President Maithripala Sirisena announced on August 29 that strict laws will be enforced with regard to asbestos, and by 2018 the production and importation of asbestos will be banned completely. The President mentioned although plans were made to ban the production of asbestos when he was the Health Minister; it was not possible for him to implement it since no support was given by the relevant authorities. He also said that implementation of such laws on asbestos being imported or produced is for the betterment of the country. The President reiterated that he will make sure that the decision will be put into action, and he hoped to get everyone’s support to achieve the targeted goal.
Research conducted in the 1900s has observed that early deaths and lung diseases were common among those who lived in asbestos mining towns
However, it is interesting to note that despite the announcement made by the President to ban asbestos by 2018; it seems the relevant authorities have not been given any directives although they are aware of such a decision. When contacted, the Information Director at the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Chandrika Thilakaratne explained the procedure of quality standards, but was unable to provide any information as to what action they intended to take on the recent decision of the President with regard to importation of asbestos. Several attempts made to contact the Secretary of State Ministry of Environment WM Vajira Narampanawa proved futile.
According to the International law, asbestos has been listed in the category of controlled waste, according to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal of 1992, and parties to the convention are expected to abide by it by prohibiting and not permitting the export of hazardous wastes. It is also worth noting that 60 countries, including the European Union (EU), Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and New Zealand have currently banned the use of asbestos wholly or partly. However, asbestos continues to be used in construction in the United States such as cement asbestos pipes.
Research conducted in the 1900s has observed that early deaths and lung diseases were common among those who lived in asbestos mining towns. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated 107,000 deaths each year are attributable to occupational exposure to asbestos and that 125 million people in the world are exposed to asbestos at the workplace.
It has now been identified that prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious and fatal illnesses, including lung cancer, Mesothelioma (a cancer of mesothelial tissue, associated especially with exposure to asbestos) and asbestosis. It has also been discovered asbestos-related diseases can even emerge decades after exposure.
In Sri Lanka, while blue asbestos was banned in 1997, white asbestos has been used mainly for the production of roofing sheets. Only 10 percent of ‘white asbestos’ contains asbestos with the balance 90 percent being cement and moisture. There are four manufacturers who produce asbestos-based products and 4,500 persons are employed in asbestos industry. While it covers 70 percent of the market which is worth of billions of rupees.
However, with the decision of the President to ban asbestos by 2018, several issues have arisen in the asbestos industry. The main manufacturers of asbestos in the country refused to comment on the current state of the issue. “We do not wish to give any comment before we meet the government officials regarding the matter,” said a spokesperson of a leading asbestos manufacturing company.
The Environment Conservation Trust (ECT) Director, Sajeewa Chamikara, expressing his opinion on the decision to ban asbestos, mentioned that it has been one of the most important decisions ever taken by a government.
“Several organizations, especially the Environmental Foundation Limited have done research for 15 years, regarding the impacts of the asbestos to the humans and to the environment. This decision is in fact a result of such long-term research and other findings,” he said.
Chamikara also reiterated the fact that although there had been awareness programs been conducted islandwide, the State has never supported to stop the harm done by use of asbestos due to several reasons. He pointed out that by giving two years’ time for the manufacturers by the government to go for other alternatives is a good move and reasonable.
“Banning the use of asbestos is practicable. The manufacturers may not agree with this, but it can be done because there are a lot of alternatives which can be used as substitutes”, he added.
Chamikara said that carbonic materials like coconut fiber (natural fiber extracted from the husk of coconut), hanakendi and also asbestos ceilings can be replaced with safer substitutes such as Calicut tiles (Rata ulu) and colorcon tiles as well, which are environmentally friendly and biodegradable.
He expressed his gratitude to the persons involved in taking the decision, “No one ever cared about the health or environmental impact asbestos caused over the years, but now things have changed, and we hope those decision will be put in to action soon.” Chamikara said that every citizen should support this decision since it is something worth fighting for and supporting.
However, the Coordinator of the Fibre Cement Product Manufacturers Association (FCPMA) of Sri Lanka, Anton Edema speaking to The Nation refuted the allegations made with regard to the use of asbestos in the country and said no one has ever been able to prove that it was hazardous.
“Not a single death has been reported for the past 70 years by having asbestos roofing. All what they do is quoting outdated information from the internet and say it has caused this much of deaths. But it has not yet been proved by anyone that in Sri Lanka anyone has died of having asbestos roofing,”said Edema.
Further he mentioned that the FCPMA finds the decision to ban asbestos is an unscientific decision which is not based on factors related to Sri Lanka.
“Asbestos in loose form is dangerous. In Sri Lanka, we do not use the loose form. The main reasons for this whole issue are misconception of the name asbestos, and the way it has been misused”, said Edema, a Chemist by profession.
He also pointed out that the media reports that the WHO has said that 107,000 people have died, but they can’t prove it that the cause for those deaths are asbestos.
“We could have admitted what the WHO says if they had proven that asbestos as roofing has caused deaths. I am a chemist by profession and through my experience I can say that roofing products are not hazardous. The people have twisted the information and are trying to a give different meaning,” he mentioned.
Edema also emphasized that five deaths are reported per day due to tobacco, which is a proven fact. But the only thing the authorities did was to impose a pictorial warning. Given the fact that it has already been proven the authorities did not ban it. “But no proof is there to say that asbestos roofing has caused death and they decide to ban it. How logical is that decision?” he questioned.
Edema also mentioned the fact that Chrysotile or white asbestos is not hazardous and if proved dangerous it is fair enough for the government to ban it completely.
“Without any consistent evidence banning asbestos is meaningless and we are subjected to this type of situation due to the trade war between the EU and Russia,” he said.