By Gershom Ndhlovu
When there was an explosion on a New York street a couple of weeks ago and the authorities ruled out terrorism, their immediate concern was whether there was asbestos in the debris that was strewn over a good portion of the affected area.
In the UK, there are adverts in the papers calling the attention of those who may have come into contact with asbestos at any time in their lives for treatment and, in most cases, for possible compensation.
There was a story in one of the UK papers how a child, now an adult, was infected with the effects of asbestos by merely sitting on her grandfather’s laps each time he knocked off from work where he worked with the product.
With the burgeoning building industry in Zambia where almost everybody is building a house, even on illegally obtained plots, the use of asbestos for roofing goes on without being checked by the authorities.
The problem, though, is that this is a product we have lived with for our roofing needs in the country for decades. I remember in the part of Kwacha in Kitwe where I grew up, almost all the houses except a few which had iron sheets, had asbestos roofs on which families dried groundnuts and maize from their fields in the winter months of May, June and July which were then removed for consumption later in the year. Incidentally, the story is similar in almost all parts of the country.
I also remember as young boys during the construction of Kwacha East township how we used to play with damaged asbestos sheets either as “shooting” targets with catapults or otherwise used to make play houses. The consequences of that innocent childhood activity of long ago are too ghastly to contemplate.
According to a BBC news report of February 8, 2003, asbestos diseases are caused by inhaling asbestos dust, a mineral commonly used in the construction industry until the 1970s. The main diseases caused by asbestos inhalation are asbestosis - the scarring of lung tissue, lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the chest and lungs) and pleural disease. Pleural disease includes calcification of the lungs and pleural effusion (fluid on the lungs).
“Over 3,000 people a year die of the disease in the UK and numbers are predicted to rise to 10,000 a year by 2020. Those infected are mainly builders, plumbers and shipyard workers, but teachers, children and nurses are believed to have been put at risk since asbestos was used in the construction of several schools and hospitals.
“Families of those who work with asbestos can also be infected if asbestos particles are brought into the home on clothes. It can take up to 40 years for symptoms to show,” says the BBC news report.
The main symptoms, according to the news report, include shortness of breath on exertion, a persistent cough, chest pain or tightening of the chest, nail abnormalities and thickening of the fingers and toes.
Is it any wonder then that a lot of older people and those of my generation now between 40 and 45 years have been dying like locusts in the last two decades, mostly from unknown diseases which have been difficult to diagnose at our local hospitals?
The victims are queried for TB and other ailments unrelated to asbestos which come out negative. Maybe this should call for a change of approach in the way medical examinations are done to include possible exposure to asbestos.
People building houses in Kamwala South and all over Lusaka, flock to hardware shops on Cha Cha Cha Road to buy asbestos in bulk. This is also the case all over the country and when the “project” is complete they celebrate not knowing that they have brought death in the home.Government should, as a matter of urgency, set up a policy on the future usage, and more importantly, the disposal, of asbestos.