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No need to panic

Published:Sunday | June 17, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

A senior official of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) is warning that Jamaicans risk putting themselves in more danger if they respond unwittingly and unnecessarily to reports of asbestos in the roofs of buildings they occupy.

Kerrine Senior, manager of the pollution prevention branch at NEPA, said the mismanagement of information about asbestos exposure could have more far-reaching negative effects than the cancer-causing material.

"People have been finding out, based on those news items, that they have asbestos in the roofs of buildings they occupy and some of them ... have been scampering," said Senior.

She said the danger with asbestos is when people panic and start taking down the asbestos roofs.

"I think the whole truth about how asbestos can become carcinogenic, meaning what can happen when you inhale the fibres - that was not explained," said Senior

"People were just told that asbestos (is) cancer causing (and) will expose you and your family and that will cause people to start taking off the roof, trying to protect their families and in the process actually putting themselves at risk, where before they were not."

According to Senior, when persons do not follow the proper procedures for the removal and disposal of asbestos-laden material that is when it becomes deadly.

"When it is intact and the fibres are not released then it is quite safe. When it gets broken and ground into dust which is likely to happen when a regular carpenter removes it by ripping it out, that is when the whole community, not just household members but the whole community, gets doused with the fibres and exposed to the carcinogenic effect of asbestos fibres."

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Senior's comment came days before workers at Carib Cement Company walked off the job because they discovered that asbestos was used in buildings at the Rockfort plant.

Firefighters were also relocated from two stations recently because of asbestos in the roofs.

Asbestos was a popular construction material used many homes and other buildings years ago.

It found favour with contractors because it was inexpensive, durable and resistant to heat. However, by the 1970s medical researched linked asbestos exposure to fatal health problems such as mesothelioma cancer (a rare form that is caused by exposure to asbestos) and lung cancer.

This resulted in the United States government implementing regulations for its use.

However, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving asbestos material in place if is in good condition

The agency warns that if the asbestos material is in a bad condition, removal is the way to go but there are guidelines and the removal should be done by certified contractors knowledgeable and competent in handling asbestos and who are aware of the precautions and requisite technology and equipment to use.

Locally, the Ministry of Health, the National Solid Waste Management Authority and NEPA have developed a strategy for the safe removal and disposal of asbestos and other potentially hazardous material, and Senior said these agencies welcome the opportunity to offer assistance to members of the public.

"Anybody who thinks that they have asbestos, give us a call. We will send them the procedures. A part of it is that certified contractors must prepare a work plan for the removal exercise and it must be approved by NEPA and the Ministry of Health before commencement of the removal of any of the asbestos," said Senior.