Soweto's dust danger ignored

A report on the effects of `low-grade’ asbestos sheeting used in Soweto houses has been put aside, writes Andy Duffy

A report that claims Soweto residents are exposed to lethal asbestos fibres has been gathering dust in the Department of Health for nearly two years. The report, compiled by the department’s National Centre for Occupational Health (NCOH), found levels of asbestos pollution in some Soweto homes nearly 10 times higher than accepted safety levels.

But the findings, produced in 1995, have not been explored with further research. Johannesburg’s Southern Metropolitan Substructure, which is responsible for Soweto, says it is not aware of the report.

Questions have instead been raised about the report’s accuracy - mainly by Everite, the company contracted by the previous government to supply asbestos roofing for low-cost houses in Soweto and other townships.

The report followed three years of research by NCOH chief auxiliary safety official Enoch Mogomotsi, regarded as a world expert on tracing asbestos fibres. He stands by his findings.

Another consultant, who worked on the latter stages of the investigation, says Everite threatened legal action if the report was released - a claim the company denies.

Everite supplied most of the asbestos roofing used in nearly 70% of the low-cost houses in Soweto; it also supplied roofs in Langa in the Western Cape.

The listed company sold asbestos materials, made with the more dangerous blue and brown asbestos, until 1985, when the dangers of such fibres became known. The asbestos products it currently sells contain around 10% of the “safer” white asbestos.

“Asbestos has proved to be a cost-effective material for affordable housing,” says Brian Gibson, Everite’s asbestos adviser. “It is extremely popular.”

The players agree, however, on one key point: the danger of such materials rises greatly when it ages, or when it is tampered with.

Some of the roofs in Soweto date back more than 40 years; few of the houses have ceilings so the material sits exposed in the house; and few residents have called on professionals to undertake routine maintenance.

Mogomotsi’s work formed part of an overall air-monitoring project in the township, run by Professor Harold Annegarn of the Schonland Research Centre at Wits University. The funds for the project were provided by the southern council’s predecessor, the Medical Research Council and Everite.

Everite asked the NCOH to undertake the study as part of an overall audit on the performance of the company’s materials.

Mogotmotsi, who lives in Soweto, ran the study in 10 locations across the township, picking asbestos roofing in good condition and bad. In many cases, the asbestos had crumbled or cracked, and been patched up.

The results of the samples he took inside the houses shocked him. In one, he came across a reading of 0,9 fibres per millilitre of air - against a guideline figure of 0,1.

“It was much higher than it’s supposed to be,” says Mogomotsi, “but that’s what I found. I gave the report to Everite, and they were definitely not happy with the result.”

Annegarn says Mogomotsi’s report indicated that asbestos fibres were a problem. The findings could not be taken as definitive, he says, but showed that further research was needed. But, he adds, the whole project ground to a halt soon after Mogomotsi’s report, “under circumstances that are still unclear to me”.

Mogomotsi wanted to extend the research to look at reported cases of asbestos-related illness in the area. The NCOH, however, has many research projects clamouring for its minimal resources.

The nearby Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital says most of the asbestos-related disease cases it has picked up - asbestosis and mesothelioma - are among patients who grew up near asbestos-mining areas, such as the Northern Cape.

Gibson has thick files of similar research done all over the world, each coming in with figures a fraction of those found by Mogomotsi. He adds that even in Everite factories, the figure is no higher than 0,2 fibres per millilitre.

“I did make some comments about the [NCOH] report,” says Gibson. “I said I found the results very surprising. I was very surprised that they should be so high. And we left it at that.”

Gibson says he believes Mogomotsi’s findings were never officially published, and had they been then, “we would have had to emphasise that we had doubts about their accuracy”.

Former NCOH director Tony Davies who supervised the investigation, says he had concerns about the methods used. But he says the report shows there are “significant” risks posed by the older roofing in Soweto, particularly when householders had done repairs.

He also says South Africa has played a major role internationally in identifying the dangers of asbestos - for which Mogomotsi is owed much of the credit.

Mogomotsi adds that most people in Soweto do not know the dangers of the material.

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