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Unidentified high-risk material

The long-term dangers to health caused by asbestos could be fatal. Workers or innocent householders exposed to fibrous particles of asbestos dust may develop cancers up to more than 40 years later.

Asbestos dust exposure may cause two types of chest cavity cancer: mesothelioma and lung calcinoma. Both are incurable and lead to breathing complications and a painful death.

Asbestos is most likely to be present in a high percentage of houses older than 25 years or in older factories and ships. Although there are no equivalent figures for Malta, it had been reported that over half the houses in the UK still contained asbestos despite a ban several years earlier.

The Occupational Health and Safety Authority said that the most likely sources of asbestos in domestic buildings in Malta were water tanks, corrugated sheeting and drain pipes. In commercial buildings, there might also be asbestos lagging for boilers, steam pipes and water pipes.

The director of AME Health And Safety Services Ltd, Aldo Busuttil, pointed out that because today’s generations are growing up in an era when asbestos is no longer used, awareness of the dangers asbestos still present in old houses or factories was declining. This could lead to increased risks being taken in dealing with any remaining asbestos material purely out of ignorance of the serious potential consequences.

Mr Busuttil noted there is a carefully-laid down procedure for the safe handling of asbestos involving the need to wear masks and gloves but also disposable clothing to avoid contamination. Yet, many handymen and DIY enthusiasts continue to remove pipes without realising the dangers they were exposing themselves to. He expressed concern that this applied to untrained workers too, especially given the prevailing “construction frenzy”.

Notification of the presence of asbestos in building sites is legally mandatory, except in those cases where the risk was sporadic and of low intensity, something that, of course, had to be established by health and safety experts through an official risk assessment. Even when no notification was required under the law, a plan of work – approved by OHSA – still has to be drawn up before any asbestos on site could be handled.

The fear is that although more people in recent years were reporting the presence of asbestos material – up from 13 notifications in 2013 to 38 last year – the level was still considered low. It was feared that carcinogenic material was not being identified as such and, thus, being handled as if it were completely harmless. Also, the risk was that the high cost of dealing with asbestos safely was such that people were taking risks by disposing of it themselves.

Mr Busuttil was aghast at the very lax, high-risk handling of the material at civic amenity sites with people simply transferring it from their cars without wearing protective clothing and, apparently, oblivious to the contamination that already surrounded them from asbestos already dumped in Wasteserv’s containers.

Asbestos is an invisible danger that kills. While bringing the dangers of asbestos to public attention, as OHSA and AME have done, provides a useful reminder of its threats to health, there is a vital need for the Department of Health, Wasteserv and the occupational health and safety watchdog to promote the basic precautions that must be taken to protect workers and householders handling it.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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