Houses that use asbestos cement roof sheets (Photo: VNA)

Hanoi (VNA) - Whether to stop or allow the use of chrysotile has once again become a hot topic with many debates among Government agencies and experts in the hearing session held by the National Assembly Committee on Science, Technology and Environment on 03 November 2018. The decades-long controversy as well as the proposal to develop a roadmap to cease the use of chrysotile in the production of asbestos cement (AC) roofing by 2023 proposed by the Ministry of Construction have caused many difficulties to the manufacturers of this affordable roofing; some producers have had to shut down their businesses.

In the hearing, many issues were not resolved and many questions from the Deputies of the National Assembly did not received satisfactory answers.

What is legal basis to develop the Roadmap to cease the use of chrysotile by 2023?

Dr. Vo Quang Diem, President of the Vietnam National Roofsheet Association, confirmed that chrysotile was regulated as a conditional business line in the Law on Chemicals, Law on Investment, Law on Technology Transfer and Law on Enterprises. He said accordingly “enterprises are allowed to operate in businesses which are not banned by the Government. Uncertain and inconsistent policy makes it hard for companies to invest in technology and equipment due to the fear of being banned”.

Mr. Bui Thanh Tung, Deputy Director of the delegation of Deputies in Ha Phong, questioned: “Regarding legal aspect, all laws currently recognize chrysotile as a legal and conditional business line. If it is regulated by law, there is no reason to ban the use of chrysotile unless the law is amended”. Mr Le Anh Tuan, Standing Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, emphasized that “When amending the law, the conclusion should be made based on many socio-economic aspects, while ensuring the consistency with bilateral and multilateral international trade treaties signed by Vietnam."

In May 2018, the Ministry of Construction sent the 1st draft submission and draft Decision on the approval of “the Roadmap to cease the use of chrysotile in asbestos cement (AC) to different ministries and departments to collect comments. This Roadmap proposed deducting the amount of chrysotile imported to Vietnam by 25% each year in order to completely terminate the use of chrysotile by 2023. The Ministry of Industry & Trade has responded by an official document stating that there is no legal basis to decrease the import of chrysotile by 25% each year because chrysotile is regulated as a conditional business line in the Law on Investment. The import of chrysotile depends on the market demand. In addition, the Ministry of Justice commented that “According to the Law on Organization of the Government in 2015, the Roadmap to cease the use of chrysotile in AC roof sheet production is not under the authority of the Prime Minister”.

Is scientific basis convincing?

Regarding the scientific basis of the Roadmap, the representatives of Ministry of Construction and Ministry of Health said that the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) have warned the Government of Vietnam about the harmful effects of chrysotile on human health and recommended stopping the use of chrysotile in Vietnam as soon as possible. These organizations affirm that there is no safe threshold for the exposure to chrysotile because it is ranked 119th in the list of hazardous substances by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the United States. The WHO also warned that countries should not conduct other research studies on this matter because of the long incubation nature of asbestos-related disease, which would be costly and not suitable for the current situation of Vietnam.

As for the above argument, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu, Chairwoman of the Vietnam Red Cross, said that although chrysotile was ranked 119th in the list of toxic substance, other substances in this list such as lead and mercury remained in use. “If Vietnam has not banned these substances, why do we rush to promote the ban on chrysotile?” She questioned the reason why the Ministry of Construction only proposed banning the use of chrysotile in AC roof sheet production while chrysotile was still used in many other products. Mrs. Thu demanded the Ministry of Health to provide the data on the number of cancer cases caused by chrysotile and the comparison between cancer cases caused by chrysotile and the total cases of cancer in the country. “As far as I know, there are 2,000 cases of lung cancer in total of 200,000 cases of cancer; however, there are many causes for lung cancer such as pollution and smoking. How many cases of cancer have been diagnosed to be associated with chrysotile? Why not prohibit smoking, the use of peptides and other carcinogens?”

In her report, Dr. Le Thi Hang, Director of Hospital Construction (Ministry of Construction), said that “By monitoring and evaluating of the health of workers in roofing industry for decades along with in-depth studies at ministerial level that we have whether conducted or participated in, we have not detected any cases of pleural mesothelioma in workers with over 30 years of working duration related to chrysotile”.

Dr. Hang also said the statement that there was no safety threshold in the management of chrysotile dust was not correct. The Ministry of Health has stipulated that the chrysotile fiber concentrations in the working environment at the permitted level are 0.1 fibers / 1 ml during working time of 8 hours and 0.5 fibers / 1ml during 01 working hour; this standard is comparable to that of the United States. Observations of working environment at the facilities showed that no facilities have chrysotile concentration exceeded the permitted level. A study on the living condition of people living in AC roofed houses in 1,046 households in Tan Trinh commune and communes in Quang Binh district, Ha Giang province from 2014 to 2016 also showed no differences in health status between locals and people in the country and in the world.

Reality demonstrations are needed

The fiber cement roofing using chrysotile fiber has been operated in Vietnam since 1963, providing a significant amount of roofing materials for the people in remote and flooded areas. Mr. Le Van Nghia, Director of the Dong Anh Investment and Construction Material JSC, said that many of the retired workers were still healthy despite the poor working condition in early years; most workers were directly working with chrysotile without any protection measures when the factory first established more than 30 years ago. “If there was no safety threshold, we died long time ago because of our daily exposure to chrysotile.”

Associate Professor Bach Dinh Thien stated that there was no evidence on the impact of chrysotile in drinking water; many countries such as Germany, Russia and Brazil still use thousands of kilometers of chrysotile-containing pipes for drinking water.

In the hearing, the Deputy Minister of Construction affirmed that the Roadmap was only in the development process and had not been submitted to the Government; therefore, the ministry would continue studying to ensure the development of roofing industry and the supply of affordable and safe roofing materials for poor people in remote areas.

To conclude, Mr. Phan Xuan Dung, Chairman of the Committee on Science, Technology and Environment, suggested ministries, especially the Ministry of Science & Technology, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Construction, continue research to give a conclusion on the risk of chrysotile and the reason why this type of fiber was still allowed to use in many developed countries. The ministries shall report to the authorities on whether we should stop the use of this material or not, or finding a more durable and cheaper substitute materials so that consumers can decide themselves.-VNA