Educating the Public About Asbestos: The Removal
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 consultant Phil Bamford, director of a leading international asbestos removal firm and a speaker at the workshop, recounts his experience.
I have recently returned from Mawlamyine, a city of around 350,000 inhabitants in the Republic of Myanmar. This was my first consultant role with World Monuments Fund. My field of expertise is asbestos removal and installations of replacement roofs.
Originally constructed in the early twentieth century, the First Baptist Church of Mawlamyine was damaged in World War II during air raids. A bomb struck the building, resulting in a fire, and the original teak roof and shingles were destroyed. After the war, church members donated funds to secure replacement teak rafters and a ceiling. A new concrete fiber sheeting roof was also added on the outside. The only problem with this roof was that the new technology and technique of the time involved asbestos materials as an additive to the concrete, and now—some 65-plus years later—the roof has called it a day, leaks like a sieve, and is crying out to be replaced.
Such a site is by no means foreign to me, because I have been replacing asbestos roofs for 30 years, and beautiful historical buildings tend to stand out in my mind as some of my most memorable projects. A famous landmark in Sydney, Australia—the “Observatory” right beside the Harbor Bridge—is one, and then there is an old church at Kurrajong, Australia, where similar challenges as those found at the First Baptist Church existed. Just this week, the Lidoran Group re-sheeted a collection of Art Deco structures, again right on the edge of Sydney Harbor.
Planning for Safe Removal
Myanmar is in its infancy regarding awareness of the dangers of asbestos. My role as a consultant for World Monuments Fund was to evaluate the First Baptist Church roof and come up with a safe method for the removal and disposal of the asbestos. The project could shortcut responsibilities and put workers at risk—as is usually done in Myanmar—but WMF made the right decision in its planning and execution.
That’s where I come in. We are going to do this properly, and according to international safety standards for the protection of workers. World Monuments Fund is taking what could be an obstacle and instead turning it into an opportunity to change business as usual. As a project advisor, the Lidoran Group will use the First Baptist Church as an exemplary case study, featuring training in removal methods for contractors, personal protective equipment, documenting the process through Burmese-language manuals, and supervising the disposal of asbestos from the rooftop to the trash dump. It will be a safe and thorough job. We already started through basic awareness presentations to the church congregation, conversations with media, and a public workshop—I must say—the first asbestos awareness course in the entire country! It was pleasing to see how people listened and showed concern.
For several decades in the latter half of the twentieth century, asbestos roof sheeting and wall insulation panels were manufactured in Myanmar. Even though this practice was stopped at the start of this century, there are indications that businesses from other countries may be still importing it. On the drive through Yangon and on the six-hour bus trip to Mawlamyine, there was little doubt left in my mind that the use of asbestos was widespread. Myanmar is rapidly changing, and the pace of new development goes hand-in-hand with the demolition and repair of older buildings too, putting workers and their families at risk. My “world citizen consciousness” told me that I need to do my bit to inform the world of cancer risks related to asbestos, and offering guidance on the safe removal and disposal of this dangerous material in Myanmar is a remarkable opportunity.
Photography on this page: Tim Webster, 2016.