PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, NOV. 14, 2010

Killer At Large

Banned in many countries, asbestos is being produced and used in the mainland in greater amounts than ever before. But, as Paul Mooney, Jim Morris and Te-Ping Chendiscover, few people across the border are aware of the deadly consequences.

 

 

BY PAUL MOONEY IN ASBESTOS COUNTY

 

It's dusk and the main street of a small town in Sichuan province is crowded with children on their way home from school and people shopping at small stores. The gloom and looming dark green mountains that wrap around the town lend it an ominous air. 

Even more unsettling is the name of this place, Shimian Xian: Asbestos County, a reference to the many mines and factories in the area that for decades produced the silicate mineral, sometimes known as "the other deadly white powder". 

Long known to be a carcinogen, asbestos has killed millions of people and is banned or restricted in 52 countries. In Hong Kong, the importation and sale of the most dangerous types of asbestos were banned in 1996 and no building constructed after 1986 should contain any. Even so, the use of the material is more prevalent than ever before on the mainland - and the population of Asbestos County seems oblivious to the danger that literally hangs in their air. 

As a friendly middle-school teacher explains the origin of the area's name, she points to the hills that surround the small town, towards the site of a former asbestos mine. Opened in 1951, the Xin Kang Asbestos Mine was worked by prisoners undergoing "reform through labour". When the asbestos began to run out, the mine was shut down, along with the town's factory. 

The teacher then points to the Asbestos Mine Hotel, which occupies the site on the main street on which the factory stood. 

Although the factory and mine are no more, locals here remain at serious risk from the asbestos fibres that continue to blow off the hills and through the town. The teacher is one of the few people interviewed who have a limited awareness of the threat. 

"Several people have developed lung cancer," she says. "I worry about my mother and father because they both worked in the factory. I hope they're OK because neither was directly involved in production." 

As she walks along the street, she points to the dimly lit small shops, grocery stores and restaurants lining the pavements. 

"The parents of all these shop owners once worked in the mine or factory," she says. 

ASBESTOS IS A FIBROUS mineral that is strong, absorbs sound and is resistant to heat, but it has long been known that inhalation of the fibres can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer usually found in the lining of the lungs. 

"Logically, people who have been dramatically exposed to asbestos fibres for a long period will develop asbestosis or breathing diseases," says a Western expert on asbestos who works on the mainland. He requests anonymity in case his remarks anger the government. "According to examples such as Pakistan, the average rate of death related to asbestos could reach 40 per cent of the people who are living in such an area." 

Widespread public ignorance of the threat can be traced to a government ban on public discussion of the topic, which has left people across the mainland in the dark and at risk. While there have been countless scientific reports on the dangers, there is almost nothing in the popular media and the government has taken only small steps to deal with the issue. Experts say tens of millions of Chinese are exposed to asbestos in their daily lives. 

The mainland appears doomed to an explosion of asbestos-related illness. A formula developed by Antti Tossavainen, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, calculates that "one mesothelioma case occurs for every 170 tonnes of asbestos produced and consumed". This means at least 3,700 cases of the disease can be expected each year on the mainland, in addition to thousands of cases of lung cancer, asbestosis and stomach cancer. 

China has yet to see the level of disease experienced in Europe, the United States and other industrialised parts of the world, because per capita consumption of asbestos remained low into the 1970s. However, China is now the world's biggest user of the mineral, with annual consumption of more than 600,000 tonnes of chrysotile, the technical name for white asbestos. An increase in consumption is being driven, in part, by a global network of lobby groups that has endeavoured to preserve the international market for asbestos since the mid-80s. 

Jukka Takala, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, estimates that, by 2035, 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese will die every year from asbestos-related ailments. Others put the current annual figure as high as 40,000, with one million suffering asbestos-related respiratory illnesses. 

