Fight against asbestos goes global
LAOS is a quiet, mostly rural South-East Asian country that is just starting on a path to industrialisation – but it is growing quickly.
The construction industry is booming and the economy is growing over 8% every year. The workers in Laos’ busy roof tile factories, however, have no idea they are working with a killer.
In Laos, asbestos is being used mainly in the production of roof tiles and concrete pipes. Laos is a relatively recent user of asbestos, but consumption is rising rapidly and could reach 9000 tonnes a year. It is handled, stored and transported with little concern for exposure to its deadly fibres.
The asbestos industry is promoting asbestos in developing countries as a cheap and useful building material, just as it was once promoted in Australia. Workers, their families and communities are being exposed to this deadly hazard without knowing it can kill, not only in Laos but in Vietnam as well.
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is working to change that.
As the overseas humanitarian aid agency of the ACTU, APHEDA has been working with both the Lao trade union and relevant government ministries since 2010.
Sounding a warning
“We are sounding the warning,” said APHEDA’s Mekong Regional Representative Phillip Hazelton, “to workers and communities to put banning asbestos on the national agenda, and also help Laos do the long-term thinking on the real costs of continuing to use asbestos.”
In July 2013, this work took a big step forward through a national conference of key ministries which kicked off the development of a Laos national strategy and helped Laos learn lessons from experiences in Australia, Japan and Thailand.
APHEDA, with funding support from what was then AusAID as well as unions in Australia, supported the Lao Ministry of Industry and Commerce to organise the conference titled Working Towards a National Strategy on Asbestos in Laos.
Participants included high-ranking government officials from eight related ministries; the Lao trade union; the global union Building Workers International; international academics and experts from Japan, Thailand, and the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute in Sydney; the World Health Organisation; the Australian Ambassador to Laos, Lynda Worthaisong; Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA; the Asia Ban Asbestos Network; and AusAID.
The two-day conference, the first of its kind in Laos, discussed asbestos exposure risks for workers and communities, including mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The conference heard lessons from Thailand’s work towards banning asbestos use; medical statistics from Laos; the Japanese and Australian experiences and subsequent bans; and about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died or will die of asbestos-related diseases around the world.
It was the first time many of the participants had heard of the dangers of asbestos. Even the Lao Federation of Trade Unions had only become fully aware of the dangers after the APHEDA program commenced in 2010.
Total ban on asbestos
In the opening speech to the conference, the Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce, Khemmany Phonsena, spoke about learning from the mistakes of others and finding alternatives before the problem got worse.
By the end of the conference, many officials had embraced the idea of an eventual total ban on asbestos – despite initial concerns over costs of replacement construction materials. A report from the conference will go to the full Cabinet of the Lao government.
The future health costs of continuing asbestos use in Laos will be extensive. It often takes 20 to 40 years after asbestos exposure for health problems to emerge, and, until there is a ban on asbestos, many Lao workers, their families and members of their communities will continue to be exposed to the risk of inhaling dangerous asbestos fibres and the risk of asbestos-related diseases.
Worker training, as well as awareness programs for surrounding communities, is now planned or underway in the ten asbestos roof sheet factories identified by the project.
Policies and regulations for restricting and eventually banning asbestos are being considered. It may take years to eradicate this hazard from the Lao environment, but acting early will save many lives, save future health and clean-up costs, and build healthier, safer workplaces.
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