April, a time to learn more about Asbestos

This month we commemorate Global Asbestos Awareness Week to raise awareness of an insidious and slow killer – the substance known as “asbestos”.

Asbestos, which occurs naturally as a silky white mineral, has been used widely in the past in building materials, insulation, brake linings, roofing products and a range of electrical material. Its affordability, coupled with its resistance to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, made it an ideal component in building and manufacturing material.
Damage to material containing asbestos can result in the release of small asbestos fibres that become airborne and are readily inhaled. These fibres are not immediately toxic but can remain in the lungs for long periods and cause serious lung disease including asbestosis, lung cancer and various cancers of the protective lining of the lungs and other organs, in the long term.
This means the actual disease may not appear until 10 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos fibres.
While its profile in the Pacific is low compared to other more immediate threats, such as cyclones, tsunami and earthquakes, the impact of asbestos on our health cannot be ignored. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that during 1994 – 2008, almost 100,000 lives were lost globally from asbestos related cancers and, on average, this occurred 30 years after exposure.
The WHO noted this was an increase from the previous reporting period due to more accurate reporting of the disease and its causes.
In the Pacific islands, materials containing asbestos were widely used in the past for housing and building construction.
The region is subject to periodic catastrophic weather and geological events such as tsunamis and cyclones, which are highly destructive to houses and buildings and, as a consequence, asbestos has become a significant waste and human health issue in many Pacific countries. The use of asbestos in building materials was essentially discontinued in the 1980’s.
Several of our Pacific islands are grappling with the challenges of safeguarding the community through responsible disposal of waste material containing asbestos.
The Cook Islands, for example, has had to remove asbestos contaminated soil from a Rarotonga primary school in February this year. While the school had removed roofs containing asbestos several years earlier, the soil around the classrooms had been contaminated through years of rain washing asbestos fibres into the adjacent soil. The clean-up involved digging a two metre-wide trench around the affected buildings and carting away the contaminated soil.
On the small island of Nauru, hundreds of roofs containing asbestos have been identified by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. Plans are now underway in partnership with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to find an environmentally acceptable disposal solution. Tonga is also seeking advice on managing its asbestos contaminated cyclone debris torn from damaged buildings, while Niue is working to identify options for disposing of asbestos in a secure local landfill.
Now is just as important a time as ever to provide support to Pacific island nations in addressing the asbestos issue.
One way we are doing this is through an important flagship project designed and implemented by SPREP and funded by the European Union that will target asbestos and other hazardous wastes.
The Pacific Hazardous Waste Management project, also known as PacWaste, has recently been launched and will run from 2013 to 2017, with a budget of just under eight million Euros. The project is being carried out in 14 Pacific island countries including the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Timor Leste is also a participating country.
PacWaste will conduct baseline surveys and prioritise interventions on asbestos, healthcare waste, electronic (E)-waste and also pilot best practice in integrated atoll waste management.
In recognition of the need to raise awareness and combat the negative impacts of asbestos, while identifying and promoting pragmatic approaches for asbestos management, SPREP and its partners launched the Regional Asbestos Strategy titled ‘An Asbestos-Free Pacific: A Regional Strategy and Action Plan 2011’ at the 22nd SPREP Meeting on 14 September 2011.
With the launch of PacWaste, the strategies and actions identified for asbestos containing materials and waste in the Regional Strategy and Action Plan can be better implemented.
This project will greatly contribute to improved management of regional asbestos waste and materials by prioritising intervention actions following the collection and collation of data on the quantity and quality of asbestos present in the Pacific; determining where it is; and what options are available to make it safe.
Importantly, it should be noted that the hazards posed by asbestos materials can be sensibly managed by putting in place routine building maintenance systems, training and safeguards that take into account the risks and hazards of exposure.
In the case of asbestos, this means responsible management of the current inventory of buildings and structures that contain such materials throughout their useful life, ongoing building maintenance and then ensuring suitable handling, treatment and disposal of the asbestos containing material when it becomes a waste.

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