No Evidence ‘white’ asbestos causes cancer



At the news conference: Anton Edema, Coordinator, Tyrone Rudolph, Vice President – Marketing, Sri Ramco Industries, Priyantha Jayasinghe, Marketing Manager, Rhino Roofing Products and Ms. Nishu Hassim, Director, Nehemiah Consultants. (Pic by Nimal Dayaratne)




In the backdrop of moves to impose a total ban on asbestos, defiant industry players last week debunked assertions that the products posed a serious health hazard, and insisted on a closer, indepth examination of the critical factors before implementing “arbitrary decisions”.


With the government actively considering a generic ban on all asbestos related products by 2018, the 70-year-old trade, now dominated by four key companies in Sri Lanka, underscored that in the current context there are 152 countries using ‘white’ chrysotile asbestos for diverse purposes.


In Sri Lanka, ‘white’ asbestos is primarily utilized for roofing, but in many other countries, including USA, Canada, Russia, India, China and Brazil, chrysotile based fibre cement products are widely used for other requirements as well, says Anton Edema, a chemical scientist, who serves as the coordinator of the Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association.


There are 36 categories of asbestos in the world, but serpentine, identified as ‘white’ chrysotile asbestos, is the only form in commercial use as the amphiboles or ‘blue and brown’ varieties of the two distinct and different families of asbestos remain banned, he told a news conference in Colombo.


“Banning asbestos will deal a big blow to middle class and low middle class families who mostly use the product for roofing as it is durable, easy to use, affordable and contains tropical weather resistant qualities”, he explained.


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, could cause serious health concerns. As a result, brown and blue asbestos was banned globally, said Priyantha Jayasinghe, Marketing Manager, Rhino Roofing Products Limited.


“In Sri Lanka, they are now trying to place ‘white’ asbestos also in the same basket”, he complained.


Q: But, fears have been expressed that asbestos is carcinogenic and also to be blamed for lung-related diseases?
Anton Edema: There is no solid evidence that ‘white’ serpentine asbestos cause cancer as they contain 70% cement, 22% water and only 8% chrysotile fibres. These fibres are not harmful and, even if inhaled, exit within 24 hours through sneezing. So, there is no issue with the amphibole form. However, the ‘blue and brown’ varieties were considered carcinogenic as fibres accumulate in the lungs and pricks like a needle.
Q: What has been the outcome of some global reviews on the amphibole form?
Countries such as Thailand have 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 thorough 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 related products do not represent a significant health threat.
At the 2010 ILO Conference, a resolution was tabled for the ban of all asbestos fibre types. However, the ILO Convention 162 on Safety in the Use of Asbestos, adopted in 1986 and ratified at the time by 36 countries, recommends controlled use of chrysotile asbestos. This again shows the better nature of chrysotile fibres in use around the world today.
He recalled that many significant decisions regarding chrysotile were also made during the Rotterdam Convention held in Geneva in 2015, where it was re-affirmed that there is no need for Prior Informed Consent from countries to transport chrysotile.
“In 2011, the WHO funded a study on this subject in Sri Lanka, but we know that it was not done he asserted.
Q: How can you substantiate your claim that ‘white’ asbestos has not contributed towards the spread of cancer in Sri Lanka?
There is no concrete evidence that it is carcinogenic. The register at the National Cancer Institute indicates that of the 1,500 patients, 95% of those afflicted were due to smoking and passive smoking followed by chewing betel and so on. Asbestos is not listed as a cause.
Q: Has the government communicated with the industry on the proposed ban?
No, we have not been consulted so far. We wrote to the authorities, but there has been no response. The President has communicated with the NBRO (National Building Research Organization) on developing alternatives to asbestos.
There has been no scientific research on asbestos by any local organization in Sri Lanka. Neither has any tests been done to prove that asbestos is toxic. As industry players, we took over this task to validate our point and establish the factual situation.
There has to be more extensive research into safe manufacturing processes, usage and recycling practices, alleged health risks and the viability of alternative products in comparison with chrysotile based fibre cement products before a decision on a ban is made.
Q: Do you agree that the situation has been exacerbated by the long silence of the industry, which failed to counter the anti-asbestos campaign?
Priyantha Jayasinghe: There are four big industry players (including two Indian-based companies) in the country, which collectively control 70% of the market and 72% where Colombo’s roofing solutions segment is concerned. The problem was that we could not come together under one roof earlier, but have now taken a united stand to discuss the issue in the public domain.
With adverse publicity on the looming ban, customers harbor reservations on asbestos and pose a string of questions before they make a purchase. Obviously, there is an element of doubt in their minds on safety because of negative media coverage. Global research has proven that it’s safe to use.
Edema said that asbestos has been used in Sri Lanka for the past 70 years. In Asian countries, small asbestos pipes were used in the pipe-borne water supply system. If they were toxic, people would have died.
Although, as a naturally occurring mineral, asbestos has been mined for over 4,000 years, large-scale operations 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, he elaborated.

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