Social Housing: FAKE NEWS about asbestos

There has never been, nor is there now any risk from asbestos in government buildings, or in EDC houses for those who live there

Let this be made clear at the very outset: there has never been, nor is there now any risk from asbestos in government buildings, or in EDC houses for those who live there.

All the scare stories with graphic pictures of cancer that were once, a few years ago, splashed on a front page amount to nothing but what we would call in current jargon, FAKE NEWS.

Clinical medical evidence, that is, that gained by doctors on examination of patients, and medical statistics, including about cancer, have never shown up any case of lung disease attributable to asbestos. I have this information on authority from senior most Occupational Medicine physicians, some now retired, who have spent a lifetime examining, treating and overseeing the implementation of adequate preventive measures in all the occupations in the country, ranging from agriculture to manufacturing.

I have personally checked the cancer statistics and there has not been a case of what is known as ‘pleural mesothelioma’, which is the typical cancer associated with asbestos. There are other, benign lung conditions which are also related to asbestos exposure, and which can take up to 50 years to show symptoms – and which these experts assure me they have never come across in our Mauritian population.

So I would urge policy-makers not to react in panic to any lay reports of apparently asbestos-related diseases in Mauritius, and instead to go by the conclusive evidence and the recommendations made by the proper experts in the field, who are the Occupational Medicine physicians of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life.

The Addison Report and thereafter

In 2001 an expert from the UK who had been commissioned to study the asbestos situation in Mauritius submitted his report which came to be known as the Addison Report, and it has remained the reference for the Occupational Medicine Department. It confirmed the local experts’ view that asbestos-related lung disease was not a problem in Mauritius, but nevertheless made recommendations about the precautions that should be taken by those who live in EDC houses, and that over time these houses should be pulled down, and government buildings where there are asbestos partitions should similarly be refurbished and made asbestos free.

Many EDC houses have already been pulled down, and the work is ongoing in government buildings. So it is not as if the authorities have been sitting duck and done nothing. But even if they had – still there would have been no asbestos-related catastrophe to the local population.

Despite this, however, down the years at the approach of the annual Budget, and also during the year from time to time for reasons best known to themselves, some people have kept raising the asbestos spectre in the media. Such was the case around 2011/12 when, this time round, it was a politician who brought up the matter, and the authorities requested Ministry of Health & Quality of Life (MOH & QL) to look into the fake ‘problem’ – for, as I have mentioned above, there was none.

Still, to allay this publicly generated hysteria, MOH & QL deployed its epidemiologist (who had recently retired from his post at the WHO) to carry out a survey along with the colleagues from the Occupational Medicine Department.  The survey was done according to a rigorous methodology, on a random sample of about 700 people from several areas such as Black River, Batimarais, etc., i.e. localities with EDC houses. 

These hundreds were contacted individually, and requested to attend their nearest Health Centre on a designated day where personnel had been mobilized to examine them, and free transport was provided.

And you know what happened? Only 25-30 people turned up! But they were examined, X-rays carried out where these were indicated and, yet again, NO CASE of asbestos-related lung problem was found.

So how do we explain the low turnout? For one, because people living in those areas were not suffering from any symptoms warranting their attendance for a check-up, and they preferred to go about their daily routine. The other, obvious explanation is that there were vested interests that were raking up the issue, in defiance and in ignorance of valid medical evidence which was officially available in the country.

And there’s more to the story: around the same time, again hullaballoo from ignoramuses led MOH &QL to import a specific piece of costly equipment, which was used to test for the presence of asbestos fibres in the atmosphere in the Registrar General building, starting with the Conference Room of MOH & QL. And here also the result was insignificant, as it was in the other government buildings where the measurement was made.

So just imagine: resources deployed at taxpayers’ expense, at the instigation of scaremongers, to prove what is non-existent! That’s how smart we are in this blessed country, where everybody can be an instant expert on anything and everything!

The reality about asbestos

The basic fact is that it is only by working with asbestos products that one is exposed to the risk of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibres. These are to be found in specific occupations, and not in houses or buildings with asbestos walls – as is the case with those working in government buildings or EDC houses because they are not working with asbestos products…”


The basic fact is that it is only by working with asbestos products that one is exposed to the risk of inhaling microscopic asbestos fibres. These are to be found in specific occupations, and not in houses or buildings with asbestos walls – as is the case with those working in government buildings or EDC houses because they are not working with asbestos products.

Historically, it is those who worked in the military were especially at risk for asbestos exposure. During World War II, people who worked in the navy lived on ships or submarines that were insulated with asbestos. Also, navy workers could become exposed to asbestos when they used the substance to build ships. And under civilian conditions, people employed in the ship-breaking industry are at high risk, and need to be protected from inhaling the asbestos fibres.

The list of occupations that carry the highest risk for asbestos is long, but includes aircraft mechanics, aeronautical engineers, auto mechanics, blacksmiths, boilermakers, brick and stone masons, bulldozer operators, cabinet makers, carpenters, chemical technicians, civil engineers, construction workers, crane operators, draftsmen – and a host of other occupations. Even then, as the literature points out, many of the products that these people work with have been redesigned without asbestos as a component in them.

In fact, throughout the 20th century, asbestos was incorporated into thousands of construction, commercial and household products. They include fireproof coatings, concrete and cement, bricks, pipes, gaskets, insulation, drywall, flooring, roofing, joint compound, paints and sealants. Asbestos also exists in electrical appliances, plastics, rubber, mattresses, flowerpots, lawn furniture, hats and gloves.

To these may be added such general products as cigarette filters, cosmetics, talcum powder, textile cloths & textile garments, etc., etc. So what do we do? Ban all these products, stop the occupations? So the issue is about regulation, not banning, as in the US. And in fact, many countries have passed regulatory legislation, which is the logical and right way to go.

Definitely we must address the issue of social housing, but not as a knee-jerk reaction to an imaginary asbestos problem about EDC houses. Rather, this should be in a planned fashion, and from the asbestos perspective there certainly is no case to prioritise EDC houses – for there is no emergency -, but to look at all socio-economic parameters instead of the purely political vote-catching angle.

 


* Published in print edition on 14 June 2018

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