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Asbestos in Asia: Breaking Through the Silence in Lao PDR09 January 2012
Australians know that asbestos kills. We are historically one of the highest per capita miners, manufacturers and consumers of asbestos in the world. Almost all public buildings and around one third of all private houses were built with asbestos. And the toll was heavy - by 2020, Australia will have had 13,000 cases of mesothelioma and over 40,000 cases of asbestos related cancer.
Globally, it is estimated that each year 107,000 workers each year succumb to asbestos or asbestos related cancers. And the centre of this new epidemic is Asia. The World Health Organisation estimates that 60% of the 125 million people exposed to asbestos in their homes or workplace are in Asia. And that figure is set to increase - already half of asbestos consumption occurs in Asia with 90% of the global increase in consumption between 2000 and 2004 occurring in Asia.
Late last year, we asked for your support in expanding our successful asbestos disease prevention in Vietnam to neighbouring countries. Thanks to the overwhelming response, we have expanded our work in asbestos disease prevention, and advocacy for a ban on asbestos, into Lao PDR.
Lao PDR is more famous for laid back tourism and unspoilt natural wonders, but this tiny country of around 7 million is slowly industrialising. But there has been no commensurate increase in worker protection as factories, mega-infrastructure and construction projects increase. This extends to asbestos use. Lao PDR has no regulations around asbestos at all, not even the blue or brown asbestos which are universally acknowledged as the worst forms. The country still imports around 5,000 tonnes of white asbestos, mostly from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Working with the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), we have begun filling the information void on asbestos. Initial projects, jointly coordinated with Building and Woodworkers International, have identified at least five large factories actively importing loose asbestos for manufacture into roof tiles. Asbestos is stored in the open, with bags frequently torn open accidently allowing asbestos fibre to escape into the air. Most workers are poor farmers doing manual labour in their off-season. Many more asbestos products are imported into the country from Thailand and this is only set to increase as the country develops, setting the scene for a replay of the tragic and completely avoidable loss of life.
In December, the LFTU convened one of the first tripartite conferences int he country to get the issue on the national agenda. The union, private sector and the government came together to hear about the international situation of asbestos use, hearing from Australian and Vietnamese experts on how Lao PDR can avoid the public health time bomb of asbestos disease.
We know a ban is possible. Over 51 countries have outlawed the use of asbestos and not just in rich countries like Australia and the United Kingdom. Developing countries, such as South Africa, Egypt and Honduras have embraced the need to rid the world of asbestos.
But our job is made more difficult by the active export of asbestos by countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and most shamefully, Canada. These countries actively court developing countries to continue to use asbestos for economic reasons. They peddle the myth that white asbestos can be used safely, despite knowing that workers who handle asbestos are the least likely to be given any kind of protective equipment, let alone the full body, fully sealed equipment that would be needed to avoid any exposure.
Union Aid Abroad - APHEDA
Ph: (02) 9264 9343
Fax: (02) 9261 1118
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