Cabinet Beetle, asbestos and bad diplomacy
Posted on December 24th, 2017

N. A. DE S. AMARATUNGA Courtesy The Island

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Khapra beetle, also called the Cabinet beetle, which seems to have eaten through our Cabinet and caused an enormous loss to the tea industry has been used, it is alleged, by Russia to hit back at Sri Lanka for banning asbestos imports. Asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma and asbestosis, which are very serious lung diseases. Asbestos is banned in about 50 countries, including EU states, Australia and New Zealand. It is not banned in the USA, Russia, China, India and several other countries. It is produced largely in Russia and Canada. In Quebec, Canada there is a town named Asbestos where the largest asbestos mines are to be found. Canada has not banned the production of asbestos for economic reasons; however, it is expected to be banned in 2018. In the US there is no total ban and 60% of its use is for roofing. However, six asbestos products such as corrugated paper, roll board etc., which are more likely to cause disease are banned in the USA.

Asbestos could cause lung disease in workers who are exposed to its dust, consisting of asbestos fibers, for a long period of time. It may not cause disease in people who live under asbestos roofs. People who work in asbestos mines and factories where asbestos products such as roofing sheets, vehicle brake linings, asbestos gloves and other fire protection implements and insulating material may inhale asbestos dust and after a long period of such exposure may develop lung disease. Environment Protection Authority in the USA fought a losing battle to get asbestos banned, but the producers argued that when the number of lives saved is considered against the loss of employment and revenue, a ban could be more harmful to the country in general!

Tobacco is an equally bad, if not worse, health hazard. Oral and oesophageal cancer, which is the most common cancer in Sri Lanka, is caused by betel (not beetle), arecanut and tobacco chewing. Lung cancer is caused mainly by tobacco smoking. Alcohol consumption has a synergistic effect with tobacco in the causation of these diseases. Fifty percent of patients in our hospital wards have alcohol and tobacco related diseases. The revenue earned by the government on alcohol and tobacco sales is more than offset by the cost of treatment of those patients, not to mention the loss of man-hours, household income and human suffering. The government has reduced the prices of alcohol which could have a deleterious effect on health. The effort to control tobacco smoking though laudable, may not be significantly successful in the face of the intense battle with tobacco producers.

Further, tobacco has a synergistic effect with asbestos too in the causation of lung disease, which means the effect when used together is greater than the sum of their separate effects . Alcohol has a similar effect when combined with tobacco. A person who works in a asbestos mine or factory may also drink alcohol and smoke tobacco to seek some relief from the drudgery of work and dust. This may not be an uncommon practice among workers. The government and health authorities must address these complex problems than take politically motivated decisions.

The glyphosate ban, as pointed out by Prof. Dharmawardena in these columns, was a politically motivated stupid decision which had badly affected the tea industry. Now the Khapra beetle would have delivered the death blow to this ailing industry. Asbestos ban was a similar hasty decision, taken again due to high pressure from the same “activist”.

This does not mean asbestos is not a health hazard, indeed not. What the government could have done was first discuss the matter with the Russian government, see whether it could develop alternative trade with them, as Prof Dharmawardena has suggested, and then control asbestos use and perhaps restrict import of asbestos to roofing sheets only as in the USA. If the government had followed sensible policy the Cabinet Beetle would not have eaten through its Cabinet. It must remember that Russia is a friend in need, unlike the Western bloc who would ask for the pound of flesh for whatever little favour it would do for us.

We assume that the Russian government made use of the Khapra beetle to hit us where it hurts in retaliation to the ban on asbestos imports. In that case, why couldn’t Russia first ask our government why it took that decision and initiate negotiations for a better trade agreement rather than resort to an unfriendly act of using the Khapra beetle of all things? This Khapra beetle has the potential to destroy our economy. Syria, which buys nearly 20% of our tea and which depends on Russia for its survival, may on the advice of Russia stop buying our tea giving the same reason. So could other friends of Russia in the region.

Russia, which is a long standing friend of ours, would not do such a thing if we appeared in their eyes as good friends. We should have discussed the matter regarding asbestos. A sudden unilateral decision appears unfriendly. Further, our previous foreign minister of this government made the accusation that weapons were supplied to the rebels in Ukraine through the Sri Lankan embassy in Russia. Moreover, the government’s servile attitude towards the western powers was obvious when it cosponsored the UNHRC resolution. Russia has helped Sri Lanka defeat similar resolutions at the UNHRC in the past. Thus, it could be surmised that the Russian ban on our tea imports may have a deeper meaning and an ominous political message than the more superficial reasons like beetles and asbestos. Russia and China are gaining ground in the global power game at the expense of the western powers. Obviously, this government lacks foresight and good diplomacy and seems to be ignorant of the emerging geopolitical reality.

N. A. DE S. AMARATUNGA

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