Uphill battle to ban use of cancer-linked white asbestos in Vietnam: experts

By Duong Tam, Trang Bui   October 8, 2017 | 03:11 am PT
Only 25 countries in the world still allow the use of the cheap building material, but at what cost? 

Health industry and construction experts in Vietnam have long been arguing the pros and cons of the use of chrysotile, otherwise known as white asbestos, but construction insiders have so far prevailed by claiming that the material is safe and cheap.

A clash of opinions on both sides of the debate at a conference in 2014 shook the public, but ended with former Vice Minister of Construction Nguyen Tran Nam giving his approval for its use due to a lack of “convincing evidence” about its potentially harmful effects.

This October, researchers from the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations are meeting again to discuss the country's growing use of what they say is a deadly material.

A 2017 report by the World Health Organization showed that as of 2013, Vietnam was among the top 10 consumers of white asbestos out of the 25 countries in the world that were still using it. Back then, the country was using up to 70,000 tons a year.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the country now has more than 40 asbestos roofing tile factories that churn out 100 million square meters a year, a quantity that satisfies over 60 percent of the country's roofing material demands.

It also buys products containing white asbestos like insulation materials, brake linings, gaskets and pads for automobiles from China, Thailand, India, the U.S., Korea, Japan and Singapore, some of which have already banned the use of the substance domestically.

White asbestos is one of six forms of asbestos, all of which are alleged to cause cancer in humans.

A 2014 WHO report stated that asbestos in general caused at least 107,000 deaths each year. About half of the fatalities were caused by occupational cancer, but thousands of deaths were attributed to exposure to asbestos in the home.


Top 10 asbestos consumers, 2013. Data extracted from the US Geological Survey via the WHO's 2017 Asbestos Report.

Despite worldwide concerns, white asbestos remains a contentious topic in Vietnam.

Experts at the latest meeting, which took place on Friday, said that Vietnam lacks the research into asbestos-related diseases to put a stop to the use of the material.

They agreed it would take at least 20 years to look into the impacts of white asbestos.

Three years ago at a conference in Hanoi, experts on the other side of the debate provided research that even dismissed the link to cancer.

David Bernstein, a Swiss mediator with extensive experience in public health who was invited to speak at the conference by the Ministry of Construction, said white asbestos is not cancerous like the blue and brown varieties.

He said its weak structure allows it to be easily dissolved by the body over the course of 3 to 15 days.

Bernstein is an American-born toxicologist based in Geneva who has been researching chrysotile since the late 1990s. According to The Global Investigative Journalism Casebook, Bernstein is the most active of industry-backed scientists who helped fuel the asbestos trade. His work has been cited over 5000 times, yet most have been underwritten by the industry. Court documents show that one sponsor, Union Carbide, paid $400,623 for work by Bernstein in 2003 and 2005, the casebook reports.

His work has been cited over 5,000 times, yet most have been underwritten by the industry. Court documents show that one sponsor, Union Carbide, paid $400,623 for work by Bernstein in 2003 and 2005, the casebook reports.

At the same conference, Le Thi Hang, deputy director of the Hanoi-based Construction Hospital at the Construction Ministry, said a survey of workers at Vietnam's white asbestos roofing tile factories found no cases of cancer or asbestosis.

However, researchers did find a number of workers suffering from chronic respiratory inflammation.

After hearing the various arguments, the then Vice Minister of Construction Nguyen Tran Nam said Vietnam would continue to allow the manufacture and use of white asbestos due to a lack of “convincing evidence” against it.

The argument seemed to be supported mainly by the material's exceptionally low price.

Bach Dinh Thien, director of the Institute for Tropical Construction Materials Research, said they had explored alternatives to white asbestos, but every other option had proved more expensive.

He did not go into specifics.

Vietnam produced its first roofing materials from white asbestos in 1963 in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring Dong Nai Province.

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