Asbestos: Smoking Gun or Ticking Bomb

By Mohammad Daoud 

Picture taken from masothelomia.com

Asbestos refers to six naturally occurring silicate minerals. They are all composed of long and thin fibrils that are released in atmosphere if they are rubbed against an object, turned to dust (through renovation or construction work), or if they are scratched and scuffed. This class of substances was used heavily in construction as building materials up until the 1970s due to its heat resistivity and electric insulation properties. It can be used in boilers and water heating vessels, water supply lines, electrical wirings, roofing blocks, walls, and floor tiles. Now, why would you care about this substance at all?

            Well to start this off with a bang, the reason why it is a topic of importance is because this class of substance when inhaled is -amongst other things- a cause of a specific type of cancer called mesothelioma. This type of cancer develops from the thin layer of tissues covering many internal organs, most notably the lungs and chest wall, called the mesothelium. The life expectancy for most mesothelioma patients is approximately 12 months after diagnosis. Despite its use starting around the beginning of the 19thcentury, it took very long to know its adverse effects due to the long time it takes for one to develop mesothelioma following exposure (Approximately 40 years after exposure). Another illness associated with the inhalation of this substance would be Asbestosis, an illness characterised by the long-term inflammation and scarring of the lungs with associated complications such as pulmonary heart disease and lung cancer. 

            Asbestos made headlines in Lebanon following the devastating events of the Beirut blast after HumanitarianResponse, a website dedicated towards the support of humanitarian responses across different regions of the globe, released an informative statement declaring that sweepers and cleaners next to the blast area need to take necessary precautions. The reason for this concern is obvious. The buildings in Lebanon, and notably the ones in Mar Mkhayel and surrounding areas, are quite old. Considering Asbestos was only officially banned during the 1970s worldwide, it is suspected that some buildings still standing today might possess this dangerous compound. As a matter of fact, it was only in the year 2000 where our government banned it officially, and made it illegal to import.  Charbel Afif, associate professor in air pollution and chairperson of the chemistry department at Universite Saint Joseph, issued a warning to the public in order to raise awareness on the dangers of this substance and the necessity for sweeper to take precaution. He also added, “NGOs self-checked that their volunteers were abiding by the rules, but no governmental body enforced them,” said Professor Afif. 

 To ensure public safety, a greater effort should have been made by Beirut Municipality. No official word was given by the municipality that would explain how the government will deal with the issue. However, this is not the first time Asbestos became relevant in Lebanon. In the year 2000, the main distributer of Asbestos in Lebanon Eternit, shut down. Unfortunately, no measures were taken to ensure that the remaining Asbestos containing substances are discarded or handled properly. Which left them still in circulation and potentially dangerous to the public. In 2001, Dr. Kattan, a hematologist and oncologist at Hotel Dieu Hospital, released a scholarly article stating that “between 1991 and 2000, 22 cases of malignant mesothelioma were diagnosed at Hôtel-Dieu de France Hospital. Fifteen among these had a positive exposure history. The tumor was attributable to Eternit Company in 12 cases among the exposed 15 (80%), all due to exposure in the Chekka region”.

And again, in 2016, Dr. Kattan and colleagues issued another research article with the following conclusion. “Compared to the previous study (1991-2000), substantial changes in the epidemiology of mesothelioma in Lebanon were observed, such as an increase in peritoneal localizations and a lower correlation with Chekka region asbestos contamination”. What this showed was that the number of effected individuals increased, while also observing deviation from source of infection. Chekka was no longer the main danger sight, where it seems that the danger became somewhat more spread. Reports issued stated that some companies imported Asbestos containing pipes from Turkey during 2008. These findings prove that the issue of Asbestos in Lebanon is not to be taken lightly and needs further investigation and greater interest from the governmental body. The last study to issue regarding asbestos in Lebanon was by professor A. Kfoury, were his study showed that asbestos containing rooftile where still present in Chekka, and likely in other regions too. He also stressed that their seems to not be a strict law guaranteeing proper removal of Asbestos containing substances. If they are not discarded professionally, breakage can occur, which would end up contaminating the areas making it a health hazard. 

Eventually, what these findings show, is that the threat of Asbestos in Lebanon is something that requires greater attention from the Ministry of Environment. The potential threat it posses to citizens is not to be taken lightly, and a movement should be made in order to ensure proper identification of threat areas along with proper removal.

References:

– Kfoury, A., Mitri, G., Arab, D. et al. Risk assessment of asbestos-cement roof sheets in Chekka, North Lebanon. Environ Monit Assess 191, 391 (2019).

– Mesotheliomas in Lebanon: Witnessing a Change in Epidemiology, Joseph Kattan

– Kattan J, Faraj H, Ghosn M, et al. [Mesothelioma–asbestos in Lebanon: a problem to be considered] Le Journal Medical libanais. The Lebanese Medical Journal. 2001 Nov-Dec;49(6):333-337.

– https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/May-28/174814-import-ban-fails-to-curb-asbestos-danger.ashx#axzz1wiohAtTq%20

https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/lebanon/document/lebanon-asbestos-hazards-and-safe-practices-cleanup-after-beirut-blast

– https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/mena/cancer-risk-on-the-rise-after-beirut-blast-warn-experts-1.1068627

Second Authors:

  • Abir Hajj Houssein
  • Alaa Al Mikkawi
  • Amira Fawaz
  • Abdel Aziz Kordieh
  • Carl Zoghzoghi
  • Christelle Rassi
  • Jawad Hmayed
  • Malak El Kassamani
  • Marc Darazi
  • Mohammad Asaad 
  • Nadeen Abbas

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