Are we sitting on an asbestos bomb? | Sunday Observer

Are we sitting on an asbestos bomb?

Confusion and controversy continues to swirl over the decision to ban asbestos, with the industry strongly recommending the continuation of the product, and most health officials insisting it should be banned for health reasons.

Co-ordinator of the Fibre Cement Manufacturers’ Association, Anton Edema was quoted in February in an interview with our sister paper, the Ceylon Daily News, that over 200,000 people who are directly and indirectly benefitted from the Asbestos industry would lose their jobs, besides incurring heavy losses to the industry due to huge investments in its manufacture.


There is no doubt that asbestos is the cheapest roofing sheet in our country. Today, over 60 percent of local roofing needs are said to be met by asbestos which the industry claims is fire resistant and environmentally friendly as it saves on trees being cut for timber roofs. It has also been around for over 70 years . First imported in colonial times from England, it was later manufactured locally by a private company which has engaged several thousands of workers in the manufacturing process.

Company sources have reportedly said that none of them have developed cancer or any other health related diseases, so far. Nor have end users.

Dr Ravindra Fernando

According to informed sources, six types of asbestos sheets are used in the world, of which some have been banned in certain countries due to health reasons.

“We only use crystolite asbestos which is safe and has been proved not to contain diseases that banned asbestos carries”, argues Edema.

Unexpectedly, he is supported in his view by none other than Emeritus Prof Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, and former Head of the National Poisons Information Unit, Dr Ravindra Fernando who charges that those wishing to ban the product ( he quotes a paper from the World Health Organisation and European Union to present his case) have not done a proper study and had no scientific evidence of their arguments to ban it completely.


The controversy on whether or not to ban asbestos is not a new one. Time and again, and in 2011, it has received unfavourable headlines in the local media.

The issue has yet to be resolved once and for all due to sudden changes in political decisions over the matter. This has resulted in confusion, both, on the part of the public and the industry. The latter has recently called for a clear message from the government as to whether the ban is temporary or still in force, given the sudden withdrawal of various decisions made prior to the local government elections.

Health issues

Many charges have been made by health sources over its use, such as, respiratory infections, slow child growth development and fetal abnormalities of pregnant women exposed to it.

True or false?

While some of these charges may be true to an extent, Former Head of the Department of National Poisons Information and Toxicology, and Expert Adviser, WHO, Essential Drugs and Antidotes, SEARO, Dr Waruna Gunathilake , argues he will only accept scientific evidence based risks. “While we don’t rule out the other risks, it has been proved beyond doubt that Lung cancer is the main health issue . It is the consensus of the medical community that hundred percent of asbestos sheets when cut can go into the lungs”, he said.

Consultant Respiratory Physician, District Teaching Hospital Nuwara Eliya, Dr D. Dassanayaka when asked for his opinion replied unhesitatingly, “Yes, there is a link between lung cancer and asbestos. It is a proven scientific fact.” He said it took around twenty years to develop in the human body, by which time many of the victims may have passed away.

“The initial plan to phase out the ban until cheaper, safer substitutes can be found should stand”, he stressed.

At risk

So, who are most at risk of lung cancer?

Dr Waruna Gunathilake

“The handlers, especially, if they don’t have proper masks, wear gloves and wash their hands and change their clothes once their work is done”, says Dr Waruna.

Responding, Dr Ravindra Fernando agrees that such precautions should be in place for any asbestos manufacturing company. The fibre crystolite industry argued that while all their workers have been provided with safety precautions, no evidence of lung cancer had been found so far, in them.


As far as Dr Waruna sees it, “What is needed are suitable alternatives to asbestos”

But, can this be done overnight? we asked.

“No. It has to be over a phased out period. If you look at the several countries where they have introduced cheaper substitutes, they have done so only after careful study and research to see what their negative health effects could be. So, banning asbestos cannot be done overnight. It should be phased out.

That’s how it was done elsewhere in the world where it has been now banned. The community must be consulted and all stakeholders brought into the discussions so that there is a consensus of opinion on any ban”.

Does it deteriorate if kept for a long time?

“Yes” he says. “It can develop cracks and crevices and when exposed to rain and hot sun, it can cause a definite risk.”

How to reduce the risk?

“Paint over the asbestos so that it ensures the toxicity won’t escape into the air”, he suggests.


The use of asbestos in new construction projects has been banned for health and safety reasons in many developed countries or regions, including the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and New Zealand. As of today, Asbestos has been banned in over 55 countries worldwide, but not in China, Russia, India, Canada – or the United States. The latter two were the only two leading industrialized countries not to ban it as a measure of ensuring a healthy nation. While the government of Canada finally announced that it would ban asbestos by 2018, the US is one of the few major industrialized nations where there is no ban in place and asbestos continues to be used in gaskets, friction products, roofing material and other materials used in everyday life.

Banning asbestos was no trivial decision. Long, hard thought and preliminary study and patient awaiting for proper scientific evidence preceded such decisions in each of these countries.

As Dr Waruna reiterates: “We need to base on medical principles and fundamental un biased straightforward scientific facts. The WHO recent consensus clearly stated all forms of asbestos are a risk for human health.”

So should it be banned overnight?

“No. It should be phased out rather than an overnight ban. We need pragmatic stratagem in this endeavour. The Govt. needs to consider all the aspects, health risk, social and economic repercussions . The community also needs suitable alternatives beforehand . These alternatives should be affordable, accessible and practical. They must also be educated and convinced on the health risks it carries.”

Limit open transportation

Even open vehicle asbestos transportation should be restricted, he adds.

Risk occupational groups should be more sensitized about health dangers when handling, disposing, asbestos.

“As an initiative, if all govt constructions are compulsorily made to use other alternative roofing it would be a role model for the community as a whole.” said Dr Gunathilake.

The need of the hour to quote Dr Gunathilaka, is a “visionary strategic pragmatic plan to reduce the risks caused by asbestos use.”

Over to our readers ...


The easiest political weapon seems to b propaganda based banning with catastrophic consequences.The poor man is struggling to have an affordable roof over his head without which death would be staring at his door step. Some are attempting political gain by just banning. The biggest challenge the world faces is to protect nature by not only growing but protecting trees.This will reduce much ill effects. let us do positive action rather than claim popularity through negative arm chair banning.