By Anton Edema
Over many decades scientists, scholars, researchers, global advocacy bodies and other interested parties have discussed, debated and come to conclusions on various materials - both natural and man-made - that can pose risks to human health.
Dangerous or hazardous goods can be solids, liquids, gases, other living organisms, property, or from the environment and can include materials that are radioactive, flammable, explosive, corrosive, oxidizing, asphyxiating, bio hazardous, toxic, pathogenic, carcinogenic or allergenic. Everything from fireworks, gases and fibres have found their way to an extensive list of globally classified materials that pose some level of risk. Indeed the International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists more than one hundred carcinogens including items as varied as dried fish, x-rays, wood dust, etc. that can pose a risk to human health.
One such material that has been debated on a global scale for many years is asbestos. Although a naturally occurring mineral that has been mined for over 4,000 years, large-scale mining began at the end of the 19th century, when manufacturers and builders began using different forms of asbestos because of its desirable physical properties such as sound absorption, average tensile strength, its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and affordability.
It is essential to note that there are fundamental bio-chemical differences in the family of naturally occurring materials – known commercially – as asbestos. Specifically, there are two distinct and different families of asbestos: serpentine or “white” chrysotile asbestos and all the others, known as amphiboles or “blue and brown” asbestos. Today and all around the world – the only form of asbestos in commercial use is chrysotile as science teaches that not all asbestos types are harmful or hazardous to health as previously suggested.
Extensive usage of hazardous blue and brown asbestos under poor worker safety conditions in the 20th century led to the understanding that asbestos dust inhalation from these forms, over prolonged periods of time, can cause serious health concerns.
As a result, global bans are in effect for brown and blue asbestos - while chrysotile is not banned by over 140 countries - including the USA, Canada, Russia, India, China, Brazil, etc. And while there is no debate over the amphibole form, many countries such as Thailand have very recently reviewed the question of whether to ban chrysotile or not, given their history of using it for more than 70 years.
In 2015, after a through scientific review that evaluated the facts and lack of asbestos related diseases, Thailand came to the conclusion that when used according to safe use procedures, chrysotile and products and that contain chrysotile do not represent a significant health threat.
In the realm of international institutions, in 2007 the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the stance of the World Health Assembly (WHA) on the management of asbestos. According to the resolution the WHO will work with member states to create global campaigns for elimination of asbestos-related diseases; bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms. This in itself is proof of the fact that although some forms of asbestos may be considered hazardous others is not so and that banning is not the only way
An ILO Conference held in 2010 also saw a resolution tabled for the ban of all asbestos fibre types. However since the ILO Convention 162 on Safety in the Use of Asbestos which was adopted in 1986 and ratified at the time by 36 countries recommends controlled use of chrysotile asbestos, this again goes on to show the better nature of the chrysotile fibres in use around the world today.
A number of significant decisions regarding chrysotile weremade during the Rotterdam Convention, last held in Geneva in 2015. Specifically, once it was re-affirmed that there is no need for Prior Informed Consent from countries to transport chrysotile.
What is also important to note in the argument supporting chrysotile usage is that “hazard” does not necessarily mean “risk”. As mentioned earlier, the International Agency for Research on Cancer uses the word “hazardous substance” in describing chrysotile but does not refer to “risk assessment” being required. Several studies published in the likes of the American Review of Respiratory Disease and the British Journal of Industrial Medicine and have also found no detectable risks among chrysotile cement manufacturing plants in the US and UK.
Consumers in Sri Lanka
In the local context, consumers have trusted fibre cement sheets that contain a small amount of chrysotile for decades due to their long lasting, durable, easy to use, affordable and tropical weather resistant qualities.
The products manufactured locally contain 70 percent cement, 22 percent water and only 8 percent chrysotile fibres. The blue and brown variants are not used in Sri Lanka at any of the manufacturing plants currently supplying roofing sheets and other fibre cement based products. What is also interesting to note is that alternative products do not carry the same capabilities as roofing sheets do and come at a much higher cost. There is also no documented proof of any individual inflicted with any disease that could have been caused by extensive exposure to chrysotile fibres.
Although a generic ban on all asbestos related products has now been called for and is being discussed among the authorities it is important to note that more extensive research in to safe manufacturing processes, usage and recycling practices, alleged health risks and the viability of alternative products in comparison with chrysotile based fibre cement products must be carried out before arbitrary decisions are made.
(Anton Edema is the Coordinator of the Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association in Sri Lanka.)