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Asbestos industry wants Govt. engagement as ban looms


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Sigiri Roofings Director S. Kanakaraja, Built Element Production Manager Gamini Nanayakkarawasam, Fiber Cement Products Manufacturers Association Coordinator Anton Edema, Rhino Roofing Products Group Marketing Manager Priyantha Jayasinghe and Sri Ramco Lanka Vice President Marketing T. G. Rudolph - pic by Sameera Wijesinghe

 

 

By Madushka Balasuriya 

As a ban on asbestos looms, leading members of the Rs. 30-billion industry yesterday defended their product and expressed disappointment at the blanket silence of policymakers while urging them to initiate independent research into its health implications.   

Roofing sheets manufacturers in Sri Lanka represented by the Fibre Cement Product Manufacturers Association (FCPMA) went on the offensive against what they say is misinformation being spread about the dangers of asbestos. 

FCPMA members described futile efforts over the past year to get in touch with Government officials, with contact being made for the first time only last month - though that too eventually proving to be unproductive as it preceded Cabinet’s decision last week to ban all production of asbestos by 2024 and control the use and importation of the substance by 2018.

“We have sent two letters to the Government, one in Sinhala and another in English, over the last year. We received an acknowledgement letter from the Government confirming that they had received it but no meetings were forthcoming,” explained Production Manager of Build Element Ltd., Gamini Nanayakkarawasam. 

“Finally last month they appointed one secretary to meet with us. But at the meeting they didn’t listen to any of the facts that we put forward and were only focused on going through with the ban.”

Asked what course of action the FCPMA would take if the Government continued to stonewall their requests for discourse, Marketing Manager at Rhino Roofing Products Ltd. Priyantha Jayasinghe said that they were not yet ready to entertain that eventuality.

“We are of the belief that our Government is a good Government. We think our Government is responsible towards its industries as well as society. We don’t have any conflict with the Government, we want to work closely with them, and we are hoping for the best.

“We are very patient because our industry is a responsible industry, we are very confident about our product. We have nothing to hide.”

At present asbestos is used for many products in Sri Lanka, including roofing sheets, floor tiles, cement pipes, vehicle brake pads, papers and ropes. About 80% of asbestos imported to Sri Lanka is used for roofing sheet production.

Since 1987 importation of blue asbestos (Crocidolite) has been prohibited as it was identified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) and at present all kinds of asbestos, including white asbestos (Chrysotile), have been identified as carcinogens. The FCPMA however argues that this is due to the fact that the WHO has grouped all asbestos types together. There are in fact two main types of asbestos, Serpentine and Amphibole; Amphibole has five sub-categories, including Crocidolite, while Serpentine includes just Chrysotile.

The severity of Chrysotile as a carcinogen is disputed by some in the science field, most notably Dr. David Bernstein, who spoke to Daily FT on a visit to Sri Lanka recently. 

“The WHO doesn’t factor in Chrysotile versus Amphibole. They keep referring to the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) which is a part of the WHO. IARC doesn’t look at risk, they only look at hazard. If you’ve had coffee this morning, you’ve taken in a class one carcinogen. Why don’t we ban coffee then? IARC does not do risk assessment, it says so very clearly in their proclamation. To refer to IARC as reference is not appropriate by their own standards.

“You should not have huge exposure to anything. You should have controlled use in all industries. But I believe that if it’s Chrysotile only it can be used safely, yes. And especially in high density cement products because the fibre is bound in the cement. There’s very little release and if it is released the cement tends to stick to the fibre, so it’s not a single fibre anymore.

This is a point highlighted by the FCPMA in defence of Chrysotile. They state that the composition of fibre cement sheets manufactured locally contain 70% cement, 23% water and only 7% Chrysotile fibres, adding that even if Chrysotile enters the body it is not retained.

“The white asbestos lasts only a maximum of 14 days in the body, after which it dissolves. However, Amphibole or blue/brown asbestos is cancerous and lasts longer - for several years (a maximum of 466 days),” explained Coordinator for FCPMA Anton Edema.

White asbestos has been in use in Sri Lanka for the last 62 years, with Edema also an advocate of Government-funded research into the adverse effects of long-term exposure to Chrysotile fibres.

“When it comes to research the Government is clueless. Some Government advisors think that just because research has been done in other countries it can be applied to Sri Lanka. That is not the case. We have requested on many occasions that the Government conduct adequate research before coming to any decisions.

“And as an organisation if we fund the research ourselves, the anti-asbestos lobby will discredit it citing a conflict of interest.”

Cost of alternatives

Adding to calls for independent research is the need independent cost/benefit analysis into the use of alternatives, according to Edema. Synthetic fibres – the most likely substitute if the asbestos ban goes through - will be 40%-60% more expensive, he says, with this increase likely to be passed on to consumers, who in turn will be left with other alternatives such as metal roofing or clay tiling, both more expensive than asbestos.

According to an FCPMA press release, “Chrysotile-cement roofing sheets are distributed across 80% of the island and many Sri Lankans depend on the industry for their livelihood as it is currently the only roofing sheet produced in the world which is accredited for its product durability and economic value. 

“As proven by many research institutes globally, all alternative products available in the market are expected to be higher in price and likely to decay within a usage of less than 30 years.”


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