Asbestos lawsuits coming, says UWI expert

Asbestos lawsuits coming, says UWI expert

BY CONRAD HAMILTON Observer senior reporter

Monday, July 02, 2012

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A local academic and expert in the field of asbestos management is predicting that it will only be a matter of time before Jamaican companies and Government agencies begin to face lawsuits from persons who develop illnesses as a result of exposure to asbestos.

Long-term exposure to high concentrations of asbestos fibres causes health problems including asbestosis which is severe scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer.

Checks by the Jamaica Observer with the Registrar General's Department revealed that between 2006-2011, 20 Jamaicans died from illnesses linked to asbestos.

Eight persons died from pneumoconiosis due to asbestos and other mineral fibres, while 12 died after being diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Concerns about the presence of asbestos at local workplaces have heightened in recent weeks, resulting in the disruption of operations at two Corporate Area fire stations, where firemen complained that sections of the buildings were constructed with asbestos.

Operations at the Kingston-based Carib Cement Company were also affected as workers went on strike on June 14 after they received information that several buildings on the property were constructed with material containing asbestos.

The employees, supported by their union, the National Workers Union (NWU) are demanding the removal of the materials containing asbestos. Despite a decision by the company to engage scientists from the University of the West Indies — who indicated that they were satisfied with the schedule to rid the plant of the deadly material — the union is still not satisfied that enough has been done to guarantee the workers' safety.

Granville Valentine, general secretary of the NWU, has insisted that the structures containing asbestos be dismantled and the hazardous material removed in short order. He has also demanded the results of any air quality test conducted at the plant since the workers' protest, and has expressed disappointment with the advice from one regulatory agency that workers should not panic.

The increased levels of concern among employees and their unions have led Dean of the Faculty of Pure and Applied Sciences at the UWI, Professor Ishenkumba Kahwa to suggest that Jamaicans are no longer prepared to accept perceived negligence from their employers. He explained that Jamaicans are becoming more litigious and could go as far as suing their employers if they suspect that they have been afflicted with diseases linked to asbestos.

Kahwa said schedules need to be developed before buildings containing the deadly substance begin to deteriorate, increasing the likelihood of asbestos fibres being released into the atmosphere.

The academic, who said he recently visited the Carib Cement plant told the Observer that he was satisfied with the company's timeline for the removal of material containing asbestos.

His seeming reassurance to employees at that entity has been endorsed by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) which only recently, declared that there is no need to panic as asbestos is only harmful if disturbed.

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