South Africa, Peru and Korea to Restrict Asbestos Use
Despite aggressive lobbying by asbestos stakeholders, moves by governments in three countries will seriously restrict the future use of asbestos. On October 28, 2005, South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, published proposed asbestos regulations,1 approved by the Cabinet, which would:
prohibit all products and substances that contain asbestos. This will mean that no person may import or export such products and substances.
At a press conference, Minister van Schalkwyk spoke of a decline of 39% in national consumption from 12,600 tons in 2000 to 7,700 tons in 2002; he said:
There are fewer than 200 people employed in the domestic asbestos industry, and it is increasingly feasible to replace asbestos with alternative fibres for these reasons the anticipated impacts will be minimal, especially in comparison to the expected health-care savings2...
For too many years communities across SA have lived with the dangers of asbestos and asbestos products we are now taking the final steps to ensure that this health hazard never again threatens our people and our communities.3
Any person who imports or exports banned asbestos fibre or products could be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years. Interested parties had 30 days to comment on the proposed regulations.
Asbestos stakeholders from South Africa's Northern neighbour Zimbabwe have already signalled their intention to lobby for a government U-turn on the ban proposals; repeating the industry's mantra of safe use of safe asbestos, the Zimbabwe National Chrysotile Task Force cited the 1986 asbestos conventions of the International Labor Organization saying:
These international labour organizations (sic) conventions 160 and 162 have for a long time now provided an excellent framework for asbestos users in their quest to prevent occupational hazards due to chrysotile asbestos.4
South African asbestos expert Brian Gibson disagrees. Based on over 20 years experience advising South Africa's largest asbestos user, Everite Building Products, he says:
In the early 1980s Everite tried to eliminate the risk of asbestos by introducing arguably one of the most advanced occupational health and safety programmes in South African history Regardless of the company's state-of-the-art occupational health and safety measures, pre-employment medicals and exclusion of employees with previous exposure to asbestos, nine Everite employees who joined the company in the early 1990s were recently diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.5
In addition, Gibson admitted, 42 Everite employees who joined the company in the 1980s have been diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions having been exposed to very low levels of asbestos, mainly chrysotile.
At the beginning of 2005, the asbestos industry organized a meeting in Lima entitled Influencia de los Asbestos en la Salud de las Poblaciones y de los trabajadores to present the controlled use argument which would sanction the continued use of asbestos in Peru. Of the five conference speakers, four had links with the asbestos industry in Canada or Mexico. The representative from the CGTP-Peru,6 Mario Huaman, who was scheduled to speak, withdrew his participation prior to the event. Despite intensive lobbying in Peru, the government is now actively considering plans to prohibit the use of all asbestos and a bill has been drawn up and is now out for public consultation. 7
Bans on the use of most asbestos were adopted in Korea in 2000 and 2003. The use of chrysotile, white asbestos, is still permitted and last year (2004) 14,000 tons were imported. On October 24, 2005, the Ministry of Environment announced plans to strictly regulate the import, manufacture and use of chrysotile as of 2006.8 A spokesperson for the Ministry, who spoke of the public health and environmental risks caused by asbestos, said:
We have decided to reinforce the law on asbestos and once it is designated as a highly restricted substance, it will be much harder to import, manufacture and utilize.
November 23, 2005
1 Proposed regulations in terms of section 24B of the Environment Conservation Act, 1989 (Act No. 73 of 1989) as amended.
2 A South African study (the NEDLAC FRIDGE study) predicted that an asbestos ban would save R27m (US$4m) a year in compensation and health care costs.
3Final Step Taken Towards Asbestos Ban. October 28, 2005. Website (accessed October 29, 2005): http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/national.aspx?ID=BD4A106929
4 Morris R. Zimbabwe Task Force to Lobby SA over Asbestos Regulations. November 21, 2005. Website: http://www.busrep.co.za/index.php?fArticleId=3003167&fSetId=662
5 Morris R. No Worker is Safe, says Asbestos Expert. November 22, 2005.
6 CGTP: Confederacion General de Trabajadores del Peru
7 The title of the draft bill is: Proyecto de Decreto Supremo que aprueba el Reglamento Prohibicion de Asbestos en todas sus variedades y regulacion de los procesos de remocion de Asbesto.
8 Asbestos to be Strictly Regulated as a Harmful Substance. October 25, 2005. Website (accessed October 26, 2005): http://www.kois.go.kr/News/News/newsprint.asp?serial_no=20051024015