Health authorities are investigating after the collapse of a factory roof crushed and exposed slabs of asbestos.

The incident took place at an abandoned factory in Mrieħel, formerly used by Dowty O Rings. Respiratory disease experts say people living or working in the area are not at risk provided they are not in close proximity of the broken asbestos.

However, there are fears that carcinogenic asbestos fibres could become airborne and be blown beyond the factory space even though action should be taken in the coming days to seal it off. Asbestos, the 'miracle mineral' as it was sometimes called in the industry, was used extensively for insulation and fireproofing until the late 1970s, before the full extent of the health hazards it poses were accepted.

The toxic substance is hazardous when airborne since it is made of tiny fibres that are easily inhaled. It is particularly dangerous when being transported, unless covered in plastic and disposed of carefully.

The authorities only began to investigate the risk caused by the collapse after this newspaper sent questions to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority.

After confirming the presence of asbestos, the authority said it made "recommendations" to the owners of the building, Malta Industrial Parks - a government-owned company, which is subsidiary of the state-owned industrial development agency Malta Enterprise.

The matter has now been taken over by the health department. A spokesman for the health authorities said a notice would be issued to the responsible body ordering it to take immediate remedial action to safeguard public health.

Malta Enterprise chairman Alan Camilleri said he had not yet been approached by the health authorities, but he confirmed that Malta Industrial Parks was alerted to the situation by an OHSA official.

All apertures are being sealed to prevent fibres being blown away by the wind. However, Mr Camilleri said a call for expression of interest - for the safe removal and decontamination of the material - should be published soon.

"We have been working on this for some time now. A study was carried out before I took over as chairman last May, and recently a decision was taken to issue a call to clean up the former Dowty factory," he said.

A number of other factories in the area contain asbestos which needs to be removed. However, the substance does not pose a health risk unless it is broken down and its fibres exposed.

Diseases caused by asbestos usually take between 10 to 40 years to develop before showing any symptoms. Around the world, people who installed asbestos during the 1970s have just started to realise they were developing cancer at an alarming rate. The risks are increased dramatically for smokers.

Just last month the family of a shipyard worker who died from exposure to asbestos in 1997 was awarded over €103,000 in damages by the courts.

The former boilermaker, Joseph Fenech, had stopped working at the 'yard in 1995 as a result of his illness, a cancer known as mesothelioma. He died two years later aged 55.

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