Asbestos can cause cancer but ‘it’s cheap’

Official sees ‘no reason’ for more expensive substitutes

Known as a cause of lung cancer, asbestos has been banned in the European Union and other advanced nations such as Japan for years.

But some new scientific studies show that its use in construction and other industries could still be safe if handled properly.

Thailand permits the use of white asbestos, called chrysotile, as a raw material in manufacturing.

Professor David Bernstein, a Swiss consultant on toxicology, said here last week that it was a common misconception that asbestos was generally dangerous and should be banned.

“We can use chrysotile safely if it is cleverly used,” he said.

Bernstein, who is also a member of expert panels for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation, said chrysotile was less dangerous than blue or brown asbestos due to its greater fragility and solubility.

“This helps it get out of the human lung easily before causing trouble in the body,” he said.

Srichant Uthayopas, director of the Industrial Works Department’s Hazardous Substance Control Bureau, said Thailand imported about 200,000 tonnes of asbestos a year, mostly for various kinds of cement products used in construction.

Some is used for auto parts like brakes and clutches, as well as insulators and textiles.

Asbestos made of crocidolite and amosite minerals has been outlawed here since July 2003, but chrysotile is still allowed into the country on prior approval.

“We now import only chrysotile, because our industry needs it for its strength and flexibility, which are required for construction projects,” she said.

“A substitute for chrysotile would be costly, and I see no reason to pay more for one. Safety and environmental protection are important, but economics is more so,” Srichant said, adding that Malaysia, the Philippines and China also still used chrysotile.

Health experts beg to differ. According to a research study by Mahidol University, 2.1 of every 10,000 people living in buildings made from cement containing asbestos are liable to develop lung cancer.

The risk rises to 2.37 per 10,000 if they both live and work in such buildings.

The study is based on a life expectancy of 70 years, including 40 years of work.

“Yes, the risk is there, but it is small compared to smokers, who have a higher risk, 880 out of 10,000,” Srichant said, adding that as long as there was no scientific proof, chrysotile should still be used.

Local health and pollution-control officials want to ban chrysotile following the adoption of the Rotterdam Convention.

The chrysotile debate has extended beyond health issues.

According to Bernstein, Japan became a core supporter of the asbestos ban after its labourers working with this type of asbestos in ports were found to be at risk of lung cancer.

“However, doctors did not take the heavy smoking habit of those workers into consideration before concluding that working with chrysotile caused the cancer,” said Bernstein, who asserts that he is independent of the chrysotile industry.

Bernstein also noted that France had supported the ban in 1996 when it could produce a substitute for chrysotile.

“It is the biggest substitute-exporter, followed by Germany and Belgium,” he said, adding that the argument that the substitute was chrysotile-free did not mean it was risk-free.

Srichant said the chrysotile controversy had increasingly become an international trade and political issue.

“Since we’ve been importing a large amount of chrysotile, we’re also a major market for its substitute. I have also been asked to support the substitute,” she said.

While advocating chrysotile use for cheapness, she hopes there will be further research on its safe use.

According to health and environmental experts, the potential risk of asbestos is due to its cumulative effects, but there still has been no sufficient study covering this issue.

“It is a challenge to our country, as well as other countries, on how practically to balance economic gain and environmental and health losses of our people,” she said.

“This kind of challenge will crop up more and more in the globalised world.”