White asbestos lines many Indonesian buildings and health experts fear a coming cancer ‘explosion’

8 Nov 2019 Ferado

Australia has long since banned the use and import of deadly asbestos. But on our doorstep, builders and factories across Indonesia are still using asbestos in massive volumes, oblivious to the die.
Yet as more and more countries ban the lethal substance, a powerful industry lobby group is doubling down on efforts to promote one form of asbestos as safe and expand its market in Indonesia and South-East Asia.

The group even claims that chrysotile — commonly known as white asbestos — dissolves in the lungs after 14 days.

About 10 per cent of Indonesian homes have roofs made from white asbestos, a proven carcinogen that can cause cancers including mesothelioma and several other diseases.

The danger is all the more disturbing in a country with the world’s fourth-biggest population, and where earthquakes and landslides regularly turn buildings to rubble.

A woman in a hoodie and face mask crouches on rubble
PHOTO: Indonesia is prone to major earthquakes, including the 2018 Sulawesi quake which killed more than 4,000 people and destroyed homes. (Reuters: Jorge Silva)
Indonesia says asbestos is like tobacco: it may cause cancer but it isn’t banned.

But while smoking is a personal choice, most Indonesians, including workers at 27 asbestos factories across the country, are unaware of the danger of the building material.

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Sriyono, 46, who goes by one name, is the public face of Indonesia’s impending ‘explosion’ of asbestos victims.

For 25 years, he worked at an asbestos factory south of Jakarta to support his wife and three children.

His long years of loyalty earned him no gold watch. Instead, he got terminal lung cancer.

Today, Sriyono can no longer work.

The cancer has stripped much of his body weight and strength.

He weighs just 37 kilograms. Once young and fit, he is now skeletal.

A composite of Sriyono looking young and healthy, and looking skeletal after his cancer diagnosis
PHOTO: Sriyono before and after his cancer diagnosis. (Supplied: Sriyono)
“My chest feels so narrow and I can’t breathe properly. When I try to do anything active, I get physically tired very easily,” he said.

Sriyono is the only Indonesian to have received compensation for asbestos-related disease.

But for him, the $7,200 payment is paltry consolation.

“I’m very angry,” he said.

“Until the day I resigned, the company didn’t care, they showed me no compassion, they paid no attention. We didn’t have proper safety gear. The safety wasn’t up to standard.”

The danger lurking in Indonesia’s homes
A short walk from Sriyono’s house shows the shocking extent of asbestos use in Indonesia.

A drone shot of a village in Indonesia
PHOTO: About 10 per cent of structures in Indonesia contain white asbestos, but in Jakarta it is closer to 54 per cent. (ABC News )
In street after street, houses were covered with roofs of white asbestos sheeting.

In one yard, a piece of broken asbestos lay across a family’s water well. Children played nearby.

At another house, the roof sloped so low, residents draped their clothing over it to dry in the sun.

In many homes, asbestos sheeting was broken or worn. Asbestos chips littered the ground.

Indonesia is today the second-biggest asbestos importer in the world, after India.

Approximately 115,000 tonnes of chrysotile a year are used — mostly to produce roof sheeting because of its fire-resistance and durability.

A shot of a tin roof in Indonesia
PHOTO: Chrysotile is commonly used in roof sheeting in Indonesia because of its fire-resistance and durability. (ABC News )
By far the biggest obstacle to a ban on asbestos in Indonesia is the powerful industry lobby group actively pushing to expand its market in the region.

More than 75 per cent of total global consumption of asbestos is now in Asia.

The Chrysotile Information Centre (CIC), based in Bangkok, represents asbestos workers and producers in the world’s two big exporting nations, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Not only has the CIC been determined to block efforts to ban chrysotile in Indonesia and other Asian markets, it also actively promotes white asbestos as a safe product.

The CIC argues the manufacturing process is the only area of potential risk, and that this risk can be “controlled” through the use of the right technology.

In a video on its YouTube channel, the CIC claims chrysotile, unlike brown and blue asbestos, “dissolves” in the lungs within a fortnight.

“If it got into the body it will dissolve by itself within two weeks and it would not harm human health,” the video states.

The CIC has claimed white asbestos is the “safest commercial fibre.”

A grey rock containing white asbestos
PHOTO: White asbestos is mined in several countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan. (Reuters: Ueslei Marcelino)
“The controlled use of chrysotile asbestos and its products is safe for both workers and consumers. Those who oppose chrysotile have no convincing arguments to support banning the mineral,” the CIC said.

Yet years of medical research have proven chrysotile can cause any of the diseases related to asbestos exposure.

The ABC contacted CIC for comment, but was yet to receive a response.

