Is the ban on asbestos fair or more importantly relevant to Sri Lanka?

Dec 07, 2016 – From time to time various commodities are banned in Sri Lanka and asbestos roofing sheets is the latest one that is scheduled to be banned in this manner. At a recent cabinet reading the Government of Sri Lanka announced to commence control of the import and usage of asbestos by 2018 while subsequently to ban by 2024.

In terms of roofing, there are only two or three options available to the general public of our country; roofing tiles, Chrysotile fibre cement roofing sheets and tin roofing sheets are amongst these options. Out of these, the Chrysotile fibre cement roofing sheet stands as the only option that is affordable by the general public. This is because the money remaining in hand, after spending for sand, bricks and cement needed for the construction of walls and thereafter for the fixing of doors and windows, is a very meagre amount.

The number of rafters and beams required when using Chrysotile fibre cement roofing sheets for roofing is also significantly less which is another contributing factor for the lower cost. Considering the above, the ban on asbestos will equally affect the workers employed in the industry as well as the general public.

Recently a conference organised by the National Federation of Trade Unions was held in Colombo to discuss this predicament in depth. This occasion involved the participation of a large number of individuals; including representatives from the political authorities, industrialists, experts from the medical field, experts from various sectors and trade union representatives.

The primary concern that was highlighted during this conference was that steps have been taken to ban asbestos due to its health hazards. Dr. Wajira Palipana, Commissioner of Labour (Occupational Health) and consultant occupational physician, expressing his views at this event stated “Chrysotile asbestos is not the only cause of lung cancer, like everything else this could be one cause of it. Although asbestos may contribute to the hardening of the walls of the lungs and weakening its functioning thereby, it is certainly not the cause of death. We all would have inhaled one or two asbestos threads as a result of using old vehicles, where asbestos threads were used for their components such as break liners and gaskets. Hence Asbestosis cannot be the cause of death of a person.”

He also further emphasised, “A person who is being exposed to asbestos for a long period of time, needs to refrain from smoking. As smoking weakens the immune system, it increases the risk of cancer. Hence I request employees working in asbestos cement sheet manufacturing factories to keep away from smoking.” He also emphasised here, that it would be most appropriate to have employees who work in asbestos cement sheet manufacturing factories to be subjected to an x-ray examination every two years. He declared that this should not be done annually as there is a risk of x-rays causing cancer and frequent exposure to it is not advisable. He suggested that the best solution regarding this problem would be to draw up a set of legal standards for the safe and hygienic disposal of asbestos.

Although it is evident that during the past 60 years there have been no reports of Mesotheliama or any other form of cancer caused by asbestos reported in our country, the Fibre Cement Roofing Sheet Manufacturers Association requested that a close study should be carried out with the data and information available regarding Sri Lanka. Here Dr. Palipana stated that no medical survey has been carried out in our country regarding this topic and that conducting such a survey would be most appropriate.

During the occasion, The Fibre Cement Roofing Sheet Manufacturers Association emphasised that before coming to a final decision regarding Chrysotile fibre cement roofing sheets, it would be appropriate to give a period of time, ideally about ten years, as it was done in other countries that banned asbestos. They also strongly reiterated that it was not right to ban asbestos without suggesting an appropriate substitute for it.

A member of the Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association stated that their employees undergo an annual medical check-up and there have been no reports of illness from amongst them. He also stated that they themselves live in the official residences which are in close proximity to the Chrysotile cement roofing sheets manufacturing factory, and they are still in perfect health condition.

They further mentioned that the white asbestos, scientifically known as Chrysotile, which is being manufactured in our country is produced using imported raw materials. And as there are no excavations being done for raw materials in our country, health situation of countries such as Australia, where excavations are being carried out, should not be compared with that of ours.

The Fibre Cement Products Manufacturers Association further stated that all safety standards including ISO standards have been adhered to in their manufacturing process and providing the market with different sizes of these sheets, has prevented the unsafe cutting of these sheets



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