Pandemic Portends the Demise of the Asbestos Industry
Throughout the pandemic, theres been a resurgence of support for sustainable development, environment-friendly policymaking,1 better informed government direction,2 and evidence-based decision making.3 Politicians the world over have pledged to build back better,4 restore science to Government,5 mobilize science to protect the health and well-being of citizens6 and develop policies guided by the best available scientific data. The accomplishment of these goals will be fundamental to addressing climate change and creating a greener economy for current and future generations. The continuing use of asbestos is incompatible with this shared vision and the decline in its use over recent years substantiates the widespread rejection of this toxic technology.
On February 9, 2021, the Government of Vietnam issued a decree which signalled the death knell for the countrys asbestos industry. For several years, pressure had been building in Vietnam for an end to asbestos consumption7 between 2012 and 2016, there was a 26% drop in asbestos imports with annual consumption falling from 78,900 tonnes(t) to 61,800t.8 In fact, the importance of the Vietnamese asbestos market is more symbolic than substantive: in 2016, four other Asian countries imported far more asbestos fiber than Vietnam: India 308,000t, China 288,000t, Indonesia 114,000t and Uzbekistan 70,600t. However, if asbestos were to be banned in Vietnam, a country with close political, economic, social and historical ties to Russia the worlds largest asbestos producer then other Asian countries might also be emboldened to prioritize the health of their citizens over the profits of the asbestos industry. As Asian asbestos markets absorb 70%+ of all the asbestos produced every year, the rejection of asbestos by Vietnam, a former ally, could set off a domino effect throughout the region.9
Recent efforts by Asian countries to take action on the asbestos hazard have been disrupted by a diversity of means including trade sanctions and diplomatic handcuffs.10 An asbestos phase-out in Sri Lanka planned to start on January 1, 2018 with a full ban achieved by 2024 was derailed in the face of strong-arm tactics by Russia, which threatened to embargo all imports of Sri Lankan tea in retaliation. Trade unions, labor federations and asbestos victims groups in Sri Lanka and abroad condemned the blatant economic blackmail exerted by Russia with Padmasiri Ranawakaarachchi, Secretary General of the Trade Union Federation of Sri Lanka strongly urging the government to return to the ban timetable already announced and not bow to the pressure from Russia... the government should, he said stick to its decision for a total ban by 2024. 11
Asbestos vested interests from home and abroad are fighting tooth and nail to forestall action by the Sir Lanka Government on restricting imports of chrysotile (white) asbestos fiber and curtailing sales of asbestos-containing products, the most popular of which is asbestos-cement roofing. As recently as February 17, 2021 an informercial, masquerading as reportage, on an English language Sri Lankan online portal extolled the virtues of chrysotile (white) asbestos roofing calling it a vital component of Sri Lankas construction industry. The links between exposure to chrysotile asbestos and the causation of deadly diseases were categorically denied: there is no evidence to conclusively establish a significant correlation between health deterioration, particularly cancer, and exposure to chrysotile among the chrysotile cement roofing sheet users in Sri Lanka. Bemoaning attacks on the industry, the author noted: regardless of the importance of chrysotile roofing sheets, the industry has faced constant backlash and baseless allegations claiming that these sheets pose a threat to the health of our society.12 Additional evidence, if more were needed, of the bias of the author could be found in the concluding section of the text:
The chrysotile cement roofing sheet is not just construction material. It serves as a way to improve the standards of living for communities across the island. With that in mind, it is important for legislators to analyse the facts and understand that there is simply no risk involved in using these roofing sheets.
Having digressed from the subject of Vietnams new construction regulations, let us now consider more closely the text of the February 9th Decree 09/2021/ND-CP on Management of Building Materials.13 The critical phrases amongst the Decrees four chapters and sixteen articles which impact on the asbestos sector are no less important for being so succinct that they could easily be overlooked by someone unfamiliar with the context.14 Although the title of the Decree: On Management of Construction Materials and the majority of the text was of a more general nature, the provisions mentioning asbestos when combined with other restrictions will create difficult, if not impossible conditions, for the asbestos sector to meet.15 As a result, the transition to asbestos-free technology, which began more than a decade ago, will almost certainly intensify.
The points listed below from the Decree are the ones most likely to affect Vietnams asbestos sector:
The status quo that asbestos vested interests had long fought to preserve one in which the industrys fallacious controlled use of asbestos held sway is gone. It seems unlikely however that the industry will accept the new reality without a fight. As recently as January 19, 2021, the Vietnam Association of Building Materials held a Safe to use fibro [asbestos] cement products workshop in Hanoi to promote sales of asbestos cement products.17 As is usual with asbestos lobbyists, the trade association organizing this event advertised it as an information session to discuss and provide more information for consumers about the possibility of safe use of asbestos cement products and not a commercial activity. Industry spokespeople gave assurances regarding the harmless nature of their products, repeatedly citing loopholes in Vietnamese regulations about product labelling and environmental controls to justify their industrys toxic practices.
Mdm. Luong Mai Anh giving the opening speech on December 11, 2020 in Hanoi, Vietnam [photo courtesy of Nguyen Xuan Lam, Australias Union Aid Abroad APHEDA].