Itgium, a French environmental technology firm working in China, says the country has 120,000 workers in 31 asbestos mines, 11 of which have significant reserves, and 1.25 million people involved in the industrial production of chrysotile. A further 800,000 Chinese are involved in ship-breaking; ships built more than 20 years ago contain large amounts of asbestos. In addition, the company says, 80 million Chinese are potentially exposed to asbestos in their homes. 

The mainland's prodigious appetite for the mineral is expected to have lethal consequences at least into the middle of the century. 

Asbestos was long considered a wonder material for its ability to resist fire and heat. For decades, industrialised countries relied on it for countless products, including pipe and ceiling insulation, ship-building materials, automotive brake systems, bricks, roofing and flooring. 

Ominous reports about the dire health impact of asbestos began to surface in Europe in the late 1800s and, in 1931, the International Labour Organisation issued a warning: "All [asbestos] processes from extraction onwards unquestionably involve a considerable hazard." 

Despite this, use of asbestos remained widespread until 1999, when the European Commission declared all products made of white asbestos would be outlawed on January 1, 2005. 

While many countries have banned the use of asbestos, China's breakneck economic expansion of the past three decades has resulted in demand that is so strong, the country now imports the mineral from Russia. 

"Every official agency in the world has noted that exposure to asbestos gives rise to all kinds of diseases," says Dr Arthur Frank, professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, in Philadelphia, in the US, and an expert on health risks related to the substance. "One really wonders why this is still going on [in the mainland]." 

Few mainlanders are willing to discuss the problem. About a dozen experts - including government officials, doctors on the front lines and university researchers - turned down requests for interviews. A reporter from the Ningbo Evening News, who wrote a rare and informative story on the topic, also declined to speak. 

Sitting in a coffee shop in Shenzhen, a labour-rights activist and former asbestos miner say they would like to disseminate information about the threat of asbestos. They want to search for former workers to advise them to get health examinations. However, they say, they lack resources for such an effort. 

"We're also afraid of getting into trouble," adds the activist, before asking that their names and that of their organisation not be used. 

The average person in Asbestos County waves away questions about the threat from asbestos. 

"It's not a problem anymore, the mine and factory have moved," says a pharmacy owner, as he pulls a flimsy gauze mask from a counter and hands it to a visitor. When told there are still factories and mines not far from here, he shrugs. "The production process has improved," he says, turning to another customer. 

"It's only a problem in the mountains," says a Tibetan man making tiny Sichuan dumplings in the back of his small eatery. When pressed, he concedes some people in the town have developed occupational illnesses, but he remains unfazed. 

It is early morning and two men are sitting outside an Asbestos County herbal-medicine practice, chatting as the pharmacist picks exotic herbs from little drawers, weighing each one gently on a small traditional scale. The two acknowledge they have heard about people in the town with lung diseases. 

The herbal doctor, who has been listening to the conversation, occasionally glancing in our direction over the rims of his reading glasses, joins in: "A lot of people here will develop lung problems from working with asbestos. It can take decades to appear, but it will happen." 

The two customers draw the line, though, at the suggestion a person need only spend three hours in Asbestos County to become harmed. 

"No, no, that's ridiculous," says one, as if speaking to a child. "Three hours? That can't be true," says the other. They laugh and shake their heads in unison. 

However, experts say it doesn't take a lot of exposure to be affected by this sometimes invisible killer. 

"Any contact, even as short as one day, can give rise to cancer," says Frank, who has been studying asbestos in the mainland for 20 years. "The risk starts when you take it out of the ground. Miners, manufacturers, people putting the product in place and family members - because workers bring the dust home in their clothing - are all at risk. If you leave the waste material out and it has dust in it and it starts blowing around, it's potentially dangerous to the people around it. The risk is there as long as the asbestos is there." 

Cleaning an area after a mine has shut down is not easy, experts say, and a threat remains if the job is not done properly. 

"The fibre can be everywhere and that's a problem," says the Western expert. "It sprays all over the place. Even if factories and mines are closed, the asbestos level can still be up to 100 micro-fibres per litre. 

