Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia

Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004

The destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated communities in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Indonesia and the Maldives. On February 22, 2005, Ian Cohen, an Australian politician who was on the beach in Hikkaduwa, in the south-west of Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, told the New South Wales Parliament that in the aftermath of the tsunami there was:

"A great deal of asbestos spread around that coastal area. As the houses and buildings were destroyed, asbestos was broken up. It was being cleared by hand and bulldozer without appropriate safety measures."

Despite Cohen's warnings of the hazards caused by thousands of tonnes of asbestos waste, no attempts were made to control the widespread contamination. Cohen explained:

"There is an asbestos industry in Sri Lanka that claims it is just blue asbestos that is the problem, not white asbestos. I have it on good authority from people who have been involved in unions here in Australia that white asbestos is as much the issue as is blue asbestos. I have written a letter to Alexander Downer advising him that the asbestos industry in Sri Lanka has been conducting and aggressive campaign to convince particularly Southeast Asian countries that asbestos products are safe."

Observers from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) were seriously concerned about the threat posed by hazardous waste, including clinical waste, waste oil, batteries as well as asbestos, found in post-impacted tsunami countries. In a series of UNEP Post-Disaster Waste Management Workshops which were held in the Maldives (May 2005), Indonesia (June 2005) and in Pakistan (March 2006), the asbestos hazard was one of many waste issues flagged up.76 Although funding was available, no such workshop took place in Sri Lanka, a country where asbestos-containing materials are regarded as everyday building materials. The Government's views are expressed in a three-page document entitled: Usage of Chrysotile Fiber-Bonded Cement Roofing Sheets for the Housing Reconstruction Programme Launched to Settle the People Displaced by the Tsunami which was issued by the Sri Lankan Reconstruction and Development Agency in June 2006. After a scant 10 weeks of research which relied on outdated and faulty sources, the conclusions cited in this paper included the following:

"III One the asbestos fibers are bonded with cement as in the case of asbestos roofing sheets, it will cause no health hazard unless the fibers are exposed due to cutting, drilling or grinding.

IV Usage of asbestos roofing would not involve grinding but would necessitate drilling while fixing. Any health problems to arise from exposure to drilling could be avoided if the recommended safety measures such as wearing breathing masks are practiced by those engaged in it.

V The Asbestos Manufacturers' Association has educated the builders and carpenters by conducting training programs as well as by way of catalogues and brochures.

VI The asbestos manufacturing industries subject their employees to periodical medical check-ups and it has been revealed that employees have not been identified to be suffering from industrial related diseases.

VII According to the information available at the Cancer Hospital there is no evidence to show that the asbestos fibers are in the lungs of cancer victims in Sri Lanka."77

Notes:

76. United Nations Environmental Programme. After the Tsunami - Rapid Environmental Assessment.
77. See.

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