Asbestos is a word that conjures up a variety of reactions, from a healthy degree of fear and respect to a complete ignorance of its various properties and uses. While levels of awareness vary, many view it as a past and predominantly resolved problem. However, it remains a very real and present issue that needs addressing, both in the UAE construction industry and throughout the Gulf.
What is it?
At its height of production in the 1960s and 1970s, asbestos found its way into the majority of construction materials, remaining hidden in the building fabric until unknowingly disturbed through refurbishment and demolition or identified through the means of an asbestos survey.
Asbestos categorises a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals, the most common being white (chrysotile), brown (amosite) and blue (crocidolite). With over 3,000 products containing asbestos and continued worldwide industrial manufacture and procurement, despite the embargo on its use, asbestos continues to be found in modern buildings.
Why is it used?
The majority of public and commercial buildings contain asbestos because of its many desirable properties, but more often than not, it was acquired and installed by those who were unaware of its hidden dangers. Asbestos is an effective insulator and frequently used as fireproofing, ideal for protecting the main building core. It is resistant to most chemical corrosion, weather proof and can add strength to an everyday product such as cement. Being abundant makes it very cost-effective, which makes it very appealing.
Outweighing every positive characteristic of asbestos are its hazardous and deadly side effects. Asbestos-related diseases are the biggest occupational killer in living memory. In the Middle East, seven countries now have a complete ban in place. However, with a latency period of between ten and forty years, the danger can be present but remain undetected. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 107,000 people worldwide die each year due to asbestos.
Asbestos-related diseases are almost always fatal. Take for example the UK, where asbestos of all forms was completely banned in 1999 and yet diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis are still notable causes of deaths in the construction and trade industry.
Here in the UAE and indeed globally, it is not just construction workers who come in contact with the material. Designers, developers, contractors, consultants and end users can all be potentially exposed to asbestos. Despite the very clear danger it carries, there is still a lack of awareness that, combined with a casual approach to asbestos management, can put everyone at risk.
Here in the UAE
The UAE is one of the seven Middle East states to ban the substance outright. However, despite a nationwide ban and further state legislation, the UAE still has examples of new builds where asbestos is detected. From purchasing and installation to finished product and final inspection, asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) go undetected and remain in our buildings after completion.
“Asbestos is often misleadingly associated with those buildings constructed decades ago, but the reality here in the UAE is that buildings completed as recently as 2018 still contain the deadly material.” says Richard Wiles, senior environmental consultant at Anthesis Consulting in Dubai. “Everyone, whether it’s construction workers, maintenance staff, office users or facilities managers, should have an understanding of asbestos. Ideally the process should be halted from the very beginning, but a general improvement of asbestos awareness in the UAE would no doubt contribute to a reduction of its use.”
While all ACMs are potentially hazardous, there is a hierarchy to the risk. The most common ACMs found here in the UAE are gaskets, textile insulation and asbestos cement. Take for example the Middle East shipping industry. Examples have been found of this material board and insulation being used in the accommodation blocks and engine rooms. Buildings of all uses and ages have been affected.
Surveys across schools, residential and industrial units have all revealed a range of asbestos still in use in the UAE. Businesses particularly associated with manufacturing and engineering are subject to a higher proportion of asbestos.
“At many sites, a maintenance team simply changing a lightbulb could result in the spread of asbestos fibres. Any accidental contact with asbestos could mean that particular area remains contaminated for all future users for many years to follow,” Wiles notes.
Legal and Financial Risks
If not managed appropriately, this hazardous material can not only result in significant health issues, but also financial and legal liability.
“Employers must begin to properly evaluate the environments their staff are working in and understand that certain precautions such as an asbestos survey must be undertaken prior to refurbishing, demolition or even occupying a building,” says Andrew Mackenzie, partner and head of Construction at law firm Baker McKenzie Habib Al Mulla.
“This is not a risk the industry can simply go on ignoring. The risk to employees and the ultimate end user can result in substantial fines, delays to construction and, in the case of fatalities, custodian sentences for wrongful death and criminal negligence on the part of the contractor.”
The current UAE legislative landscape is split into federal and state law. In 2006, the UAE banned the use of “asbestos board”. However, it remains debatable what items are covered by this terminology. To those monitoring the problem in the industry, it is apparent there are still companies procuring asbestos, whether knowingly or by mistake.
A ministerial decision issued in 2008 highlights the necessity to obtain an asbestos-free building certificate prior to commencing demolishing activities. With the UAE in a state of continuous growth, old buildings come down and new ones go up in an ever-changing skyline, but both scenarios can put users at risk from asbestos.
It is rare that an asbestos survey is produced or shown prior to any inspection or refurbishment of a property. While federal law has addressed some of the health risks associated with asbestos and introduced means to nullify it, including recommendations on asbestos waste disposal, not every non-domestic building is subject to an asbestos survey under existing legislation.
While the approach to the problem is getting better, more needs to be done to improve asbestos awareness, actively remove ACMs from circulation and bring the UAE in line with international standards.
“The existing legislation recognises the problem, but there needs to be a change in our approach to actively enforce greater compliance with the health and safety measures set out under the law, with the consequences of non-compliance clearly spelt out. Active enforcement at federal and state level will ensure this problem does not become more endemic,” Mackenzie states.
Aspects of the industry are aware of the problem, with increasing numbers of companies seeking to train their staff in recognising asbestos and requesting surveys. Asbestos training will naturally improve the health and safety standards of companies and, at an individual level, give people the mindfulness to be proactive in their asbestos management and identification. This will ensure company reputations remain intact and the health of employees and end users is protected.