Asbestos User Group & Environmental Quality and Protections: briefing

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Meeting report


This Report is a Contact Natural Resource Information Service
Taking Parliament to People, and People to Parliament

The aim of this report is to summarize the main events at the meeting and identify the key role players. This report is not a verbatim transcript of proceedings.

11 October 2000

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The committee was briefed by Mr Brian Gibson from the Asbestos User Group on the use of asbestos and alternative products in South Africa. Chief Director Mr Jerry Lengoasa of Environmental Quality and Protections (DEAT) then presented the committee with a report on the National Asbestos Summit held in 1998, including action plans and legal processes that developed as a result.

Asbestos User Group
Mr Brian Gibson began by discussing the aims of the National Asbestos Summit, which was to review the health hazards involved in asbestos use and ways to replace it with alternative products. The largest user of asbestos in South Africa is Everite Ltd, who had representatives present at the meeting. According to Mr Gibson there were 20,000 tons of asbestos used in South Africa in 1998 alone. South Africa imports asbestos and asbestos products mostly from Zimbabwe. Progress reports show that asbestos use this year has decreased 26% from 1998 levels and by the year 2002 will have decreased 57%. The Commonwealth of Independent States uses over 700,000 tons of asbestos per year, putting South Africa's relatively small usage into perspective. Asbestos products imported into South Africa have been restrained and most are exported to the United States under restricted conditions.

While there have been positive developments regarding alternative fibers, such as cellulose and fiberglass, some specialised applications are still confined to asbestos use. Mr Gibson stressed that all breathable and durable fibers must be considered potentially harmful. The problem with asbestos fibers is that they are so small (about three microns in diameter, five microns in length) that they can be inhaled into the lungs and will remain there causing continual damage for up to 50 years. These fibers are resistant to the body's defense mechanisms that attempt to expel foreign matter and may cause scarring or infection. There is no guarantee that alternative fibers will not present the same risk with excessive exposure. Mr Gibson noted that asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is present everywhere. And although the body can cope with low levels of exposure, prolonged exposure or exposure to large quantities of asbestos can be fatal. He outlined that asbestosis is a disease caused by asbestos exposure in occupational or para-occupational exposure only. He also talked about mesothelioma which is a particularly gruesome type of lung cancer cause by blue and brown asbestos.

Asbestos, or the "miracle mineral", is still in use because it is very tough and durable, energy efficient, cost effective, locally available, and is a natural and renewable resource. Everite has used asbestos for over 100 years in more than 3,000 different products. Mr Gibson said that Everite knew the risks associated with asbestos in the mid 1960s but did not develop a program dealing with education, dust control, health surveillance, and research/development until the mid 1970s. A National Steering Group was also set up and given the authority to control policies and use of asbestos in South Africa. Research into alternative fibers began in the early 1980s, considering more than 400 different strains. In 1987 cellulose-based cement was introduced as "Nutec", but it was not strong enough to be used as roofing sheets. A breakthrough in 1998 increased the strength of Nutec's fibre matrix and made it strong enough to use for roofing. This improved Nutec was used abundantly in townships and other rural areas without evidence of contamination. It is safe and renewable and complies with SABS standards.

Mr Gibson noted that a R80 million plant in Gauteng which manufactures Nutec has replaced the Brackenfell plant in Cape Town, resulting in the loss of 350 jobs. Everite provides compensation to staff effected by the use of asbestos in the following manner: if an individual is 20% disabled they receive lump sum compensation, if they are 40% disabled they receive a pension and if an employee must retire from exposure to asbestos they will receive full benefits and pay until they reach old age as if they are still working. Mr Gibson pointed out that asbestos cement roofs do not present any risk to the occupants unless the cement is drilled out and asbestos dust is released. Because asbestos roofs do not emit fibres and are contained in cement matrixes, the chemical composition is changed and the asbestos becomes denatured. The precaution however, is that all asbestos-containing products be treated as raw asbestos and that users must avoid creating dust. The Nutec Trust Fund has been established which contributes R1 million per year towards the relief of asbestos sufferers.

Chairperson Moatshe thanked Mr Gibson for his informative presentation and moved to hear from Mr J Lengoasa. Reverend Chabaku asked the Chair to be permitted to respond to the presentation as she has to leave the meeting, to which the Chair consented. Reverend Chabaku then expressed appreciation for attempts from the Asbestos User Group to create employment and to research alternative, lower risk uses for asbestos. She had concerns regarding the treatment of people who have been exposed to asbestos and are not given the chance to work, are not compensated, or do not have avenues for redress. She pointed out that people who are not necessarily employees of mines, especially in the Northern Cape, have been affected as well.

In response to Reverend Chabaku, Mr Gibson said that he shares her concerns and has accompanied other representatives from the AUG to see how these constituencies have been affected. The scale of the problem is enormous and rehabilitation requirements run into billions of Rand, the AUG will contribute as much as they can to alleviate the sufferings of these people.

Report by Environmental Quality and Protections
Mr Jerry Lengoasa, the Chief Director of Environmental Quality and Protections for the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) presented his report to the committee. He identified the key issues of the National Asbestos Summit in 1998, which include the manufacturing, mining, and general use of asbestos. The DEAT was identified as the key governmental body responsible for watching over asbestos issues. Various other governmental bodies were also identified with specific responsibilities. The Summit recommended improving community involvement and linking it to rehabilitation, community development, initiating pilot programs on alternative technologies, national fundraising for rehabilitation, and the establishment of a national database on asbestos-related issues. Also emphasized was the importance of local involvement, compensation, risk assessment and public awareness/education. At the Summit, DEAT formed a Steering Group and secured donor funding for pilot projects in the year 2001. DEAT also held meetings and workshops on the use of asbestos as plaster material. The Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) looked at issues of rehabilitation and securing a database on dumps. As well as DEAT and DME, the Department of Health has also been active but other Departments have not moved on asbestos issues at all. The problems we still face today include secondary pollution, continuing deaths related to asbestos exposure, inadequate financial provisions and insufficient governmental involvement.

