Asbestos danger still lingers, experts warn

Despite partial bans and restrictions, poor demolition practices are exposing the public to asbestos, a once-popular insulator now known to be a carcinogen.

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Despite partial bans and restrictions, poor demolition practices are exposing the public to asbestos, a once-popular insulator now known to be a carcinogen, industry experts warn. And some materials containing asbestos are still allowed in the UAE, potentially extending the public health threat. The problem is that asbestos is still not handled safely when buildings are torn down in the UAE, said Edward Forero, senior manager at GTS, a company that specialises in building demolition and asbestos removal.

"There is a large number of unscrupulous contractors who ... do not fulfil the obligations outlined by the municipality," said Mr Forero. The UAE outlawed asbestos boards in November 2006. Any building constructed before then probably contains some form of asbestos, including corrugated concrete roof sheets and wall partitions, in electrical equipment, pipe insulation, and vinyl floor tiles and adhesives. Experts say if the surface of these materials is intact, they are not dangerous.

"Asbestos only becomes a problem when it is disturbed," said Charles Faulkner, the principal consultant at WSP Middle East. Disturbance occurs as the material breaks down, is cut or sanded - practices that cause tiny asbestos fibres to become airborne. Some of these particles are so small that if inhaled, they penetrate deep into the lungs. Even in relatively small quantities, they can cause lung cancer or asbestosis, an irreversible disease that can be fatal.

UAE rules require any building that is to be demolished to be surveyed for asbestos. The inspection must identify exactly the kind of material that is present. Proper removal is expensive and must be done carefully, with trained personnel wearing protective gear in a wet work area. The moisture prevents particles from becoming airborne. Once removed, the asbestos must be transported to a hazardous-waste facility. But not everyone follows these procedures, said Mr Forero.

"A lot of unscrupulous contractors bidding for a project would say there is no asbestos there and just knock [the building] down," he said. "The way they [the authorities] police these things is very lackadaisical." Mr Faulkner also said more attention must be paid to the issue: "One thing we need to look at is enforcement". Asbestos continues to be a problem even after demolition work finishes, said Mr Forero.

"The asbestos material will find its way in the construction rubble," he said. This means the dangerous waste ends up in a construction landfill, where it is not properly contained. It could also end up at a recycling plant, where it poses a risk to employees. Dubai Municipality was not available for comment. In Abu Dhabi, the Centre for Waste Management, which is responsible for licensing asbestos removal contractors, is developing new guidelines for demolition.

The plan requires companies to file a waste-management plan and a waste-minimisation and recycling form. Those documents will be reviewed before permits are granted. The procedure, said Nabil al Mudalal, a senior engineer at the centre, will tackle several problems associated with the industry: the need to recycle construction debris; reducing dust emissions and cutting down on asbestos pollution. The centre is collaborating with Abu Dhabi Municipality to implement the new requirements.

Although those working in the construction industry are most at risk, both Mr Faulkner and Mr Forero said members of the general public should be cautious as well. Mr Forero said asbestos fibres can travel for up to seven miles in the air. And asbestos sheets are still available on the open market despite being banned, he added. Another issue is the use of water pipes made from asbestos cement, which are still legal, said Mr Faulkner, who on Tuesday night gave a lecture for the Emirates Environment Group in Dubai.

Water passing through the pipes will not be contaminated, but fibres released from disturbed surfaces on the pipes could be dangerous. There also is potential for exposure during manufacturing and installation, Mr Faulkner said. He advocates a total ban on asbestos. The European Union also has a complete ban on asbestos products, and there are severe restrictions in the United States, where attempts to impose a complete ban have been challenged in courts.