The asbestos debate


In my instalment some three weeks ago about reviving asbestos mines in Zimbabwe, I indicated there was need for the government to take extra care as asbestos are an environmental and health hazard but the asbestos lobby group did not take the message lightly.

Several local lobby groups said they are now using technology that can help them manufacture safe asbestos as never before. In the ensuing discussions a US-based Zimbabwean environmental scientist saved the day with his insightful argument. The Worldwatch Institute also gave scientific evidence to that effect.

Below are excerpts: “We are writing to respond to your opinion piece on “asbestos” and SMM but, in particular, your interest in asbestos issues.

As a spokesman of the National Chrysotile Taskforce (NCTF), an asbestos watchdog in Zimbabwe, we felt that something would be amiss if we did not respond and clarify certain perceptions surrounding the asbestos industry.

One is the serpentine mineral called chrysotile (white) and the other is the amphibole mineral which includes such fibers as amosite (brown), crocidolite (blue) and tremolite . . .

Turnall Holdings, a member of NCTF, has invested $5 million in new technology equipment to produce asbestos-free products primarily for the export market.

The non-asbestos plant has been commissioned and has started producing the new technology product soon to be available in the regional markets that have banned asbestos.

Turnall has moved ahead and has made this deliberate decision to produce asbestos-free product so that it offers the customer a choice.

The product is awaiting certification by SABS because Turnall subscribes to internationally-recognised standards. Exposure to fibres from a finished product is therefore further reduced during the manufacturing process. – Shame Chibvongodze NCTF spokesperson
But US-based environmental scientist Maxwell Shumba said: You (writer) are 100% correct in your assessment of dangers posed by asbestos.

It is naïve to think that there is a safe form of asbestos. All forms are dangerous and the less dangerous eg chrysotile its effects are made more dangerous by its wide usage.

Here is a bit of information about each form of asbestos to assist those who are incorrectly thinking that they are in the know when they criticise the writer.

Historically, only three of these forms have been used commercially and today only one, chrysotile (white asbestos) is still in use.

There are six asbestos types of asbestos categorised into two separate groups: serpentine and amphibole. Amphiboles are considered the most dangerous types and the leading culprit of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.

Chrysotile: Because of its pervasive use, it is also the leading cause of asbestos-related health problems, including mesothelioma.

There is a concerted effort on the part of the chrysotile industry to portray white asbestos as completely safe.Crocidolite blue asbestos is considered the most hazardous forms of asbestos. Colored blue by iron, crocidolite has brittle spear-like fibers that break from the host easily and are difficult for the body to expel once inhaled or swallowed, a condition that can eventually lead to asbestosis or mesothelioma.

Tremolite is considered a highly dangerous form of asbestos. Like the other amphiboles, tremolite fibres are extremely small, sharp, and easily embed into the lining of the stomach and heart when inhaled or swallowed. The resulting scarring and irritation of asbestos fibres can, over many years and decades lead to mesothelioma cancer.

Tremolite asbestos is most closely associated with the tragic story of Libby, Montana. The people of Libby were exposed to high amounts of tremolite contaminating a vermiculite ore mined near the town for six decades.

Many hundreds of townspeople lost their lives to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases due to the negligent actions of the W R Grace Company which owned the mine.

Worldwatch Institute, senior fellow and Transforming Cultures Project director Erik Assadourian said: I just saw your column and agree completely that protecting the environment will be impossible without addressing consumerism — a cultural pattern rapidly spreading around the world. We’re a small minority and smaller in resources when compared to those spreading a consumer culture, but the more effort the easier the transition when the consumer culture eventually implodes.

Fortunately, I had done a bit of research before writing my installment on asbestos. This sheer absurdity of pretending that chrysotile asbestos can be used safely recently caught the eye of the popular show in Canada and they recently did a five-minute segment, ridiculing the industry, the mining company, and the town of Asbestos in Canada.

It is a must-see and reveals a jaw-dropping level of ignorance and denial on the part of the people promoting asbestos. The manager of the mine comes off looking particularly ridiculous, suggesting early on in the interview that there is obviously no problem because when you walk the streets of Asbestos you don’t see any sick people.

The days when CEOs spoke to the media without being prepped by their PR flaks are long gone – except in Asbestos. The manager actually suggests that people in developing countries wouldn’t be bothered by asbestos fibres because they are “used to pollution. It’s like they have a natural antibiotic”.

Once governments and corporate executives start being ridiculed on international media, their misbehaviour often ends soon after. We can hope!

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