Asbestos roofs: A ticking time bomb

Deadly. Asbestos roofs at Buganda Road Primary School in Kampala.

What you need to know:

  • Homes that kill. Despite the roof’s grave health effects, not much attention has been paid by both government and private individuals to replace it, write NMG’s Lilian Namagembe & Sheila Nduhukire.
  • Advantages. Due to its extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack, it is commonly used in industrial production for making different materials such as electric wiring insulation.

A light drizzle has been falling since 6am, and students at Makerere College School (MACOS) in Kampala are already attending lessons under asbestos roofed classrooms. It is 9am on a Wednesday, April 4.

Others loiter around school blocks in pursuit of different assignments without any worry that the environment they are occupying could be harmful to their lives at any moment in their life.
The students are, however, naive about the effect of their exposure to the roofs that were condemned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for being carcinogenic and cancer causing to humans.
At least 1,800 students have been exposed to the deadly roofing annually since the school was founded in 1945.

Dr Jackson Orem, the executive director of the Uganda Cancer Institute, says the risk comes when the asbestos disintegrates due to bad weather and begins to release fibers into the atmosphere.
“The main avenue through which asbestos get into our bodies is mainly through the lungs inhalation…it could also be taken through other routes through the mouth and skin [when one uses water harvest from asbestos],” Dr Orem explains.
He says the effects occur over a period of between 10 and 50 years from which symptoms resulting from the exposure start to manifest.

Why it was liked
Asbestos is a mineral that is molded together to make roofing and in the 19th century, it was commonly used, especially in the construction of public structures such as schools, police barracks, hospitals and staff houses.
This was because of its desirable physical properties such as being non-flammable mineral, acid resistant, flexible, traction resistant, elastic, easily spinnable, and sound absorbent.
According to WHO, exposure to asbestos causes different types of cancer, especially that of the lung, larynx, ovaries, and mesothelioma.

Despite such grave potential health effects, not much attention has been paid by both government and private individuals to replace the deadly roofing material.
Many government institutions built as early as 1930’s still have the roofing and there is no attempt to save employees who work under them from their long term risks.
Mr Goddy Muhanguzi Muhumuza, the chairperson of MACOS Parents Teachers Association (PTA), says 98 per cent of the blocks at the school are roofed with asbestos but attempts to replace them have been stifled by financial constraints.

“We wish it was removed yesterday…areas at the school with asbestos are classrooms, labs and staff houses…,” Mr Muhumuza says, appealing to individuals who can extend a hand of help to the school.
At Buganda Road Primary school, which was established in 1933, also a government owned, more than 2,500 pupils and about 50 staff are exposed to the cancerous roofing annually.
Mr David Ssengendo, the head teacher, says three of the school blocks are roofed with the material, yet there is no money allocated for their replacement under the maintenance fund they receive from government.

“For some time, we have been struggling and we still struggle to see that we get well-wishers to rescue us from the asbestos,” Mr Ssengendo says, adding that they need an estimated 500 iron sheets to replace asbestos.
The situation is no different in other government-owned schools in Kampala and across the country. Of the 79 schools supervised by Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), 13 still have asbestos roofs.

Other KCCA schools with asbestos roofing include Nakivubo Primary School, Nakivubo Settlement, Kololo SS, Kibuli SS, Old Kampala, Katew Martyrs, Mengo Primary School, Nabisunsa Girls, Kyambogo College and Kibuli Demonstration School.
Mr Peter Kauju, the head of public and corporate affairs at KCCA, says they need about Shs1.9b to replace all the roofs in schools under KCCA but have only secured funds from one of the telecom companies to replace those at Buganda Road Primary School.

“…we don’t have the resources that we need to do a complete overhaul at ago. Where we don’t have money as government, we hope to work with private sector,” Mr Kauju notes, adding that they have set a target of two to five years to get rid of the roofs.
Although many other private structures and individual houses in Kampala still have the asbestos roofs, Mr Kauju says it is the responsibility of the owners to replace the roofs to avert terminal illnesses.

On many occasions, the dangers of asbestos have been raised on the floor of Parliament since 2002, with the latest commitment made by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda last year to replace them.
Despite the danger of using water harvested from asbestos roofing, some police officers reached by Daily Monitor revealed that they actually use the water harvested from the roofs because they were not aware of the dangers.
“Our officers actually use the water but we are going to stop them,” says an officer in-charge of one of the police stations in Kampala, who does not want to be quoted because he is not authorised to comment on the matter.

Police stations
Another female officer at Nsambya Police Barracks says: “We are aware of their effects but even if we do not harvest the water, still they [asbestos roofs] leak when it rains and are very old yet we are paid very little money and cannot afford to rent outside.”
Also, many of the family members of different police officers staying in different barracks and other individual Ugandans that Daily Monitor talked to had very little or no knowledge about the dangers of asbestos.

Mr Emilian Kayima, the police spokesperson, acknowledges that asbestos roofing is still a very big challenge in police but that they are still constrained by the budget.
“There is no specific amount of money for maintenance allocated to asbestos…but the problem still exists…for the last couple of years, we have been trying to address it; for example, Nsambya, which is the biggest police barracks in the country, and many other police stations; the way they were built the accommodation is where there is the biggest problem,” Mr Kayima says.
He adds that with the exception of the new police structures including stations and barracks constructed in northern Uganda, majority of the institute’s structures are yet to be re-roofed with safer iron sheets.

In Kampala, Wandegeya and Katwe police stations have most of their staff quotas roofed with asbestos.
Globally, the cancer burden is on the increase, especially in low and middle income countries and World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates there will be 13.2 million cancer-related deaths every year, by 2030.
According to WHO, when asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibers can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.

Worldwide ban
It is upon the background that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1986 recommended either total or partial total or partial prohibition of the use of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos in certain work processes and places.
Other areas in Kampala with the deadly roofing also include Mbuya in Nakawa Divison, where some of the magnificent storied old private residential houses are still roofed with asbestos.
A tenant in one of the residential houses with asbestos roofs one Nasser Road, who prefers anonymity, says all he knows is that using water harvested from the roofs may cause one cancer: “That is all I know but not much,” he says.

Dr Tom Okurut executive director of the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema), a body mandated to protect the public from harmful chemicals, explains that they gave a deadline of December last year to all government institutions to phase out the roofing but very few such as MUBs have complied.
“Our next step is to come out and enforce…and close those buildings whose owners will not have complied,” Dr Okurut warned

Although Nema guidelines require owners of buildings to either hire technical firms in dismantling asbestos roofing who use protective gears to crash and burry the asbestos to avoid polluting the air, some builders told Daily Monitor that they were not aware.
One of the builders said: “We recently demolished a house with those kinds of roofs but someone took them away because they wanted them for other things.”

About asbestos

Appearance. Appearing in different colours including white, brown, blue, grey and green, although most common form chrysotile is white, asbestos mineral is a fibrous form of silicate.

Advantages. Due to its extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack, it is commonly used in industrial production for making different materials such as electric wiring insulation.

Banned. Banned in more than 60 countries, including EU, the carcinogenic material is still widely used in developing countries for construction, textiles, brake pads and cheap insulation.
Canada, once the world’s top producer of asbestos, announced a ban last year, but some other countries, including Russia and India, have resisted global efforts to outlaw it.