Indonesia faces ‘huge potential explosion’ in disease
International research suggests that for every 20 tonnes of asbestos used, one person will eventually die.

At that rate, almost 6,000 Indonesians a year could potentially develop an asbestos-related cancer.

But a dearth of public information and education means workers and residents have no idea of the health risk.

A drone shot of an Indonesian factory processing white asbestos for building materials
PHOTO: Experts fear that workers at Indonesian factories processing asbestos building materials are most at risk. (ABC News )
A campaign by workers’ rights groups and the medical profession is hoping to change that.

Local organisations are working with international groups, including Australia’s ACTU and APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad, to raise public awareness about asbestos.

They are also lobbying the Indonesian Government to ban its use and importation altogether.

Indonesia’s Government said it was aware of the potential danger from asbestos, but said it was the industry itself that needed to be convinced of the need to stop using it.

“Indonesia has huge potential for an explosion of the number of people with exposure to asbestos or asbestos-related disease,” said Muhammad Darisman from Indonesia Ban Asbestos Network.

“Ninety per cent is in disaster-prone areas. Asbestos is a dangerous substance when it breaks.”

A drone shot of rooftops in Indonesia
PHOTO: Indonesia’s Government says it’s up to the building industry to stop using white asbestos in roof sheets. (ABC News)
One major challenge in Indonesia is the lack of diagnostic tools to determine how many people already have an asbestos-related disease.

Currently, asbestosis and the thickening of the lung lining can be confirmed through CT scans.

But most of the cancers caused by asbestos can only be confirmed with concrete evidences of exposures to asbestos in the lung tissues or with work histories, which are rarely available in many developing countries.

“We don’t have the equipment to make a diagnosis and medical doctors aren’t trained to diagnose mesothelioma,” said Dr Anna Suraya from the Occupational Doctors Association of Indonesia.

Only six Indonesians, including Sriyono, have been confirmed as having an asbestos-related disease.

Why is white asbestos still legal?
So far, 66 countries including Australia have banned all forms of asbestos.

Canada, once a major exporter, finally banned it last year. Vietnam and Laos are working towards a ban.

Trucks in a white asbestos mine
PHOTO: Brazil used to be the world’s third-largest exporter of white asbestos, but abandoned the industry in 2017. (Reuters: Ueslei Marcelino)
International workers’ groups have fought for years to have white asbestos listed on the UN’s Rotterdam Convention, which regulates the import and export of hazardous chemicals and pesticides.

This would force Russia and other exporters to warn countries like Indonesia if they are buying a dangerous product.

The Convention’s own scientific panel recommends white asbestos be listed because of its carcinogenic properties.

But Russia and key allies including Kazakhstan, India, Syria and Cuba, have continually used their power of veto to block the motion since the Rotterdam Convention came into force in 2004.

To bolster its claims that white asbestos is safe, the CIC lobby group has used the fact the substance is not listed.

Australian Phillip Hazelton of APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad, has accused the CIC of deliberately manipulating information to distort the truth.

“The Rotterdam Convention has been hijacked as a chrysotile-asbestos-promotion tool,” he said.

“[It] is actually … providing this highly hazardous substance a ‘clean bill of health’.”

‘There’s an increase of activity in my lungs’
Asbestos is dangerous for humans for the very reason it was considered a miracle material in building construction: its fibres cannot be burnt or broken down.

The fibres can become stuck in the lungs, and then spread to other organs.

A graphic showing how asbestos impacts the different organs in the body
PHOTO: Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause cancer and disease in several organs. (ABC News: Ario Rasouli )
The World Health Organisation’s policy on asbestos is unequivocal.

“All forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are carcinogenic to humans, causing mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary,” the WHO states on its website.

The latest research from the Global Burden of Disease study suggests asbestos is killing more than 220,000 people globally each year.

“Even where it is appropriately regulated, chrysotile-containing building products … release asbestos fibres during the course of building maintenance, demolition … and as a consequence of natural disasters,” the WHO said.

Sriyono says doctors have not told him how many years he has left to live.

An Indonesian man standing outside his small house with blue shutters
PHOTO: “I have a type of cancer that will get worse over time,” 46-year old Sriyono said. (ABC News: Phil Hemingway)
But he says he knows he will die from lung cancer.

Contrary to the CIC’s claim, there is zero chance his lungs could dissolve the chrysotile fibres in his body.

“They tell me … I have a type of cancer that will get worse over time,” Sriyono said.

“Last year I did another medical check-up and the result from the CT scan showed there’s an increase of activity in my lungs.”

Anti-asbestos groups say thousands — perhaps even tens of thousands — more Indonesians will develop asbestos-related diseases.

But unlike Sriyono, most may never know it was caused by asbestos

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