China's Asbestos Challenge
Even if China banned the use of asbestos tomorrow, the country would be left with a massive challenge posed by the presence of millions of tonnes of asbestos contained in the country's infrastructure. A classic example of how the massive use of asbestos impacts on the daily life of the population can be seen in the village of Ma Shi Po, in the New Territories of Hong Kong, where asbestos is present everywhere.1
Hazardous exposures to asbestos in this village were brought to light by an investigation carried out by the No More Asbestos in Hong Kong Alliance (the Alliance), a coalition of seven Hong Kong civil society groups concerned about labor rights which has coalesced over the asbestos hazard.2
|Sign reads: No More Asbestos in Hong Kong Alliance request for the Government to supervise the demolition work and ban all types of asbestos.|
|Alliance representatives in Ma Shi Po village.|
The objectives of the Alliance include lobbying the government to prohibit the import and use of all kinds of asbestos and to regulate stringently all the demolition work involving asbestos.
Earlier this year, the coalition had been made aware that property developers the Henderson Land Development Company Limited had been demolishing scores of asbestos-roofed houses in Ma Shi Po with total disregard for Hong Kong safety standards.
Local man Kwan Hon-kwai told a journalist that he and his neighbors saw Henderson's contractors using metal bars to demolish 100 houses. Kwan reported they knocked off the asbestos roofs and threw the pieces down to the wells. Some just remained on the site. Tenant farmer Au Lau-kun, who has received a letter from Henderson demanding he vacate the 50,000 sq. ft. farm he rents, believes the developers' unsafe working practices are part of a campaign to drive people out of the village.
Under the Factories and Industrial Undertaking Ordinance, the Labor Department mandates that demolition of asbestos-contaminated buildings must be carried out under conditions which include the wearing of protective clothing and masks, the use of specialist equipment and the safe disposal of asbestos debris. None of the health and safety procedures were in place as contractors cleared sites earmarked for development.3 A spokeswoman for Henderson Land said that the contractor which had demolished homes for Henderson in Ma Shi Po in 2008-9 has given us written confirmation that no asbestos was found during their three rounds of demolition.
According to the villagers, there are about 200 houses in Ma Shi Po, half of which are completely or partly demolished. To observe the situation first-hand and to speak to local people, Alliance members went to the village.
The site visit by the campaigners generated media interest, as a result of which TV and newspaper reporters accompanied the inspection team.
To establish the presence of asbestos in the debris, coalition members had samples of the waste analyzed.
A laboratory found that all the samples contained asbestos. On April 16, 2010, the Environmental Protection Department confirmed the presence of asbestos in construction debris littering the village. Unfortunately, local residents who were unaware of the dangerous contents of the discarded building material used it for home improvement projects such as mending fences and building an irrigation channel for crops.
As worrying as the situation is in Ma Shi Po, large-scale development projects for nearby areas such as Kwu Tung and Ping Che could endanger the lives of even more building workers and local residents. Alliance member Mak Tak-ching has reported the presence of asbestos in thousands of old houses and huts in the northern part of Hong Kong. The No More Asbestos in Hong Kong Alliance is making strenuous efforts to encourage the Government to implement proposals to end the use of asbestos as well as address ongoing problems such as the consequences of unregulated demolition of asbestos-containing buildings.4
May 10, 2010
1 No More Asbestos in Hong Kong Alliance. Briefing Paper: The Asbestos Present in Ma Shi Po Village Causes a Health Risk to the Workers and Villagers. Received by email May 8, 2010.
2 The coalition is made up of: the: Association or the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs, Neighborhood and Workers' Service Centre, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Construction Site Workers General Union, Dumper Truck Drivers Association and Concrete Industry Workers Union.
3 Ng J. Asbestos dumping a scare tactic. April 18, 2010.
Nip A. Demolition crew dumped asbestos, villagers say. April 16, 2010.
4 For more information on asbestos issues in China see: A deadly white dust (2) by Melody Kemp. May 5, 2010. http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/3597-A-deadly-white-dust-1-