A lethal find

A massive row is brewing between the Joe Slovo squatter community and the government after a Cape Town professor found the presence of the lethal crocidolite asbestos in material similar to that used to build the walls of temporary houses in Delft—a suburb outside Cape Town where government wants to move this 25 000-strong community.

Crocidolite is the most lethal carcinogenic known and, if inhaled, causes mesothelioma, an aggressive and untreatable lung cancer. South Africa is believed to have the world’s highest rate of masothelioma and one of the highest rates of asbestosis.

It’s still not illegal to manufacture building materials containing asbestos. Draft legislation accepted by Cabinet at the end of 2005, but which has not been promulgated, proposed to make it illegal to mine, process, import, export, sell or even transport this potentially lethal mineral.
Crocidolite or blue asbestos is regarded as the most dangerous.

Legislation banning the use of asbestos is expected to be promulgated by the end of the month or early next year, said Thendo Nethengwe, assistant director of chemical management at the department of environmental affairs.

The department of housing and the community are locked in a bitter court battle after the department obtained an urgent court order last month to evict 6 000 families from Joe Slovo to Delft so that phase two of the N2 Gateway housing project can continue. The case will be heard in the high court on December 12.

The N2 Gateway project, Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s flagship housing project, has been dogged by controversy since its inception. Phase two, consisting of bonded houses to be built by First National Bank, have been on hold for many months because the shack dwellers of Joe Slovo refuse to move to Delft—an area which is about 20km outside town.

On Friday last week an affidavit and report by Chris Harris, professor in the department of geological sciences at the University of Cape Town, was filed at the Cape Town High Court as part of the community’s case opposing government’s plan to move them.

Harris, who is a scientist with 20 years’ experience, was given two pieces of building materials collected from ‘Tsunami”—the area in Delft where Joe Slovo residents are to be removed—and asked to analyse and investigate them for the presence of asbestos.

‘There were two materials—one red and relatively new, which had on it a stamp stating that it was ‘Eyethu Everite asbestos free’, and a grey sample appearing older, which was unmarked. The fibres I examined are 100% consistent with them being chrysotile and crocidolite, respectively. I am satisfied that they are, and accordingly would commonly be referred to as, asbestos,” Harris said in his report.

Harris found the fibres in the red sample were ‘clearly visible, abundant and are part of the material. The majority of the fibres are colourless, a minority are dark; consistent with colourless fibres being chrysotile and dark fibres being crocidolite.”

The government has been moving Joe Slovo residents into the temporary relocation areas (TRA) in Delft called ‘Tsunami” and ‘Thubelisha” for the past three years and has claimed consistently that the material used to construct the temporary houses is reinforced fibre cement and not asbestos.

This week, Prince Xhanti Sigcawu general manager of Thubelisha Homes, the company managing the construction of the N2 Gateway, said that the material used in Tsunami was provided by Everite.

‘They specifically got the contract to supply us with material because it is asbestos-free—it’s fibre cement and I don’t know where those two pieces of material analysed come from,” Sigcawu said.

He was adamant the material used to build the houses in Tsunami had been approved by the South African Bureau of Standards.

‘We are not manufacturers. If Everite says its building material contains no asbestos and it has the SABS approval, there’s no need to test it,” he said.

Everite Building Products, owned by the JSE-listed Group Five, has provided the building industry with material for more than 60 years and is renowned for its fibre-cement roofing, ceilings and pipes, which are asbestos free.

Everite’s spokesperson, Brian Gibson, said this week that he was ‘at a loss to explain where this material comes from” and indicated that Harris could have been mistaken when he found asbestos in the building material with an Everite serial number and logo.

‘Since December 2002 we have manufactured absolutely no product containing asbestos. If Harris found asbestos to be present in the materials presented to him for analysis, then they were not the materials sold to the department of housing for temporary informal housing,” he said.

But Gibson did not rule out the possibility that old stock might have entered the market. ‘There was a period until 2003 when stocks contained white asbestos and it could have found its way into the market. I need to see the scientific proof and I would like this material to be reviewed by a recognised asbestos expert using X-ray defraction techniques—we have not manufactured asbestos products for five years,” he said.

Harris said it was unnecessary to do further tests on these pieces of material. ‘My professional opinion is that further tests are not necessary — I’m satisfied they’re asbestos.”

The two pieces of material were collected from Tsunami by Shaheed Mohamed, a lecturer in mechanical engineering in the faculty of engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Mzwanele Zulu, a student at the university and spokesperson for the Joe Slovo residents committee’s task team fighting the removal, and a qualified civil engineer.

Mohamed, who filed an affidavit as part of the community’s court papers, said he had personally picked up two pieces of material in Tsunami.

‘Alongside a TRA ‘house’, I saw two pieces of material, one red and one grey — Both red and grey pieces corresponded with material used in the construction of the walls. I examined the walls and am able to confirm that the patterns on both the red and the grey pieces of material correspond with the material used to build the wall.”

Mohamed said Everite confirmed that the serial number on the material belonged to the firm. ‘The Everite official even told us that the material is not old, but probably a piece manufactured in 2007.”

Richard Spoor, a human rights lawyer who, on behalf of former asbestos mine workers and their families, took on Gencor, the former investment holding company, and won R460-million in compensation a few years ago, said this week: ‘Crocidolite is death.

Everite’s Gibson made an affidavit on Thursday claiming that Everite had spent more than R100-million developing material that is asbestos free. He denies that there is any asbestos in the material and says that Harris is mistaken.

‘The materials supplied to the department of housing is known as ‘autoclaved big six’ — it contains a combination of both cellulose and man-made organic synthetic fibres. They can, if analysed by a person insufficiently au fait with our product, be confused with asbestiform fibres.”

‘No asbestos in material’

The head of Electron Microscopy at the National Institute for Occupational Health, Jim Phillips, analysed the same two pieces of building material that Harris did and has found that the ‘red fibre-cement material does not contain asbestos”.

Phillips was asked by the state’s legal team to analyse the material using polarising light microscopy and confirmed Gibson’s findings. He said that the material was ‘suggestive of a man-made organic fibre”, and not of asbestos.

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