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.

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