Consumers Association of Penang

Giving voice to the little people...since 1970

Asbestos: The deadly, silent killer

In recent weeks, concerns over asbestos poisoning have been raised in our local print media. And rightly so! This naturally occurring fibrous mineral, with fire and heat resistant properties, has been recognised as a serious threat to life in the Western countries and where possible, its use is avoided.

People who work with asbestos are at serious risk of developing lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma and fatal respiratory illnesses. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) conservatively estimates that 100,000 workers die each year from asbestos-related diseases. Thousands more perish from environmental exposures.
Asbestos fibres are exceptionally strong and commonly found in ceiling tiles, flooring, water pipes and vehicle brakes. Asbestos was once heralded as the greatest building material, but is today recognised as one of the biggest workplace killers.

Asbestos also includes chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite asbestos, anthophyllite asbestos, actinolite asbestos, and any of these materials that have been chemically treated and/or altered.

Asbestos only becomes a danger when it is disturbed, causing the fibres to become airborne. This is commonly referred to as friable asbestos, while intact asbestos is referred to as non-friable asbestos.

Airborne friable asbestos is sucked into the lungs of people exposed to it. Until today, research has yet to determine a safe level of exposure to asbestos, but one thing is for certain – the more prolonged the exposure, the greater the risk becomes for developing an asbestos-related disease. This is why asbestos poisoning is often called an occupational hazard disease, because the people who commonly work with the material are most at risk for developing an asbestos-related disease.

Health officials have warned that widespread asbestos exposure will result in epidemics of mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Besides these debilitating fatal diseases, a panel of 27 experts convened by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported new evidence that asbestos causes cancer of the larynx and the ovary.

Of concern is a forecast by Dr James Leigh, retired director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, Sydney School of Public Health, Australia, that there will be 5 to 10 million deaths from asbestos-related cancers by 2030.

It is also alarming that international health agencies such as the WHO, ILO and IARC agree that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Despite this, asbestos roofing materials, asbestos cement pipes and other asbestos-containing products are still being widely used worldwide, including in Malaysia.

What is of great concern to consumers is that there does not seem to be any concern for their health in being supplied with water through asbestos cement pipes. Malaysia does not have any programme to specifically replace asbestos cement pipes. Even if there is little evidence of the carcinogenicity of ingested asbestos, precaution must be taken by replacing old asbestos-cement pipes with safer substitutes.

Acknowledging the dangers of asbestos, 54 countries worldwide have imposed bans, restrictions or exemptions for minor uses of asbestos. In Malaysia, only crocidolite (blue asbestos) has been prohibited, but the use of chrysotile (white asbestos), amosite (brown asbestos), tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite are allowed.

In view of the importance of safeguarding the health of the public and workers handling asbestos, CAP has been calling for a complete ban on the material. We understand that the Malaysian government is in the midst of studying the implementation of a ban, but our concern is that this process is taking too long.  

Besides imposing a ban on asbestos, the Malaysian government must make available a national registry for asbestosis and mesothelioma, early diagnosis of asbestos-related diseases and implement a workers’ compensation scheme.

The government must also embark on an asbestos awareness and education programme to impart the message to the public, contractors, mechanics, plumbers and workers in general about the hazards of asbestos and to encourage compliance with regulations and safe asbestos management practices. We also need knowledgeable and skilled labour for safe removal and disposal of asbestos-containing products.

CAP reiterates our call to the government to expedite an outright ban on asbestos and ensure that the necessary measures are taken to safeguard the health of all Malaysians.

Letter to the Editor - 9 October 2010