Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Asbestos materials pose lingering health risk to construction workers

Laborers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Laborers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Experts say builders and other residents are facing health hazards from asbestos, an insulating material banned in many countries due to a range of harmful effects but still being imported for use in Cambodia.

Though a number of advocacy groups have taken steps to inform the public about the risks of asbestos exposure while lobbying the government for a ban on imports, industry monitors say construction products that contain asbestos are still widely used and causing illness.

Man Hannafy, Country program coordinator of Australian People for Health Education & Development Abroad (APHEDA), said asbestos can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, ovarian cancer and throat cancer. In Cambodia, Hannafy said, about 170 people each year die from diseases caused by asbestos.

Globally, Hannafy added, asbestos-related illnesses are believed to kill 29,000 people per year.

“For construction workers, they face serious risks from asbestos because they work directly with construction materials containing asbestos when they carry or cut brick or tiles, so they can easily breathe asbestos into their lungs,” he said.

Asbestos is the common name used to describe a substance made up of microscopic fibers of natural silica minerals. Asbestos offers heat and chemical resistance, as well as fireproofing and strength properties. As a result, it was historically a popular additive to a variety of building materials worldwide until it was discovered to cause cancer and other illnesses.

The harm of exposure comes gradually as people inhale microscopic fibers shed as dust, often from old or crumbling materials.

Sok Kin, president of Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), said the health effects of asbestos exposure aren’t immediate.

“Its symptoms take 20 to 30 years to present from the time someone is initially exposed to asbestos,” Kin said.

He explained asbestos is mixed with other substances to produce common materials such as corrugated cement, ceiling sheeting, fire roofs, water tubes and floor tiles. He said asbestos has been found in more than 3,000 different products in the past.

Though there are currently more than 60 countries in the world that ban the use of asbestos, he said, Cambodia is not one of them.

In 2015, BWUTC started a campaign to disseminate information and training for construction workers to protect against asbestos and limit its use.

“I think that up to now, organizations, unions and the government have an activity plan to reduce and ban asbestos importing into Cambodia,” Kin said, explaining that the government intends to eliminate asbestos imports but has not offered specifics on when that would happen.

Today, organizations including BWUTC and APHEDA are advocating the Cambodian government to move ahead with that asbestos import ban. For former and current construction workers, such a measure would be welcomed.

Laborers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Laborers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Him Veasna, a former Borey project construction worker, said he was worried by the long-term health effects of asbestos exposure.

“I am very concerned about asbestos because its impact happens a long time in the future,” he said. “We [should] reduce asbestos products, because nowadays we can not escape from using them.”

Given the risk of exposure, Veasnsa said all workers at construction sites should wear masks and gloves when handling materials that may contain asbestos.

Chap Phearak, 42, works at the Cambodia Cement Chakrey Ting Factory in Kampot province and said most construction workers still do not know about the health impacts of asbestos. Phearak said the government and organization partners should disseminate information about exposure prevention, adding that he’d previously joined a BWTUC training on the topic.

“We are concerned about asbestos, so we wish Cambodia had a law to ban asbestos imports,” he said.

Hannafy of APHEDA said his organization worked with the Labor Ministry and other relevant ministries to create the Cambodian National Asbestos Profile in 2019, a body that includes a technical group to monitor the substance. APHEDA and the Australian embassy have also provided a machine to test for asbestos and are now pushing for an import ban, pointing to plans of neighboring Vietnam to ban the substance in 2023.

Regional groups such as the Asian Ban Asbestos Network have also committed to lobbying national governments to stop the use of asbestos.

Huy Hansong, secretary of state of Labor Ministry and vice chairman of Cambodian National Asbestos Profile (CNAP) could not be reached for comment on Thursday but said on September 22 that the Labor Ministry is very concerned about the health problems of asbestos in Cambodia.

“Although the world, our region and our country are facing serious problems caused by COVID-19 disease, we must continue to work to protect workers from occupational diseases as well as other consumers who may be severely affected by this substance,” said Hansong.

He added that in the future, the government will work in partnership with APHEDA and a number of other global partners to provide more up-to-date information on the status of asbestos in the country.