Asbestos a time bomb

EACH year nearly 100,000 people worldwide die from work-related asbestos exposure, according to estimates by ILO.

There is corroborative evidence that the extensive use of asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the industrialised countries, lies behind many of the asbestos-related cancer cases and deaths today.

While the United States, the EU nations, Japan, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland have been phasing out or have banned the use of asbestos, its use in most developing countries has been increasing in the last three decades.

The serious risks to health and life resulting from asbestos use are even greater in developing countries like Malaysia, given the lack of widespread awareness, dearth of protective and preventive measures and non-existence of laws to totally prohibit asbestos use with accompanying enforcement mechanisms.

The problem with asbestos arises when the fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Because the fibres as particles are tiny and narrow, the lungs cannot expel them. They are also sharp and penetrate tissues.

Asbestos resistance to chemical dissolution means that it will persist for a long time, possibly even indefinitely once in the lungs. Harmful effects only emerge after decades of latency.

Not only are those directly involved in the handling of asbestos and manufacture of asbestos products susceptible to its lethal consequences, but the general population too can be affected by secondary exposure through the use of asbestos containing products and during construction or demolishing of structures with asbestos components.

There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, irrespective of the type of asbestos, technological adaptations or workplace precautions. To avoid the deleterious effects of asbestos it is imperative that its use be totally banned, while properly managing asbestos already in place today and working towards its soonest and complete elimination as well.

Banning the use of asbestos is possible because other products developed to replace asbestos are currently in use in many countries.

The task now is to urgently bring all possible force to bear on countries around the world to expand the asbestos ban from the present nearly 50 countries that have done so to all countries in the world.

The ILO’s Convention on Safety in the Use of Asbestos (No. 162) provides a legal and technical basis for worker protection against harmful exposures to asbestos, preventive measures at national and enterprise levels, sharing knowledge and experience and protection against asbestos-related diseases.

Other international standards such as ILO’s Occupational-Cancer Convention (No. 139) call for carcinogenic substances to be replaced by less-hazardous materials.

The introduction and use of asbestos substitutes has resulted in improved safety for workers, while businesses and national economies stand to benefit through productivity gains and less health related costs.

All countries have a responsibility to their populations and the international community to take urgent action to totally ban the use of asbestos. Otherwise, it will prove to be a “time bomb” particularly in our part of the world affecting generations to come.

RUEBEN DUDLEY, Former UN/ILO Regional Deputy Director for Asia & the Pacific.
Monday September 27, 2010