Should Sri Lanka continue to use Asbestos ?
Posted on December 30th, 2017

Buddhi Meegasdeniya  M.Sc . ( Moscow) –  Civil Engineer, Toronto, Canada.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals. These are useful because of their excellent tensile strength, poor heat conduction and resistance to chemical attack. Asbestos materials have been used for insulation in buildings and in various products such as roofing materials, water supply lines and clutches, brake linings, gaskets and pads for automobiles. Today, chrysotile – the only commercial asbestos still in use – is mostly used in fibre cement boards.

The top producer is Russia, which mined around one million metric tonnes in 2015. The major mines are located in Asbest, around 900 miles northeast of Moscow. China mined over 400,000 tonnes, with Brazil coming in third and Kazakhstan fourth. In terms of importers, India, China and Indonesia each imported over 300,000, 200,000 and 150,000 metric tonnes, respectively, in 2015.

Isn’t asbestos banned already?

That depends on where you live. Asbestos is banned in more than 55 countries around the world, including Japan, Australia and all countries in the European Union. Iceland was the first to ban asbestos imports due to health concerns in 1983, followed soon after by Sweden. Germany banned asbestos in 1992 and UK did so in 1999. However, it continues to be used around the world, especially in Asia and Russia, and in small amounts in the US.

Didn’t the US ban the use of asbestos?

Yes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first banned certain uses of asbestos in 1973 and banned most products in 1989; however, this was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. To date, billions of dollars have been paid out due to asbestos litigation, which has severely restricted the use of asbestos in the US. Today, asbestos fibres in the US are mostly used in the diaphragm of chlor-alkali plants for the electrolysis of Sodium Chloride – NaCl.

All of this could change. Last year, the EPA announced it would evaluate ten chemicals for risk to human health and the environment under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TRCA) . The EPA says asbestos exposure is associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

How much asbestos is used worldwide?

While it is no longer used in much of the Western world, countries such as India and China still include it in various products, using hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes each year. Inevitably, sometimes asbestos-containing products are shipped to Western countries.

And just because it’s banned doesn’t immediately remove all the asbestos already used. Millions of tonnes of asbestos still remain in buildings due to its use in the 20th century: as exposure to asbestos occurs mainly from breathing in fibres from contaminated air, disturbing these deposits can pose a health risk.

What are the known health effects of asbestos?

Asbestos causes cancers of the lung, ovaries and larynx and is suspected to cause others, including gastrointestinal cancer. Once inhaled, asbestos fibres may stay in the body and cause asbestosis, a progressive inflammatory disease that scars the lungs. Medical experts say there is no evidence for a threshold of exposure for cancer: any amount of airborne asbestos fibre poses a risk. Smoking is known to increases the risks of lung cancer with asbestos exposure. In 2007, the World Health Assembly called for global campaigns to eliminate asbestos-related diseases; the World Health Organisation recommends a ban and says chrysotile causes cancer.

So asbestos is linked with deaths: how many?

The World Health Organisation estimates that around 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace and that at least 107,000 people die each year globally from occupational exposure to airborne fibres. About half of the deaths from occupational cancer are estimated to be caused by asbestos. Moreover, a paper in Lancet in December 2016 put deaths linked to ‘occupational exposure to asbestos’ at 180,225 in 2013. The burden of asbestos-related diseases is still rising, even in countries that banned the use of asbestos in the early 1990s.

What does the asbestos industry say?

That chrysotile (white) asbestos is chemically different from amphibole asbestos and that the body’s immune cells can break it down in the lung. The International Chrysotile Association argues that modern asbestos products are vastly different from older materials, and says chrysotile is safe when used correctly.

Is asbestos likely to be banned soon?

Signatories to the Rotterdam Convention – a treaty that governs the use of hazardous chemicals – met in May to discuss whether the chrysotile form of asbestos should be added to the hazardous substance list. The other five types of asbestos are already listed. The treaty requires countries that export listed substances to ensure that the receiving countries are fully informed of their health risks and that they consent to the trade.

The convention’s expert scientific body – the Chemical Review Committee – first recommended it be listed as a hazardous substance in 2006. However, producer countries and some countries that still use chrysotile asbestos argue that this form of asbestos is safe if used correctly. The World Health Organisation, various public health bodies and the public health community disagree. The Rotterdam Convention works by consensus among the 157 signatory countries; one objection can derail a listing.

Did they agree?

No. Belarus, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Syria and Zimbabwe all blocked the move to ban chrysotile. There are ongoing efforts to change the terms of the convention so that a three-quarter majority is enough when a consensus proves impossible, but until that’s passed asbestos is still going to be used in most countries around the world.

Canada has completely stopped using Asbestos several decades ago  and continues to remove it from all buildings components – walls,  ceilings, floorings, paints, insulation and other parts of buildings.

Buddhi Meegasdeniya  M.Sc . ( Moscow) –  Civil Engineer, Toronto, Canada.


