NEW United Nations trade statistics have revealed that the import of asbestos cement for use in Cambodia’s construction industry nearly tripled from 2008 to 2009, despite calls for a worldwide ban on asbestos, a known carcinogen.
Thailand, which exports the lion’s share of asbestos cement to Cambodia, provided 11,322 tonnes in 2008 and 33,562 tonnes in 2009, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database, which is operated by the UN Statistics Division.
Malaysia was the next-largest supplier of asbestos-cement, exporting 314 tonnes to Cambodia in 2008 and 324 tonnes in 2009.
“It certainly looks like Cambodia is using substantial amounts of asbestos, and that the figures are increasing,” said Laurie Kazan-Allen, coordinator for the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, which is based in London.
“This is really bad news,” she said. “It is absolutely nuts for Cambodia to start using asbestos in a major way when so much is known about the hazards.”
Due to poor monitoring of asbestos imports, the 2009 statistics could represent just a fraction of the total amount imported each year.
Seang Vibol, senior purchasing supervisor for local construction materials supplier Chip Mong Group, said his company imported 30,000 to 50,000 tonnes of asbestos-cement each month from the Thai company Siam City Cement.
Chip Mong Group uses the imported cement to manufacture its brand Camel Portland Cement, the “number-one selling brand in Cambodia”, he said. Cement is of “better quality” when it is made with asbestos, he said.
But Sanjiv Pandita, director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre, warned that asbestos “is one of the most hazardous substances known to humankind”.
Most developed countries have “either banned it or reduced its usage to minimal”, he said.
Pandita said asbestos is “still used widely in Asia” because of a “misinformation campaign” by the industry, which sees Asia as a potential growth market.
Inhalation of asbestos fibres can cause a rare but deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma, as well as a chronic disease that leads to the inflammation and scarring of lung tissue.
Barry Castleman, a US-based expert on asbestos-related health issues, said that in Cambodia “it is likely that no government data exists” on asbestos-related diseases, and that they were likely being “misdiagnosed” by local doctors.
Dr Leng Tong, director of the Occupational Health Department at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said statistics on asbestos-related illnesses in Cambodia were limited. “Actually we do not have much proof on this issue,” he said.
“The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Labour don’t have any policy or reaction set up for occupational diseases, for example … workers who get lung cancer from exposure to asbestos,” he added.
Pandita said construction workers, labourers and warehouse managers likely have no idea that working with materials that contain asbestos can endanger their health. “Workers often think asbestos is only a white powdery substance which may be harmless,” he explained.
Bun Na, 30, who has been working in construction for seven years, said he was aware that “cement dust can be bad for your health, and in the past I have gotten sick from breathing in too much of it”. But he said he didn’t know that some cement mixtures contain asbestos.
“Sometimes I wear a mask to protect against breathing in dust, but sometimes I don’t bother because I am not worried about it,” he said.
Dr Mohd Nasir Hassan, team leader for non-communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation, said labourers who handle products made with asbestos should be told they are working with materials that “could have health consequences”.
“An increase in awareness is crucial at the political and technical levels,” he said.
Health Ministry officials declined to comment on the issue of asbestos-related illnesses.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA