Govt studying safer ways to remove asbestos in buildings

It will take a close look at how to implement safer ways of removing asbestos from buildings, and engage competent contractors to do such work.

The review is expected to be ready for public consultation by early next year.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) revealed this to The Straits Times when asked about a study on preventive measures to eliminate asbestos-related diseases in Singapore. The study found that the incidence of asbestos- related diseases has increased in the last four decades.

Before it was banned in 1989, asbestos was commonly used in buildings because of its good insulation properties and high tensile strength. It can be found in roofing sheets, ceiling boards and floor tiles. It was also used for brake linings in cars.

Though useful, the fibrous material is hazardous and inhaling it can cause a lung disease known as asbestosis.

In the worst cases, malignant mesothelioma - a cancer of the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart - can occur. Because of the health threat, asbestos is banned in more than 50 countries. Singapore banned the use of raw asbestos in building materials in 1989, and in cars in 1995.

Despite that, workers who demolish or renovate buildings constructed before 1989 would still be at risk of being exposed to asbestos.

From 2000 to last year, MOM confirmed 26 cases of occupational mesothelioma and three cases of occupational asbestosis.

Demolition works, and the wear and tear of asbestos- containing materials, can release asbestos fibres into the air, said Dr Lim John Wah, who co-authored a study on asbestos that was published last year.

The occupational health physician from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health also noted in a research paper that asbestos-related diseases - in particular, malignant mesothelioma - are on the rise here.

Singapore recorded a sharp peak in asbestos usage around 1975. This was followed by an increase in mesothelioma mortality leaping from less than 0.5 to around 2.0 per million population per year from the year 2000.

This, however, is not unusual because asbestos- related diseases have a long latency period, taking 30 to 40 years to surface, the researchers said. The incidence rate is thus expected to increase further.

Such a trend is similar to what is happening in other countries, Dr Lim noted.

Co-author Judy Sng from NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's department of epidemiology and public health said the tragic thing about mesothelioma is that almost all the time, it is diagnosed too late for anything to be done. She added that there should be greater awareness about this condition in the medical community.

Over the past decade, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) issued an average of about 700 demolition permits each year. This includes permits for partial demolition.

Last year, MOM received 194 notifications on asbestos work.

The BCA's spokesman added that it works together with the MOM to remind builders and engineers in the permit application, to ascertain the presence of asbestos in the building before carrying out demolition works.

If asbestos is present, they are required to notify MOM before they start work.

Asbestosis - the scarring of lung tissue from asbestos fibres - and mesothelioma are the two key occupational diseases linked to asbestos exposure covered under the Workmen's Compensation Act (WCA) or the Work Injury Compensation Act (Wica).

The eligibility period to make a claim for compensation under WCA or Wica for asbestosis is 36 months from the date the worker ceased to be employed in the hazardous occupation and 12 months for mesothelioma.

Of the 26 confirmed cases, two received compensation of $111,000 and $140,000 under WCA or Wica.

The remaining cases were not eligible for compensation under WCA or Wica as they were diagnosed after the eligibility periods. Of these cases, six claimants required financial assistance and received ex gratia payments ranging from $16,300 to $60,000 from the Workers' Fund.

Dr Lim said current guidelines state that workers handling and removing asbestos materials in buildings have to be supervised by people who have completed a course on it. This course, however, is done only once, without the need for further re-training.

He suggested the authorities conduct refresher training for such individuals so that their knowledge is up to date.

"Constant reminder and education of both employers and workers about the hazards of asbestos is essential to protect the workers who deal with asbestos," he said.

Dr Lim also said there should be adequate training on the different measures to prevent inhalation of asbestos dust, such as control measures to prevent dust formation, personal hygiene, and using and maintaining personal protective equipment.


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