Next Wave of Asbestos Victims? 

Report by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Civil servants, diplomats and politicians are rarely included in lists of those most at risk of contracting asbestos-related diseases. However, recent discoveries in New York and Strasbourg may cause some members of these groups to reassess the gravity of hazardous occupational asbestos exposures experienced at United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) premises. The UN headquarters, a historic New York landmark, is in major need of renovation and decontamination; the roof leaks, fire safety is an on-going concern, and outdated heating and air conditioning systems are unreliable. Asbestos can be found in old vinyl floor tiles, acoustic wall tiles, ceiling plaster and in heating and pipe insulation material;1 asbestos insulated pipes in the UN basement are a point of interest on guided tours given by UN official Werner Schmidt.2 The refurbishment and decontamination plans for the New York headquarters have been under consideration for more than a decade. Recent estimates predict the work could cost up to $2 billion and take eight years during which time 2,600 people would be relocated and 2,200 would continue to work on-site.

Hazardous asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are also present at other UN-occupied buildings:

Palais des Nations, Switzerland

ACMs were used here for soundproofing and fireproofing; although the majority of the asbestos products have been removed from the Geneva buildings, small amounts of contaminated fireproofing remain on metal beams in three rooms in E Wing (the new building). This material has been encapsulated; removing it would cost $1 million.

UN Office, Austria

During the construction of the Vienna International Center (VIC), a complex occupied by the UN in Austria, sprayed asbestos fireproofing, asbestos panels and ropes were used in air ducts, on doors, walls and partitions. In 2003, small-scale asbestos removal exercises were carried out. The phased asbestos decontamination and refurbishment of the VIC is scheduled to take 13 years, with completion expected in 2010.

Economic Commission for Africa, Ethiopia

ACMs were used during the construction (1961-1976) of the Addis Ababa headquarters of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa for acoustic insulation of ceiling panels, thermal pipe and duct insulation and soundproofing between metal panels for wall partitions. Bulk sampling was due to begin in 2001; no further information is available.

UN Regional Commission, Chile

The buildings in Santiago which house the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean were constructed between 1966 and 1992. ACMs were used for thermal insulation on water pipes and acoustic filler in partition walls. Although all the asbestos-containing water pipe insulation was removed more than 15 years ago, testing has confirmed the presence of asbestos. Removal of asbestos-containing wall partitions were due to commence in 2000-2001; it is unknown if this work has been completed.

UN Regional Commission, Thailand

The Bangkok building complex in which the UN's Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is located contains 35,000m2 of chrysotile asbestos vinyl floor tiles. Although the UN denies that any risk exists from “non-friable” vinyl tiles, plans were put in place to remove all these tiles over a six year period, commencing in 2002; it is not known if this was accomplished.3

An announcement on October 12 (2007) of the presence of significant amounts of asbestos in buildings newly acquired by the European Parliament, the Winston Churchill bloc and the Salvador de Madariaga unit (Strasbourg), brought back memories of the 1990s' asbestos fiasco at the Berlaymont, the Brussels headquarters of the European Commission. After a huge scandal caused by the escalating bill for decontamination and refurbishment of the 13 story flagship building, a 1 billion Euro facelift was completed and the building was finally declared to be “asbestos-free” 13 years after work first began. Although the Parliament was advised of the presence of asbestos in technical facility rooms of the Strasbourg buildings before the acquisition, it turns out that the contamination could be up to three times what was previously indicated. According to the European Parliament “the costs both of the new study and for removing the asbestos must be borne by the previous owners (SCI Erasme, a Dutch pension fund).” An inquiry into how much asbestos is contained in the contaminated buildings has been scheduled.

October 28, 2007


1 Lane Thomas. Much-needed Makeover for UN Icon. October 28, 2007.

2 CMP: Finally Getting Rid of Asbestos – Once and For All. September 11, 2007.

3 Review and Assessment of the Asbestos Problem at the United Nations and management of Asbestos-Containing Materials at Overseas Building at Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and at the locations of the Regional Commissions. July 13, 2000.



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