Educating the Public About Asbestos: The Need
In November 2016, World Monuments Fund organized a public event, the “Asbestos Building Materials Workshop,” in Yangon, Myanmar. The workshop—the first of its kind in Myanmar—related to WMF’s project at Judson First Baptist Church, as well as to the larger building inventory and general health issues in Myanmar; although thousands of buildings contain asbestos materials, there are no national laws or regulations regarding the removal of those materials. Following the discovery of asbestos in the corrugated sheet roof at the First Baptist Church—still an active place of worship for the local congregation—WMF enlisted international experts to help with the safe removal of the materials, and to take part in the educational public workshop. WMF Program Director Jeff Allen offers his insight on the workshop.
A New Kind of Workshop
In Myanmar, using the ongoing rehabilitation of Adoniram Judson’s First Baptist Church in Mawlamyine as a case study, World Monuments Fund conducted the first-ever public awareness event on building materials containing asbestos. Workshop participants attended lectures and engaged a collection of WMF specialists from Australia, France, Japan, Myanmar, and New Zealand with expertise in conserving historic structures, asbestos-related diseases, and removing building materials with asbestos mineral fibers. The event, held in association with a grant from the U.S. Embassy through the U.S. State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) program, took place at the Myanmar Engineering Society headquarters in Yangon.
After site work at the First Baptist Church began with a comprehensive drawing documentation and condition assessment program, analysis led to prioritizing necessary actions to: first, make a package of repairs including halting water infiltration by changing the modern replacement roof that had been added after World War II destruction; and second—to support sustainability—invest in the church congregation’s capacity to better care for the building. Laboratory confirmation that the defective roof sheets contain asbestos mineral fibers, a known carcinogen, was a game changer, requiring a new, more thoughtful third objective to intervening at Judson’s church.
An Opportunity for Positive Change
As has been the case at other AFCP-funded projects World Monuments Fund implements, something that could be an insurmountable obstacle actually opened up a dynamic opportunity; in the case of the First Baptist Church, that opportunity was to help not just the church congregation, but the larger general Myanmar public. Myanmar has thousands of buildings with corrugated roof sheets and ceiling and wall panels containing Chrysotile asbestos mineral fibers, yet there still are no laws or guidelines in handling these materials in the country. Their removal is often through methods that are unsafe to construction workers and their families; moreover, unregulated disposal is dangerous to the environment. The in-country production of asbestos materials may have stopped in 2004, but asbestos building materials are still imported from other countries. The legacy is that hundreds may needlessly die each year from mesothelioma, a rare and often misdiagnosed cancer directly attributable to asbestos, and six times as many people may suffer from asbestos-related lung cancer—the effects of which show up only decades after exposure.
WMF recognizes the valuable contributions it can make for the country by employing the First Baptist Church rehabilitation process to exemplify internationally-recognized safe practices for removing hazardous building materials. WMF intends to move forward with rehabilitation work through example of these, and in parallel create literature and public information related to guiding contractors in handling the material. Following the Asbestos Building Materials Workshop, the messages that attendees went away with is that heritage preservation and health share values, and seeding awareness must ultimately lead to a legislated ban on all asbestos products in Myanmar.