethics of product stewardship.
The Chrysotile Cement industry,'s goal is to ensure its future
prosperity as being responsible, not only in manufacturing operations,
but throughout the product life cycle," he said.
Has there been any evidence to conclusively establish a link between
the exposure to chrysotile among users of asbestos chrysotile ( AC) with
the kind of health impacts mentioned by the National Poisons Unit head?.
"None", he says with conviction. ". There is no evidence to
conclusively establish a significant correlation between health
deterioration, particularly cancer, and exposure to chrysotile among the
AC roofing sheet users. At present, there is no medical evidence -
neither at the National Cancer Registry nor any scientific study -
documenting illness or death, or a trend of illness or death, as a
result of exposure/use of chrysotile roofing sheets in Sri Lanka for the
last six decades
In response to the question on the possibility of some fibres being
emitted to the air, he says, "Fibre Cement products use 6 to 8% of fibre
to provide strength and these fibres are firmly locked-in or
encapsulated within the cement matrix during manufacture, so that fibres
cannot be emitted into the atmosphere under normal conditions and thus
poses no health risk to the general public or environment."
He says prior to banning the material, if there was any fear that
asbestos could undermine the health of hundreds of its users, the
Government should first investigate possible evidence of any health
dangers as a result of the use of chrysotile in roofing material in the
country and then clarify whether a ban on chrysotile or a safe-use
policy is necessary. Even developed nations such as the USA and Canada
have not banned most of the asbestos containing materials (ACMs). The
USA still allows 28 ACMs. It is understood that in our neighboring
country, India, the chrysotile asbestos consumption has gone up four
times (from around 100,000 tons in 2000-01 to roughly 400,000 tons) in
2011-12.", he said.
He also charged that the Health Ministry has based its decision on
mostly published research from abroad. " Any research relating to the
local industry must be done in this country.
The target population should be Sri Lankans. If they come up with
evidence the disease is undermining the health of thousands of Lankans
and have scientific proof and facts to back up this claim, we agree to
ban it by all means, otherwise, there is no need to ban asbestos .I
understand in 2011 the WHO spent a lot on research and a Cabinet paper
was submitted on this. But nothing happened. My question is what
happened to the money and the research study?"
Should asbestos be banned or phased outw?
The Poisons Information Unit says " Phase it out gradually till cheap
and safe alternative roofing is developed by local construction
companies who must be fully encouraged to face this challenge by the
state. While doping that , we have to persuade the public to want that
change, and opt for eco friendlier, safer materials when constructing
their homes in future. "
The Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association stands by its
previous claim that since it is still widely used, we have to look at
the subject from a broader perspective and see what scientific proof
there is to ban it. Meanwhile, as a controlled-use product it is safe to
use with no known health implications reported as yet, in Sri Lanka
For more information contact: The Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers
Association on 0771379244. or the Poisons Department Unit on 2686143