Sri Lanka’s Silent Killer
By Rhian Deutrom
As the sun rises over the Ratmalana grounds of The Sunday Leader, across the road workers lazily file through the gates of a colossal grey factory to begin the day’s production of asbestos based building products.
This is just one of the several asbestos product factories in Sri Lanka which provides employment for thousands of people islandwide.
Yet what these workers handle each day is one of the most deadly substances in the world.
Asbestos – more than meets the eye
Asbestos is a mineral group which is widely used as a building material in developing countries due to its strength, light weight and low cost.
Studies show that inhaling exposed asbestos fibres can cause serious illness including a lung cancer known as Mesothelioma as well as Asbestosis, a debilitating lung condition.
Due to the developing nature of this field of study, there is no cure for either of these diseases – the risks of handling asbestos are real and the consequences are fatal.
Even more shocking is that these diseases will develop in the body for up to forty years before showing any symptoms.
Global action against asbestos
This disturbing evidence has prompted more than 55 countries including Australia, the US, Canada, the European Union and Japan to ban the use of all asbestos products.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is currently working with the United Nations to push for a worldwide ban on the production of asbestos material.
Despite prohibiting the use of asbestos in its own country, Canada has remained one of the largest exporters of the deadly material in the world.
The controversial move has shocked the international community as it continues to export the tax-free raw material to developing nations across the globe.
It is highly immoral that Canada and other developed nations can sell such deadly material to the third world.
As Sri Lanka attempts to rebuild its infrastructure after a devastating civil war, the temptation of a tax free construction material is simply too good to resist.
National project manager of the SAICM department in the World Health Organisation, Dr. Harischandra Yakandawala told The Sunday Leader, “The asbestos industry in Sri Lanka is old enough that people will start showing symptoms of asbestos related diseases from now on. The industry may think it is safe now, but it is only a matter of time”.
Asbestos in Sri Lanka
With the help of aggressive media marketing, asbestos is the number one roofing material in the island.
A highly placed source in the Sri Lankan asbestos industry told The Sunday Leader, “Since the war, the local market has increased substantially, especially in the North and East.”
However the source dismissed claims that the wide use of asbestos is damaging to the health of workers.
“I have been in this industry for fifty years and I am fine – our workers have medical check ups every couple of years and so far, everything is alright,” he said.
Environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardena warns that this naivety will change in time as more cases of asbestos-related diseases emerge.
“There are many scientific studies which have proven that extended exposure to asbestos fibres will cause health issues. However, by the time people develop ailments, it will be too late for them to act,” he said.
This frightening forecast has cast a dreary shadow over the thriving asbestos industry in Sri Lanka.
Many asbestos manufacturers did not wish to comment on any speculation that they may be in serious danger.
For now, these companies remain safe as health professionals do not test for Mesothelioma or Asbestosis.
Dr. Yakandawala said, “Sri Lankan hospitals do not have the facilities and doctors do not have the training to effectively diagnose asbestos related diseases – this is a major issue in this country”.
All at risk
Contrary to the common belief that only workers handling asbestos are at risk, studies show that asbestos is carried through the air and inhaled by unsuspecting victims.
On condition of anonymity, a source told The Sunday Leader, “As long as the employees here work safely with the sheeting, there is no problem – the asbestos we use is perfectly safe”.
Unfortunately, fibres which escape from these factories are carried by the wind to surrounding dwellings and unsuspecting victims.
Asbestos is also used to manufacture brake pads in buses and other vehicles.
“What many people do not realise is that when these buses are travelling at high speeds along Sri Lankan roads, braking friction is high and large amounts of asbestos fibres are released into the environment,” said Dr. Yakandawala.
Across the globe, many victims of asbestos related diseases are currently seeking compensation from their former employers for the suffering and loss they have endured.
Infamous asbestos manufacturer James Hardie has paid billions of dollars in compensation to victims and their families as a result of legal action taken against the company.
Gunawardena says, “Legal action is possible in Sri Lanka however many victims will not be able to afford the medical or legal costs involved in claiming compensation”.
As Sri Lankans remain ignorant of the damaging health risks associated with asbestos, potential victims will ultimately be left without adequate assistance.
Dr. Yakandawala warns that to protect future generations of Sri Lankans, the government must take action now to ban the use of asbestos across the island.
“We must educate policy makers, health professionals and communities of the dangers of using asbestos products,” he said.
While the country remains oblivious to the dangers of asbestos related diseases for now, it will not be long before Sri Lanka is hit with a major health epidemic leading to a blowout in health expenditure and the potential for legal action against manufacturers. It is in the government’s best interests to act now to ban the use of asbestos in Sri Lanka, before it is too late.
It is encouraging to note that the Ministry of Health is aware of the problem and is taking steps to assess the situation as a matter of urgency. Time will tell whether any more lives will be put at risk by this silent killer.