May 28, 2012 12:40 AM
By Van Meguerditchian
BEIRUT: Known for its stunning beaches, the Batroun town of Shekka has a less pristine past that might still be killing its residents. Until 2000, Shekka housed the Eternit Company, the country’s biggest importer of the carcinogen asbestos. In 1998, Lebanon banned imports of most types of asbestos – but it didn’t ban selling or using what was already here. Experts have said that asbestos still poses a serious health risk, both in Shekka and across the country.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral, once commonly used as building insulation, as well as in fire blankets, brake linings, gaskets and water pipes. After a decades-long honeymoon with the substance, which was especially popular in the mid-20th century, a link with cancer was established and it was banned in many countries.

According to a 2010 World Health Organization report, some 125 million workers worldwide were exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and more than 107,000 die yearly from asbestos-linked diseases. Thousands of workers developed mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer which is linked to exposure.

In Lebanon, 60 asbestos-linked deaths have been recorded.

Eternit closed in 2000 amid outcry and Lebanese government pressure. The town, however, is still reeling from the Eternit years. Around 10 years ago, a football coach was diagnosed with mesothelioma – a cancer usually caused by asbestos exposure – one year after he began coaching a local team.

According to eye-witnesses, shortly after the closure of Eternit, asbestos waste was dumped on the football field. Pipes the factory made are still scattered around the area.

Many locals have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses.

There was never a major cleanup in Shekka or the rest of the country, and products that contain asbestos imported before the ban are still in circulation. Today, asbestos can still be found in air-conditioners, at construction sites, in the breaks of trucks, and on ironing board covers.

One major Beirut importer of asbestos products told The Daily Star that the company he dealt with has not fulfilled what he considers their legal and environmental responsibilities to its Lebanese partners.

Joseph Arbajian, co-owner of the import business Arbajian Brothers, said that “we had been buying products that contained asbestos since the 1950s. Now [we] are stuck with poisonous products that we can’t sell or dispose of.”

According to Arbajian, Federal-Mogul, the automotive supplier who he bought the products from, has been providing to Americans and Europeans through a special injury fund, but not to Lebanese.

Experts who oversee the disposal of asbestos and asbestos-waste are required to wear protective clothing and special respiratory equipment. The material can only be disposed at designated waste storage facilities. There are no such facilities in Lebanon.

Environment Minister Nazim Khoury said his ministry’s doors are open to anyone who wants to file a request for help in disposing of contaminated products. “If there are still asbestos products around the country, the owners should file a request to the Environment Ministry to receive help for their disposal,” Khoury told The Daily Star.

He added that although Lebanon does not have the capacity to store asbestos waste, it has signed an international agreement that requires co-signers to help with cleanup and disposal.

Some have said that the 1998 law is not comprehensive enough. Signed by former Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh and former Environment Minister Akram Chehayeb, the law bars the importing of Crocidolite, Amosite, Anthophyllite, Actinolite and Tremolite but allows a common asbestos called Crysotile, known as white asbestos.

According to Hanna Bou Habib, an expert on chemical safety and hazardous waste management at the Environment Ministry, white asbestos poses a minimal health risk.

But Joseph Kattan, a doctor of hematology and oncology at Hotel Dieu Hospital, describes all types of asbestos as dangerous and a direct cause of cancer.

“If one type of asbestos is less aggressive, it doesn’t mean that it is not dangerous,” Kattan told The Daily Star.

Kattan explained that mesothelioma is usually caused by occupational or environmental exposure to asbestos.

“Unlike various speculations on other types of cancers, there is clear and strong evidence on the cause and effect relationship between asbestos contamination and mesothelioma,” Kattan said.

“A person spending hours on the road could also be vulnerable to asbestos contamination from the air, [contamination] which comes from car exhaust,” he added.

The only study on mesothelioma in Lebanon was carried out in 2007 by Kattan and others found 17 new diagnoses of the cancer that year.

He believes that the rate of diagnoses in the years following the study should be similar.

Kattan also argues that despite the import ban, pipes made with the banned types have been brought into the country since the ban.

“Pipes made of asbestos were imported from Turkey in 2008 to be used for irrigation in the Bekaa,” he said, adding that consequently some may be consuming asbestos fibers.

Officials at the Environment Ministry told The Daily Star that that no asbestos has been imported into the country since 2006.

Dr. Marwan Ghosn of Hotel Dieu, who co-authored the mesothelioma study with Kattan, said that the period between asbestos exposure and the development of the cancer can be more than 30 years.

“The stronger the exposure to asbestos, the shorter the patient’s latency exposure,” he explained.

Dr. Arafat Tfayli, who specializes in hematology and oncology at the American University of Beirut’s hospital, said that asbestosis, which is a less serious disease than mesothelioma, can be diagnosed with a simple x-ray.

According to Tfayli, many cases of asbestosis do not develop into cancer, but patients with asbestosis are at greater risk of mesothelioma.

“When a worker exposed to asbestos goes home, his family members are likely to be at risk as well,” Tfayli said.

In cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma, early detection is the key to a possible cure.

But he said most patients consider shortness of breath, a symptom of both diseases, to be a symptom of aging rather than something more serious.

Treatment is possible, says Tfayli, who currently has a 72-year-old mesothelioma patient.

“If possible, a complex lung removal surgery can provide a patient with an effective cure,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 28, 2012, on page 4.

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