The State of Asbestos in the Pacific

On the occasion of Global Asbestos Awareness Week (1-7 April) the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and the European Union have partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to release a new synthesis report called The State of Asbestos in the Pacific.

Globally, more than 100,000 people die each year from illnesses related to asbestos exposure. But until recently, there has been little information available about the prevalence of asbestos in the Pacific islands region. The new publication provides information about the location and relative risk of asbestos materials on 25 different islands across 13 Pacific island countries.

The data used to compile the document was gathered through a regional survey undertaken by the PacWaste (Pacific Hazardous Waste Management) project – a €7.85 million, four year project funded by the European Union and implemented by SPREP to improve regional hazardous waste management across the Pacific.

Asbestos Infographic

The State of Asbestos in the Pacific reveals that the region has a serious, but uneven, asbestos problem. In fact, just four of the 13 countries surveyed account for 83% of confirmed non-residential asbestos.

SPREP's PacWaste Project Manager, Mr Stewart Williams, explains that of the 187,891 square metres of confirmed, non-residential asbestos identified through the survey, 78% was classified as either high or moderate risk:

"Almost all the asbestos identified through the PacWaste survey had been non-friable at the time of installation. However, when non-friable asbestos (such as roofing and cladding) ages and deteriorates it starts to break down and release fibres into the air. This deterioration was found to be present, to varying degrees, in many of the countries surveyed thus increasing the potential health risk."

In the Pacific region, the risk of exposure to asbestos is heightened by the incidence of natural disasters and extreme weather events, which can damage asbestos materials and release airborne fibres.

The State of Asbestos in the Pacific also confirms that new building products that contain asbestos continue to be imported into the region. This raises the very real concern that the problem of asbestos in the Pacific is not simply a legacy issue.

Dr Rokho Kim of WHO explains that if regulations are not implemented to prevent the import of asbestos then it may continue to be used in both residential and non-residential locations across the region:

"WHO recognises that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos – this is because there is no safe threshold of exposure. To date asbestos has been banned in 56 countries around the world, but unfortunately, of the 13 Pacific island countries that participated in this survey, none have implemented controls to eliminate the import of new asbestos containing materials."

Mr Jesús Laviña, Head of Section for Natural Resources and Infrastructure at the European Union Delegation for the Pacific, Suva explains that the PacWaste survey results have already been used to prioritise remedial actions in those locations where asbestos poses the greatest risk to human health:

"Over the next 12 months PacWaste will be working at 73 separate sites across 11 countries to remove asbestos at some of the highest risk locations. Once this work is complete, PacWaste will have safely removed and disposed of 20% of the region's confirmed, non-residential asbestos."

These activities will be supported by a region-wide public awareness campaign on the risks associated with asbestos and steps that can be taken to minimise exposure.

Click here to download The State of Asbestos in the Pacific

For more information about the work undertaken by WHO to eliminate asbestos-related diseases, please visit
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