"Asbestos is a slow way of killing. There's absolutely no mystery in that. Many Chinese may not want to say to you, `Yes, there is cancer in my family.' But if you ask more questions, such as, `Can your father breathe freely?' you'll understand. If you talk more with people, they'll start to tell you about their father, mother, uncles and friends." 

 YUYAO CITY, IN ZHEJIANG province, is home to dozens of small asbestos workshops. A report in a local newspaper in April said health officials found that of the 787 cases of occupational illnesses discovered in Yuyao from 2001 to last year, 674 involved pneumoconiosis, a disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of asbestos and other dusts. 

At a family-run asbestos-cloth factory in Yuyao, the 27-year-old owner plays down the risk of lung problems, saying the dust is not a big threat and that the workers are issued "special masks for this type of work". A glance shows his workers are wearing the same cheap gauze masks worn in other workshops. 

He describes a gruelling schedule in which workers get just one day off a month and work between 10 and more than 20 hours a day, which means exposure to a multitude of fibres. In many cases, he says, production lines run for 24 hours to meet demand, with husband-and-wife teams sharing the load. 

"When the husband is tired, the wife will take over, and vice versa," he explains. 

The owner plays down the risk to casual observers. 

"You can completely relax. There's absolutely no problem, absolutely no problem," he says. "It's not as bad as some people say. It's not like as soon as you breathe in some dust you're going to get sick. 

"When the machines are running, there's not a lot of dust and so people won't breathe in much," he says, contradicting the evidence around him. "You can throw it around, stand in it, walk in it, do whatever you want with it. It's not a problem." 

However, having entered a small musty room, the door muffling the sound of machinery outside, he unexpectedly changes his tune. 

"Well, of course there's some risk," he says. "If you work inside the workshop for five or six years, you could end up with an occupational illness." 

Asked if anyone works here for as long as five or six years, he shakes his head. 

"Even if someone wanted stay in an asbestos factory for four years, a boss wouldn't let him," he says. "Generally, after four years I let the workers go." 

When asked why, he offers a brutal explanation: "Because if you work in a workshop like this, after four years it will definitely affect your health. If a worker gets an examination and it's found he has a lung problem, I'll have to pay the medical expenses for life." 

He insists he educates workers about the danger but adds, "We generally get our workers from Guizhou [province] and the education level of people there is relatively low. So they really don't understand a lot about this." 

He, too, seems to be ignorant, of at least one important point: he, his wife and their young child are also at risk, living just feet from the open workshop doors and windows, where the air is full of fibres. 

But if the factories are bad, the mines are worse. 

 IN THE SHENZHEN COFFEE shop, the 27-year-old former miner, from Gansu province, says he worked at mines in Xinjiang and Qinghai, in China's northwest, for 15 months. He describes living in a world of fibre-filled white dust; the cloud hanging over the mine could be seen from 50 kilometres away. 

"In the workshop, you couldn't see anything, even from this far," he says, stretching his hand in front of him. "We wore masks because of the heavy dust and not because of the asbestos. We didn't know about that. We had no concept of safety, either at work or off. When you went to work, they told you nothing at all about the danger." 

He says miners purchased their own masks and some just used a piece of cloth. 

"Our masks were four or five yuan each," he says. "I don't know if they were of any use. The mine was at [an altitude of] 4,000 metres and it was hard to breathe, so some people didn't even wear a mask." 

Employed as an explosives worker to break up asbestos-laced rock, he describes crawling into spaces too cramped to stand in. The dust was so thick at times, he says, the workers had difficulty opening their eyes. 

"In the workers' dormitory we didn't wear masks," he says. "I wiped my bed with my hand each night and the asbestos dust would come off. 

"Even the bosses didn't take precautions. They didn't wear any masks. I don't know why. Maybe they didn't know." 

Asked if he was ever given a physical, he smiles, then inhales deeply, as if for the first time confronting the serious danger he was exposed to. "Mei you!" he replies, stressing the words. "No." 

"There was no place to buy anything, let alone a hospital," he says. "We lived on top of the mine." 