Commenting on the propaganda promoted at the January 19 event, Kate Lee from the Australian organization Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) said:
There is no safe use of chrysotile asbestos. Coming from a country that has banned this deadly product a long time ago it really saddens us this industry can still get away with this misinformation. Sixty-six countries have fully banned chrysotile asbestos in all regions of the globe. Asbestos fibers within asbestos-containing materials like roof sheet are released into the air when it is cut or it breaks or its recycled for other uses or after it weathers and degrades over long periods of time. In Australia 4,000 people a year are still dying of asbestos related diseases, 18 years after a ban was introduced. Many of the current deaths are because home renovators are breathing in the fibres while renovating their houses. Claims that asbestos materials are safe are completely irresponsible. Consumers have the right to know what they are buying and the health hazards of these products. Labelling of these hazardous materials is an important consumer right. The asbestos industry profits seem more important to them than health of communities and workers that are exposed to their deadly product. With high quality safer and price competitive alternatives available its past time for an Asia wide asbestos ban.18
As can be seen by the efforts in Vietnam, asbestos stakeholders will stop at nothing to protect their profits. In recent weeks, bizarre articles from Russia and Kazakhstan have been uploaded using the most tenuous of hooks to continue making the industrys arguments about asbestos. According to these pieces:
It is long past time that decision-makers and consumers will accept unchallenged the regurgitated propaganda posited by asbestos profiteers. Last Thursday (February 18, 2021), at an asbestos meeting in the capital city of Laos, delegates were warned that over the next decade the lives of 500+ people were at danger from fibers liberated by manufacturing at asbestos factories in nine Laotian provinces. Commenting on the hazard, Minister of Health Associate Prof. Dr Bounkong Syhavong, in the presence of officials from the World Health Organization, the Australian Embassy and the Laos Government, said:
I think the best way to eliminate the risk of asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of asbestos in these 16 factories. Other materials can be used instead, such as polyurethane foam, flour fillers, cellulose fibres, thermoset plastic flour and amorphous silica.23
As the objective of the meeting was to implement measures to eradicate asbestos-related diseases in Laos, it is quite obvious that the message regarding the long-standing threat asbestos exposures and consumption posed to Laotians had been received. In Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the future is asbestos-free.
February 23, 2021
1 Dundas, M. Macron pledges 15 billion to make Frances economy greener. June 29, 2020.
2 The science is clear. Scientists and others renew call on governments to recognise aerosol transmission, update guidance and enforcement. February 29, 2021
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA Commits to Strengthening Science Used in Chemical Risk Evaluations. February 16, 2021.
4 PM: A New Deal for Britain. June 20, 2020.
5 US president-elect Joe Biden must quickly restore science to government. November 9, 2020.
6 Canadas plan to mobilize science to fight COVID-19. March 23, 2020.
7 Articles delineating the highs and lows in Vietnams asbestos debate can be found in these online archives:
8 U.S. Geological Survey. Mineral Commodity Summaries. Asbestos. January 2021.
9 Kazan-Allen, L. Global Asbestos Panorama 2019. November 12, 2019.
11 MEDIA RELEASE. Economic blackmail by Russia against Sri Lankas asbestos ban decision slammed by international trade unions and health networks. January 3, 2018.
12 Chrysotile cement roofing sheets; a misunderstood yet vital component of Sri Lankas construction industry. February 17, 2021.
For initiatives by civil society groups documenting the deadly repercussions of asbestos exposures and propaganda offensives by industry stakeholders in Sri Lanka, see this online news archive:
13 Nghị định 09/2021/NĐ-CP về quản lý vật liệu xây dựng [Decree 09/2021 / ND-CP on management of building materials]. February 9, 2021.
14 Articles delineating the highs and lows in Vietnams asbestos debate can be found in these online archives:
15 Nghị định số 09/2021/NĐ-CP của Chính phủ: Về quản lý vật liệu xây dựng [Decree No. 09/2021 / ND-CP of the Government: On management of construction materials]. February 9, 2021.
Also see: Nghị định 09/2021/NĐ-CP về quản lý vật liệu xây dựng [Decree 09/2021 / ND-CP on management of building materials].
Also see: Tãng cường quản lý chất lượng vật liệu xây dựng [Strengthening the quality management of building materials].
16 This text was translated from the original Vietnamese into English using Google Translate.
17 Xem xét cơ sở để dán nhãn cảnh báo với sản phẩm tấm lợp fibro ximăng [Examine the facility for affixing warning labels with fibro-cement roofing products]. January 19, 2021.
18 Email received from P. Hazelton January 29, 2021.
19 Волшебная повседневность: путь асбеста от волос саламандры до шифера [Magical daily life: the path of asbestos from salamander hair to slate]. February 17, 2021.
20 Асбестовые легенды: как минерал путешествует через историю [Asbestos Legends: How a Mineral Travels Through History]. February 2, 2021.
21 Правда и мифы о косметике [Truth and myths about cosmetics]. February 18, 2021.
23 Over 500 workers at risk of asbestos-related diseases. February 19, 2021.