Indonesian Villagers Destroy Asbestos Houses
In November 2007, anti-asbestos demonstrators set fire to some of the 204 asbestos-cement houses in Banda Aceh donated by the Bakrie Family Institution (BFI) as part of the tsunami reconstruction effort. The 36 square meter houses had been built along the Deah Raya beach with roofing, ceiling and walls containing up to 20% chrysotile asbestos, according to Dr. Zinatul Hayati, a member of the Supervisory Council of the Aceh Nias Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Agency (BRR Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi), a special agency developed by the Indonesian Government to manage the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Aceh
Why did the BFI use asbestos as part of its charitable activities when the World Bank and UN-sponsored post-tsunami projects discouraged its use? Donor countries, such as Australia and the UK, also specified that no asbestos be used in reconstruction projects they financed, even though there are no legal restrictions on the use of asbestos in Indonesia. The reason for the BFI's disregard of the asbestos hazard is not hard to fathom. The Chairman of the BFI is Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia's Minister for Public Welfare, and an industrialist who is, according to Forbes Magazine, the richest man in the country.1 One of his holdings, Bakrie Building Industries, uses asbestos to manufacture building materials such as asbestos-cement roofing, ceiling tiles, walls panels and fencing.2
Local people were made aware of the presence of asbestos in the BFI-donated buildings and the possible consequences it could have for the health of the inhabitants by the Anti-Corruption Movement (Gerak) and public health experts. According to reports in the local newspaper Serambi, Dr. Zinatul Hayati told members of the local community that the Bakrie houses were unhealthy due to the presence of asbestos. To counter growing unrest about this issue, the BRR commissioned an Australian occupational hygienist to investigate the residents' concerns. In August 2007, he reported no detectable asbestos fibers in the ambient air. This finding was rejected by the Anti-Corruption movement which said that the tests had not been conducted in Deah Raya, but in Aceh Besar. Furthermore, there had been no home improvements such as minor repairs or refurbishments carried out at the four tested houses.
A one-page document distributed at the BRR's Asbestos Test Result Meeting on August 29, 2007 set out precautions which should be taken for people residing in these houses. It pointed out that:
"Asbestos fibres in sheeting products are firmly bonded together by cement and are therefore unable to become airborne when sheeting products are undamaged during normal use."
Surely, the BRR should be aware that as these units are replacements for tsunami-damaged homes, it is totally inappropriate to choose materials which require normal use for them to be used safely. The document continues:
Typical household activities such as hanging picture frames and repairing accidental dents to sheeting do not create health hazards if no dust is created.
How can household repairs be accomplished without creating dust? The final erroneous statement which I will cite, and there are many others, from this document is the following:
There are millions of buildings constructed throughout Europe, North America and countries like Australia that still contain large amounts of asbestos building products yet are safe to occupy because they are maintained in good condition.
Numerous reports of asbestos contamination of building stock in Australia and elsewhere in the developed world, leave little doubt that this situation poses a serious risk not only to residents but also to those who undertake domestic repairs on an amateur or professional basis. All things considered, wouldn't it have been better to provide asbestos-free housing to those people who lost everything in the 2004 tsunami? The BRR Supervisory Council sent an appeal to the BRR to replace the asbestos-containing materials used in Deah Raya with safer alternatives; the matter remains unresolved and most of the contaminated properties remain unoccupied. The BRR has, more or less washed its hands of the matter, considering the housing project finished.
January 28, 2008
1 He is also the President of the Fiber Cement Manufacturer Association of Indonesia.