He says he didn't know about the danger until a colleague, the activist in the labour-rights organisation, returned last year from a meeting of anti-asbestos activists in Hong Kong, bringing grim news of the fibres' effects. 

"My first thought was that this was incredible," he says. "I worked there for more than a year and didn't know about the danger. And even if it was discovered that I had a lung problem, I couldn't afford the medical treatment." 

Conditions can be even more lax in the many mines where prison labour is used. 

"This is very sensitive," says the Western expert. "I went to a [prison] mine and I was very surprised. The safety conditions were awful. I went there wearing an EPP3 mask [an industrial mask for working with dangerous materials] but the people there were unprotected. It's not too dangerous if you're there for one or two hours but they're doing this every day." 

When he told the mine's manager the prisoners should be protected, the manager replied: "Those people don't need protection." He interpreted that to mean the prisoners had forfeited their right to safety. 

"They've not been given a death sentence but it's the same," he says. 

The labour activist says once he returned from the conference he began to spread the news. 

"We discovered a lot of workers did not know about the risk and some didn't even know they were working with asbestos," he says. "Some knew nothing at all about asbestos. Some people may have become sick but never knew it was due to asbestos." 

The public is equally ill-informed. Experts estimate 80 million people in the mainland are exposed to asbestos in the buildings in which they live. While the presence of asbestos in a building is not necessarily a risk, if the products deteriorate, or are disturbed, such as during a renovation, there is a danger. 

What's worrying, say engineers, is that many mainland buildings erected in recent years were poorly constructed and will soon need renovating. The task of handling the asbestos they contain will be daunting. 

The Western expert says about 20 per cent of buildings built before 2005 that he's inspected in Tianjin and Beijing contain asbestos products. 

"Living and sleeping in an apartment where the level of fibres is up to five fibres per litre is a major risk," he says. "Many buildings or residences I checked in downtown Beijing - and many more in Tianjin - had levels as high as 20 to 100. But nobody is aware of the situation, even the owners. 

"I saw workers on the 11th floor of a building throwing things out of a window," he says. When he looked more closely, he noticed it was packs of asbestos in simple plastic bags, not the polymer bags required for transporting the material in other countries. 

"If you toss this from the 11th floor, asbestos fibres are going to float away," he says. 

He went to the city government to explain the danger. "`It's none of your business,' they told me. `You don't have to worry about this.'" 

So why are the authorities turning a blind eye to the danger? 

"China is a big producer and consumer of asbestos and the number of people working in the industry is huge," the activist says. "Shutting down production could result in unemployment. The mines are in

very poor areas and if they stop production, it could lead to economic difficulties. Local governments don't want to shut the mines because that would hurt their income." 

Workers' rights activist Li Qiang, of New York-based China Labour Watch, says, "Unfortunately, the use of asbestos seems still common in China for its low cost. This reflects the situation that economic development is out of control and many profit-driven businessmen sacrifice workers' health and lives to make money. Labour resources are regarded the same as any other resource available to make profits." 

One industry source says the China Non-Metallic Minerals Industry Association is aware of the situation but it lacks the power to do anything. 

"They're scientists and chemical engineers, so when they say asbestos is dangerous, the officials say, `We have to consider the economic situation.' They're gifted people but they have no political power. So it's difficult for the association to have the final say." 

"It's not that nothing can be done," the activist argues. "The government could tell workers about the dangers, adopt better mining methods and improve safety measures. We need to do something." 

Some experts say the government should help manufacturers switch to safer alternative products, with the same characteristics as asbestos. 

DRIVING OUT OF Asbestos County early in the morning, we notice a table set up at a busy intersection and manned by white-coated doctors and nurses. A long red banner with large white characters is tacked to the front of the table. Perhaps it's part of a campaign to inform citizens about the dangers of the asbestos fibres they've breathed in for six decades. 

As our car drives slowly past, however, it becomes clear the medical personnel have a more modest agenda. The banner explains they are here to inform people about the danger of rabies.  

 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney