Asbestos roofs: Are Ugandans being put at risk of cancer?

A closer view of an asbestos roof. Health experts warn that exposure to broken asbestos could cause cancer of the lungs, ovary, and other organs, as well as breathing complications. Photo by Ismail Kezaala

What you need to know:

Although the World Health Organisation has repeatedly cautioned on the risk of asbestos roofs, and medical experts asked the Ministry of Education to replace roofs in many traditional schools, not much has been done to avert possible cancer cases caused by inhaling and exposure to the material.

In Kampala and several parts of the country, you will not miss to find a building with asbestos roofs. A quick survey will see fingers pointed at schools such as Makerere College School, Kibuli Secondary School, Kololo SS, Kyambogo College School, Nabisunsa Girls School and Mengo SS.

In the countryside, you will meet the roofs in schools such as Kigezi High and Ndejje SS and a number of technical colleges, police and army barracks’ among others.

Most of such buildings were constructed between the 1950s and 1960s and efforts by the Ministry of Health calling on such schools and police authorities to change the roofs, have often fallen on deaf ears.
According to experts, materials containing asbestos are hazardous to humans and pose a public health risk.

Dr Gerald Mutungi, the in-charge of non-communicable diseases at the Ministry of Health, says all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans - meaning that they can cause different cancers.

Among the cancers Dr Mutungi mentions, include cancers of the ovary, lung, mesothelioma and cancer of the larynx. He adds that exposure to asbestos also causes breathing complications and respiratory tract infections.

Medical reports indicate that a person who is exposed to broken asbestos faces a higher risk of developing such ailments.

Impact on children
According to Dr Mutungi, effects of exposure to asbestos may not show in the short term but could take 10-20 years and at which point, the disease may become untreatable.

“Students have no danger by just sitting in class but once the asbestos is disturbed and broken, inhalable fibres are released and this is dangerous,” Dr Mutungi says.

“Anything can happen to a school or any building so we have over the years been giving the Ministry of Education guidance to replace the asbestos with iron sheets.”

School authorities say they have often expressed worry about the wellbeing of their students and inefficiency of the Ministry of Education to remove the asbestos roofs.
An administrator at Kololo SSS, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, visited the school early last year to see if the asbestos roofs were removed but despite confirming that the roofs were still there, no further action was since taken.
Although the roofs were still intact, the administrator wondered whether the ministry first wanted to see a catastrophic incident before taking action.

In many barracks, police officers are housed in asbestos-roofed houses, although they are condemned by the International Labour Organisatio (ILO) convention 162, 1986, which provides for the replacement of asbestos or certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos with other materials or products evaluated as less harmful.

In 2003, former Police Boss Katumba Wamala launched a process to rid all police houses of asbestos roofed-houses. The project was, however, only implemented in a few barracks around Kampala.
Deputy Police Spokesperson Patrick Onyango says the police are constrained by finances and only those in Arua Police Barracks have been replaced.

The commissioner in-charge of planning at the Ministry of Education, Mr Godfrey Dhatemwa, says currently there is no plan to un-roof asbestos from schools because it would take a while for the asbestos to be removed yet there is no money for the exercise.

This means that schools will have to endure asbestos roofs for a while longer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that countries take public health actions, including replacing asbestos with safer substitutes to prevent diseases.

Current estimates by WHO put the number of people who have been exposed to asbestos at about 125 million worldwide.

Although there are no WHO statistics on asbestos related deaths in the country, the world health body estimates that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure around the world.
Also, one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is estimated to be caused by asbestos, while thousands of other deaths annually are attributed to asbestos exposure at home.

The World Health Assembly Resolution 58.22 on cancer prevention urges member states to pay special attention to cancers for which avoidable exposure is a factor, including exposure to chemicals at the workplace.

With Resolution 60.26, the World Health Assembly requested WHO to carry out a global campaign for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases.

The parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology recently ordered the government to phase out the use of asbestos sheets as roofing materials in all schools and technical colleges.
The MPs suggested that the government allocates a specific amount of money in the national budget for the abolition of asbestos cement sheets in the entire country.

The WHO recommends that asbestos can best be eliminated by stopping the use of all types of asbestos, finding safer substitutes and taking measures to prevent exposure of asbestos while at the same time improving early diagnosis.

What ILO says about asbestos

The ILO Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162), provides for the measures to be taken for the prevention and control of, and protection of workers against, health hazards due to occupational exposure to asbestos.
Key provisions of Convention No. 162 concern:
• Replacement of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos with other materials or products evaluated as less harmful,
• Total or partial prohibition of the use of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos in certain work processes.
• Measures to prevent or control the release of asbestos dust into the air and to ensure that the exposure limits or other exposure criteria are complied with and also to reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.

Building homes in the olden days

The largest use of asbestos in buildings was for insulating and lagging. Boilers and pipes may be lagged with asbestos quilts or blankets, and some homes may have loose-fill asbestos loft insulation. “Asbestolux” was the trade name of a popular insulation board used for ceilings and partition walls.

Another common product likely to be found around the home is asbestos cement sheeting, including corrugated roofing sheets or garden sheds or stores. These were very widely used for DIY work up to 1980; at the time the material was promoted as being superior to any other, since it would not rot, rust or warp, and of course it had the extra advantage of being fire- proof; it was tested for structural and insulation qualities, but no thought was given to any potential health hazards.

There are several other situations in homes where asbestos is likely to turn up - in roofing felt, floor tiles, roof tiles and textured paints. Textured paints, such as Artex, contained asbestos up until 1988. It was also used in domestic appliances such as ovens, toasters, ironing boards, electric fires and storage heaters.

The best way to deal with asbestos in the home is not to disturb it. The fibres are only dangerous when airborne. Asbestos-bearing materials should not be drilled, cut or sanded, especially not with power tools. Asbestos covered sheeting can be removed if damaged, and should be carefully wrapped in polythene and disposed of.
Artex ceilings are best left in place and plastered over. Electric storage heaters older than 1975 should only be disposed of by licensed contractors.

Adopted from the