Mr Van Niekerk (NNP - Northern Province) thanked the presenters and noted that the briefing was at his request. He inquired as to how close government is to introducing a total asbestos ban either nationally or locally. He observed that both presenters emphasized hazards from production sites and asked for clarity on health hazards for users. He also asked why the NCOP was excluded from the Parliamentary Working Group after the Summit in '98 as they are the link between Parliament and the grassroots community. Have asbestos companies been approached in reference to the problem with financing? Mr Van Niekerk wondered whether asbestos companies are intentionally encouraging panic in communities in order to create a market for Nutec. He informed the committee that the mayor of the Northern Cape had recently approved a re-roofing project for one township which was completely unnecessary because, as committee members were informed, asbestos contained in a solid matrix is entirely safe unless it is cut or drilled. As well, the material used for replacement was not Nutec but was another less effective material that heats up so much in the summer months that occupants inside swelter. The mayor of this city was reacting to strong public outcry based on fear of asbestos and the notion that all asbestos-related products must be replaced. Mr Van Niekerk suggested that more education about the reality of asbestos in daily use and long-term use must occur.

Ms. R A Ndzanga (ANC - Gauteng) mentioned that during a visit to Botswana she was told that all houses roofed in asbestos products had to be replaced. But all the houses in Soweto still have their asbestos roofs. She asked what the difference is between different kinds of asbestos.

Mr D M Kgware (ANC - Northern Cape) asked if briefing sessions on this topic may be presented to other committees.

Mr M L Mokoena (ANC - Northern Province) compared the mine dumps which occur next to rural areas and those placed next to developed towns and noticed that the dumps near rural areas are much worse. He said that asbestos is not like attitudes, which can change over time. He wanted to know if there has been scientific proof that alternative materials are safe. He also noted that the government at this point is willing to contribute R1 million towards the relief of individuals suffering from asbestos exposure and asked who will directly benefit from this program.

In reference to the role of the NCOP at the Summit, Mr Lengoasa informed members that the Portfolio Committee created the working group prior to the Summit in order to advise them on asbestos issues. The working group was assimilated into the steering group, and no parliamentary committee took up the matter after the Summit.
Mr Gibson then added that the Summit did recommend a ban be put on all asbestos and asbestos based products except white asbestos, and this ban was immediately implemented. This becomes problematic however when low density applications of asbestos (i.e. those collected and reused from dumps) are removed because the act of removal releases asbestos dust which causes more harm than the product itself. He stipulated that high-density applications of asbestos, which are used in townships and high cost housing, cause no risk to occupants. In Botswana in the early '90s an independent survey was commissioned of asbestos levels in residential areas. The results showed no risk to occupant unless the product was cut or drilled which released toxic fibres.

To reply to the concern about financing, Mr Gibson said that legal advisers recommend to claimants to take their complaints offshore (i.e. British courts) because they'll receive a higher settlement. The House of Law in Cape Town says that mining companies can offer a one-time settlement, which probably won't include rehabilitation costs, whereby individuals may receive compensation in a lump sum. He noted that probably by now anyone who has reason to lay a claim would have done so. To reply to Mr Van Niekerk's comments on the township in the Northern Province, it is true that there probably was no real technical reason for re-roofing but that the people in the area felt so passionately about environmental exposure that the Mayor had little option but to replace the roofs as a small gesture of understanding their dilemma. Mr Lengoasa added that if one replaces just asbestos it is unnecessary to remove the underlying structure of the house although you have to do this with any other product. Mr Gibson then extended an invitation for any committee interested to go out to the Province to see the product being manufactured. He is also willing to provide further briefings if required. He agreed with members that more discussion around mine dump issues need to be instigated.

Regarding alternative fibres, Mr Gibson assured the committee that they have put through extensive scientific testing, including international toxicology testing, and that no indication of any health risks at all have been found. However he agrees that vigorous testing must be maintained and that any durable and breathable fibre should be treated very carefully. Therefore, workplace controls cannot be relaxed.

Mr Lengoasa said that DEAT and DME have put together two million Rand for further research into what can be done with alternative fibres. He emphasised the importance of enacting a consultative process which would involve the input of effected communities.

Mr Van Niekerk noted that the reputation of the township discussed above is negative and that they have lost business opportunities or developmental possibilities because of asbestos issues. The community as a whole needs to be rehabilitated and compensated for past injustices.

At this point Chairperson Reverend Moatshe observed that dumps which are leveled and used for sportsgrounds or roads constitute an extreme health hazard. He expressed regret that the previous government maintained these projects even though they must have researched and realized the health risks involved.

Mr Mokoena asked which Department is responsible for the rehabilitation of these mine dumps. Mr Lengoasa replied that rehabilitation has been seen from a developmental point of view. There is an NGO called "Concerned People Against Asbestos" which is part of the Steering Committee, and there is agreement that this body should include victims of asbestos. DME is responsible for mine rehabilitation and DEAT is trying to encourage this Department to be more active in that area. However the biggest problems come from secondary pollution, which until now the Government has not addressed. He noticed that it is standard practice for mine dump materials to be reused.

Chairperson Moatshe thanked the presenters and everyone present for participating in the meeting. The meeting was then adjourned.

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