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Sunday, 22 November 2015





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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 ahead.

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 Russian Federation.

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 this fact.

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 findings.

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 Federation.

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.

Controlled use

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 safety regulations."

"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.

Scientific studies

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.

No evidence

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


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