31 October 2005
South Africa is a step closer to phasing out the production, sale and use of asbestos, a mineral whose airborne particles are known to cause fatal lung diseases if inhaled. This follows the Cabinet’s decision to approve the publication of new asbestos regulations for public comment for a period of 30 days.
“For too many years communities across South Africa have lived with the dangers of asbestos and asbestos products,” Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said in reaction to the decision.
“We are now taking the final steps to ensure that this health hazard never again threatens our people and our communities.
“Since the National Asbestos Summit in 1998, the South African government has taken firm action to address the health problems relating to asbestos,” the minister said. “This has ranged from the closure of all asbestos mines to the finalisation of codes to guide the demolition and disposal of materials containing asbestos, and even specifications for vehicle brakes to be asbestos-free.
“There have also been detailed studies commissioned into secondary asbestos pollution and the likely socioeconomic impacts of phasing out asbestos.”
A single fibre
It takes only one fibre of asbestos to cause the most serious asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma. Symptoms may not become evident until 40 years after exposure, but the disease is almost always fatal within two years of its appearance.
The regulations propose penalties such as fines and imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both, for violations pertaining to the production, import or export of the mineral.
The government’s tough stance is in line with the global trend, particularly in industrialised countries, to restrict the use of asbestos.
Despite this progress, asbestos continues to be a real threat, Van Schalkwyk said.
“We have seen increases over the past four years in cases of asbestosis and other medical conditions associated with exposure, in persons who were never associated with asbestos mines. There are also few ways for the public to safely handle these products – especially in poorer communities in which less expensive asbestos products are used, instead of safer alternatives.”
A key provision is the banning of all products and substances containing asbestos. No person will be allowed to import, export, manufacture or distribute such products. Where there is no alternative to asbestos, the regulations require that a plan to phase out the mineral be developed and approved by the government.
As many Southern African Development Community countries are dependent on asbestos products, the regulations will allow South Africa to be used as a transit point for some materials, as long as they are not further processed or repackaged.
Asbestos use in South Africa has declined by 39% from over 12 600 tons in 2000 to some 7 700 tons in 2002. There are fewer than 200 people employed in the domestic asbestos industry, and it is increasingly feasible to replace asbestos with alternative fibres.
The impact of the regulations is therefore expected to be minimal, particularly in light of the likely healthcare savings. A recent study has indicated a R27-million short-term saving in compensation and health costs from complete asbestos prohibition.
“Our Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to an environment that is not harmful to our health,” Van Schalkwyk said. “These regulations will be another important building block in our protection and promotion of this right for all South Africans in all communities.”
- The regulations may be viewed on the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism website.