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Roofing sheet leaders rally against proposed asbestos ban

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  • Say alternatives would be significantly expensive for consumers 
  • Wants stakeholder engagement on policymaking 
  • Insists insufficient scientific evidence to justify ban 

By Madushka Balasuriya 

Following President Maithripala Sirisena’s announcement of a possible asbestos ban by 2018, roofing sheet industry leaders yesterday called for stakeholder engagement to reduce the potential fallout faced by the construction industry.

Blue asbestos was banned in 1997; however white asbestos has been in use since, mainly for the production of fibre cement sheets, more commonly known as roofing sheets, in Sri Lanka. 

Meanwhile, according to a 2004 World Health Organisation (WHO) release, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths worldwide. That is 107,000 of 125 million people exposed to asbestos at work, or 0.0856%.  

Currently there are four manufacturers using asbestos in the country, with 4,500 employees collectively. Masconite and Rhino are the market leaders, accounting for roughly 70% of the market share, and the market is worth billions of rupees. A majority of the asbestos is imported from Russia.

Fibre Cement Product Manufacturers Association (FCPMA) of Sri Lanka Coordinator Anton Edema speaking to Daily FT on behalf of three of the largest asbestos importers to Sri Lanka: Masconite, Rhino Roofing and Sri Ramco, said the industry was interested in engagement with the Government but pointed out overtures to the Environment Ministry and other State bodies had yielded little result. 

“We don’t know how to proceed as we don’t know who to get in touch with,” he said.

Edema emphasised that WHO data was insufficient to justify a complete ban within three years.   

“The arguments made regarding exposure to asbestos are unscientific and unsubstantiated,” he charged. “The deaths associated with asbestos are from prolonged exposure to its particles when they are airborne; no deaths have been associated with having asbestos roofing. If a ban is to be put in place, there must a fair study conducted on its long-term impact in Sri Lanka,” Edema, a Chartered Chemist, pointed out. 

Edema’s point was echoed by LIRNEasia Founder Chairman Professor Rohan Samarajiva. “Such decisions should not be enforced without all sides of the argument considered equally,” he said, adding that adequate research must be conducted and independently verified before a decision was taken.

Adding to calls for independent research is the looming spectre of the repercussions of the ban itself.  According to Edema, synthetic fibres – the most likely substitute if the asbestos ban goes through - will be 40%-60% more expensive. This increase will be passed on to consumers, who in turn will be left with other alternatives such as metal roofing or clay tiling, but none cheaper than asbestos.

Asbestos is believed to be a carcinogen, a fact backed by several international studies. This while true in the broader sense does not take into account the different uses of asbestos in Sri Lanka as opposed to the rest of the world, Edema noted. 

International reports usually highlight asbestos sprays used for insulation as the biggest source of asbestos exposure in the 1990s for workers in the West, but such sprays are rarely used in Sri Lanka, he stressed.

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