Concerns over flow of asbestos into Pacific as New Zealand’s import ban comes into effect

New Zealand has joined more than 50 countries, including Australia, in banning the importation of asbestos-containing materials from 1 October. Cancer epidemiologist David Skegg, from the University of Otago, described New Zealand’s snail-pace reaction to asbestos as “shamelessly slow” and a clear failure to address the problem that had put thousands of lives at risk. While the dangers posed by asbestos fibres have been known for decades, many countries are yet to stem the flow of new asbestos materials and address the issue of legacy waste. It is estimated there are 170 asbestos-related deaths in New Zealand each year — a number that is expected to rise with the peak to be some time between 2030–40. Observers say they have grave concern about the unabated flow of asbestos products into other Pacific countries who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem. Currently, besides Australia and now New Zealand, no other nation in the region has a policy preventing the use and importation of asbestos. A report compiled by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) revealed alarming amounts of asbestos in some countries as well as the presence of new asbestos products. The problem is unevenly distributed with just four countries — Nauru, Niue, Kiribati and Vanuatu — accounting for 83 per cent of all the non-residential asbestos in the Pacific. The lack of regulation on the importation and use of new asbestos products in the Pacific has allowed the hazardous product to be used with impunity and often unknowingly. John O’Grady, managing director at Contract Environmental, conducted a region-wide survey on the prevalence of asbestos on behalf of SPREP. He said global production of asbestos products remained astonishingly high. “There’s still about 2 million tonnes of it being made around the world each year,” Mr O’Grady said. “Certainly the people who brought it in wouldn’t have known it was asbestos.” Asbestos was found in the Old Gizo Hospital in the Solomon Islands after it burnt down in July, despite earlier findings it was asbestos-free. It was later discovered new asbestos had since been installed in parts of the hospital, highlighting the issue of new importations in the region. SPREP push for regional consensus on asbestos At the recent SPREP’s annual meeting in Niue, a proposal was put forward seeking a consensus on implementing a region-wide ban. SPREP’s PacWaste project manager Stewart Williams said most countries had offered their support for a ban but wanted more clarity on what it would take to implement one. “The response was that quite a few countries did support it,” he said. “It’s not a problem in relation to wanting to have a cleaner Pacific, an asbestos-free Pacific, it’s how they will have the capacity and what that will mean.” Mr Williams denied that the Pacific region was being targeted by unscrupulous manufacturers, saying it was a combination of inadequate policy and a lack of resources allocated to tackle the problem. “There doesn’t seem to be a case of dumping asbestos products in the Pacific — it just seems the Pacific is receiving the same materials as Australia and the rest of the world but doesn’t have any policy or capacity to deal with it.” Mr Williams said it is “actually very difficult” to detect new asbestos even with an effective policy framework. “The problem with detection is it’s not real time. You can’t just wave a wand over it and say ‘that’s asbestos’. You need to take a sample and send it off,” he said. Pacific region at heightened risk The Pacific region poses a number of unique challenges in dealing with asbestos. Rokho Kim, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said the remoteness of some parts of the region posed a logistical challenge in identification and removal of the material. “Because of the geographical spread of these island countries … even if we find asbestos building materials on certain islands the process of removing that asbestos is very challenging, very expensive, very hard to do technically as well,” Dr Kim said. “If this issue is left to the local government there is no human, technical or financial resources to handle this.” There is also the concern that natural disasters and extreme weather events in the Pacific could heighten the risk of exposure to asbestos fibres. More than 100 kilograms of damaged asbestos was recovered from Port Vila Hospital after Cyclone Pam swept across Vanuatu last year. “If you have cyclones hitting countries and destroying buildings, of course, if those buildings contain asbestos then you get asbestos debris which can contribute to the seriousness of a natural disaster,” Mr O’Grady said. Effects could be felt for decades There is a lack of empirical data available to quantify the human toll of asbestos in the Pacific region. But without immediate action, the harmful effects of asbestos will be felt for years to come. “Because asbestos-related diseases manifest decades after exposure, you’re then seeing trends that are actually reflecting something that was happening 20–30 years ago,” Mr Williams said. “WHO states that there are 100,000 preventable deaths from asbestos every year and this is not going to decrease if we have new forms of asbestos coming in. “We’re under the false assumption that we’re clearing asbestos legacy from the past and we have no idea of the quantities coming in now.” Michael Borowick, from the Australian Council Trade Unions (ACTU), has spent years working on asbestos-related issues. He said that while Australia had appeared to be vigilant in preventing asbestos from entering the country, it was failing to detect asbestos at the border. “I think most Australians think asbestos is a legacy issue but unfortunately we’re continuing to import it even though we’ve had a ban in place since 1 January 2004,” he said. “The legislation looks good on paper but it’s ineffective and that’s why we’ve been campaigning to the Government to review the legislation. “It needs to be amended in a way that stops asbestos being imported.” Revelations that asbestos had been found in new building products imported from China at a Perth Children’s Hospital this year highlighted the vigilance needed in preventing asbestos from arriving unknowingly and the need for policy to be backed up by effective control measures. Countries producing asbestos have also been active in attempting to prevent bans from being enacted. Mr Borowick said Australia had been pushing to have asbestos listed as a Schedule III substance at the International Trade Union Confederation — a huge step in implementing a worldwide ban. “But it has to be unanimous before [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][a] listing can occur. So at the last Confederation of the Parties, the asbestos-producing countries — Russia, China, Kazakhstan, possibly India as well — they all opposed the listing of asbestos,” he said. “Until recently Canada, too, was mining asbestos and exporting it.” Challenge will be ongoing While the PacWaste Project has made strides in removing legacy waste and in working towards a legislative consensus for a ban, the challenge of asbestos in residential areas is currently beyond the project’s capability to deal with. “Residential areas, that’s a much larger job — and that’s well beyond the PacWaste project. It needs to be something that’s engaged by a much larger project,” Mr Williams said. Other organisations have started to take notice of the issue. “If there was enough funding put toward it and the willpower and if it was seen as a high enough priority, it would be done. I certainly didn’t detect and resistance to doing it,” Mr O’Grady said. “I’m really liking what SPREP are doing, they’re giving it a good go. Other people are becoming interested like the World Bank, I certainly think it’s something that will be addressed.” With alternative materials now widely available, Mr Borowick said there should be no barriers to implementing a global ban. “It causes devastation amongst families and communities,” he said. “They may not be as cheap but they are certainly viable and what cost do you put on a human life?”

ABC News, 1 October 2015 ; ;[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]