Educating the Public About Asbestos: The Science
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 Ken Takahasi, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the University of Occupational & Environmental Health in Japan and the keynote speaker at the workshop, relates his experience.
Informing the Public: Mesothelioma and Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer
The Asbestos Building Materials Workshop was held on November 18 at the Myanmar Engineering Society in Yangon. Following the project overview, I gave a keynote speech entitled “Asbestos-Related Diseases (ARD) Sources and Asian Context.” My presentation aimed to inform attendees on where asbestos materials are used, the health risks related to asbestos exposure, and to share knowledge of conditions and legislation elsewhere in Asia.
The most important ARD are malignant mesothelioma (MM) and asbestos-related lung cancer (ARLC). Each is a fatal occupational cancer, difficult to diagnose and poorly recognized—hence “hidden”—in developing countries. It is widely accepted that countries that have used asbestos shoulder a burden of disease (whether apparent or hidden), proportional to the level of asbestos use. My presentation at the Asbestos Building Materials Workshop highlighted information and data published by the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as by my research group (Park EK, Delgermaa V, Chimed-Ochir O, Lin R-T, et al.) regarding the ARD situation in the world, Asia, and Myanmar. The WHO has repeatedly emphasized the need to eliminate ARD based on the estimated 107,000 annual deaths globally. A substantial fraction has been attributed to malignant mesothelioma, but ARLC cases far outnumber MM cases, with an estimated ratio of 6 to 1. Our papers suggested that developing countries in Asia may become the world’s “hotspot” of ARD based on recent trends in asbestos use. We estimated that Myanmar may already be missing 40-150 annual deaths due to MM alone, so the total ARD-related deaths could be as high as 1,050 annually.
Questions from the Audience
Following my presentation, several comments and questions were raised by the audience members, from which I have extracted two that were particularly thought-provoking: i) Future prospects for governmental compensation may impede incentives for adopting a national ban on asbestos; and ii) Is it true that asbestos-containing materials release toxic gas when they catch fire? My responses were as follows:
i) Compensation for occupational disease should be considered a basic right of workers. What is happening in Japan and other countries with growing numbers of compensated asbestos cancers is a consequence of the delay in governmental decisions to adopt a ban. Countries including Myanmar have the opportunity to avoid (or at least lessen) future liabilities by adopting bans as soon as possible.
ii) The simple answer is no. Asbestos is non-combustible with a melting point of 1200 – 1500 degrees Celsius which exceeds usual fire conditions. Fires cause asbestos-containing construction materials to release (as opposed to “melt”) asbestos fibers. Several studies investigated friable asbestos fibers released by fires implicating health risks. Friable asbestos fibers, however, should not be confused with toxic gas.
What are the Next Steps?
Lastly, I observed that Myanmar lacks relevant laws and regulations to prevent asbestos exposure and/or the enforcement of those laws and regulations. To promote societal changes, including a total ban on asbestos, the next step should target administration and the medical profession, perhaps in collaboration with international organizations such as the WHO. I would also look forward to the World Monuments Fund’s continued support for recognizing the shared values between heritage and the health of those who perform work on and live in historic buildings.