8 Responses to “Should Sri Lanka continue to use Asbestos ?”

  1. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    But Dear Buddhi, Sri Lankans were using Asbestos roofing sheets made out of cement and white asbestos for centuries and never had a single case of lung cancer resulting from Asbestos inhalation.

    Please do not mix up the problem with the amphibole asbestos group consists of several types of asbestos: amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite which are used in pure form as insulations, lining clutches, brake linings, gaskets and pads for automobiles etc..

    For political reason the western world is always trying to categorise white asbestos products such as Asbestos roofing sheets made out of cement and white asbestos together with the amphibole asbestos groups.

    Even though the west is allout to ban asbestos for consumer use, all of them use these dangerous amphibole asbestos in pure form in automobile industry in lining clutches, brake linings etc.

    Every time when you use clutch and brake in your car, you definitely inhale invisible cancer causing amphibole asbestos fibres. If you use your car frequently, you should be familiar with the typical burning smell of clutch or brake. It is not burning, it is the process by which pieces of asbestos releases to air due to friction.

    So living under a asbestos roof is much safer than driving your car in congested streets in Colombo.

  2. Senerath Says:

    “Even though the west is allout to ban asbestos for consumer use, all of them use these dangerous amphibole asbestos in pure form in automobile industry in lining clutches, brake linings etc. “
    Allow me to say this is NOT TRUE. I can tell you no asbestos used in brake and clutch linings now in Australia.

    But I am not too worred about Chrysotile because I saw this argument long time ago and also the percentage of it in a/c cement sheets is minimal ( <10%) and therefore a fibre getting into lungs has a very low probability.
    My kitchen had asbestos lining on walls. I tested it and found it is Chrysotile. Although I used all the precautions recommended, I did not hessitate to drill and cut it myself.
    Surely no harm if they are untouched, but why we allow poor people of Sri Lanka expose to these imported dangerous products when we have our own tiles ?

  3. NeelaMahaYoda Says:


    It is common in the West to use Asbestos for clutches, brake linings. (by the way Australia is not in the West).
    Ask your Japanese automobile manufacturer to confirm that.

  4. NeelaMahaYoda Says:

    Examples of asbestos-containing products not banned in US
    The manufacture, importation, processing and distribution in commerce of these products, as well as some others not listed, are not banned.

    Cement corrugated sheet
    Cement flat sheet
    Pipeline wrap
    Roofing felt
    Vinyl floor tile
    Cement shingle
    Cement pipe
    Automatic transmission components
    Clutch facings
    Friction materials
    Disk brake pads
    Drum brake linings
    Brake blocks
    Non-roofing coatings
    Roof coatings

  5. Dilrook Says:

    I think we are a little distracted. The West bans any new use of asbestos in roofing. So should Sri Lanka as promised by the President for good reasons in 2015. Use of asbestos in vehicle parts and others is acceptable levels as it is not the main component in these. However, in roofing sheets, asbestos is the main component.

    Sirisena removed the ban not because of any scientific reason but purely to save the unprofitable and environmentally destructive tea industry. Thondaman recently joining him was an added incentive.

    Sirisena has no policy whatsoever. He swings as the wind blows. Instead of looking into the possible corruption of his son-in-law’s Russian warship deal (there is nothing wrong with the ship) he banned the website that revealed it! That website played a key role in bringing him to power. It was blocked during the previous administration and Sirisena removed it in 2015 (among others).

    Sirisena made a huge cry against cigarettes and alcohol before the election but now his regime is promoting both.

    Srisena does whatever that helps him politically.

  6. Senerath Says:

    Only from begining of this year it is banned in Aus. It means it may still be present in some products.

  7. NeelaMahaYoda Says:


    White asbestos sheets used in Sri Lanka contain less than 10% white asbestos.

    But in US Automobile industry it is allowed to use amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite, and actinolite without any restriction on percentage of its content.

    That is the reason why, the American Construction giant KBR Branch of Halliburton had to declare bankruptcy under Chapter 7 Bankruptcy law to escape the mounting claims they had to face due to use of asbestos in Gaskets about 15 years ago.

    when asbestos is released from compounds like those used in automobile parts and components, it is easily inhaled. Asbestos must be considered “friable” to be released into the air. Friable asbestos is asbestos or asbestos components which are easily crushed or pulverized by pressures no greater than human finger pressure. Friable asbestos could be in powder form or included in some friable component. Unfortunately, friable asbestos is not difficult to find in the automotive industry.

    The use of asbestos was prohibited in the UK in 1999 and in Japan 1n 2012. In Japan materials that contain asbestos more than 0.1% by wt are prohibited.

    In Sri Lanka Cars imported from abroad may pose a problem in relation to asbestos use, particularly if there is no indication of where their parts were sourced.

  8. Dilrook Says:


    Car parts and those other products containing asbestos was not banned in Sri Lanka. Yes they may pose a threat but small in comparison to asbestos roofing and partition sheets.

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