Asbestos epidemic in East Timor, but UNTAET negates its responsibility
By HT Lee
There is a big asbestos problem in East Timor. UNTAET has been made aware of it since December 1999. However, UNTAET has failed to make the removal of asbestos a priority and has not notified the East Timorese and the thousands of foreigners working there about its dangers.
UNTAET has also failed to issue certificates of asbestos exposure to the East Timorese and foreigners working there. By its inaction UNTAET has failed in its duty of care to protect the people of East Timor, the UN and NGO staff, UN peacekeepers and CivPol officers. UNTAET can under common law be sued for compensation when these people fall victims to asbestos diseases.
Asbestos, is an extremely toxic substance widely used in the building and other industries throughout the world until the late 1980s. Many homes and buildings in East Timor destroyed in September 1999 in the aftermath of the TNI sponsored militia violence had asbestos in them.
Exposure to asbestos dust can lead to asbestosis—a disabling and ultimately fatal scarring of the lungs, and mesothelioma—a rapidly fatal and painful cancer of the lining of the chest, abdomen or heart. It is also known to cause cancer of the colon, vocal chords, rectum and kidneys.
Asbestos is a silent killer and there is no safe level to its exposure. The victims do not even know they have been attacked until 10 or more years down the track. By then it is too late and the victim suffers an agonising death.
UNTAET was officially notified by Interfet about the asbestos problem in January 2000. In a limited survey undertaken by Major Fred Lehmann, every post 1975 structure where a sample was taken contained asbestos—blue, white and brown, either in roofing tiles or in ceiling panels. The report, Interfet Dili Cantonment Hazard Survey, detailed buildings in Dili containing asbestos. However, this report was not made readily available.
The asbestos problem was confirmed by the Crammer report commissioned by AusAid for UNTAET: East Timor Asbestos Audit Final Report, November 2000. According to Crammer ‘approximately 10% of residential and 40% of administrative building in East Timor contain AC material, mainly roofing components.' Crammer also acknowledged there was an asbestos problem in East Timor and made certain recommendations. However, even though Crammer took a minimalist approach in his report, it appears most of his recommendations have not been adhered to. It has been more than a year since the report was written but a general clean-up and civic education have yet to take place. As a matter of fact Crammer’s report has not been made readily available outside the UN circle—neither has it been widely circulated within it, nor has it been translated into Tetum or Bahasa Indonesian for wider circulation.
An Australian asbestos expert, Pat Preston from the CFMEU Environmental and Safety Unit Victoria, was horrified when he was shown video footage of asbestos contamination in a small village in Dili—asbestos debris was seen scattered all over the road side and in the village, and children were seen picking up and playing with the asbestos debris. According to Pat Preston, had this happened in Australia the whole place would have been declared a disaster area, everyone would have been evacuated and a general clean-up using proper Australian standards would have taken place immediately.
The asbestos contamination in that village
is not an isolated incident—asbestos debris can be seen all over Dili and
other districts in East Timor. However, UNTAET has so far refused
to make asbestos removal a priority and the Australian standards for its
removal have not been adopted. The attitude of UNTAET seems to be:
· making asbestos removal a top priority would add millions of dollars to the budget which they have not budgeted for
· malaria and tuberculosis eradication are more important priorities
· it is not their problem now because they will be out of East Timor soon—it takes at least 10 or more years before victims of asbestos develop symptoms and suffer an agonising death
· Australian standards should not be adopted because East Timor is a third world country
Safety is safety wherever you are and by refusing to adopt the Australian standards for the removal of asbestos, UNTAET is adopting a double standard—it is saying if you live in a third world country, your safety does not really count.
Asbestos removal should be made equal priority with malaria and tuberculosis eradication. But the real fact is the eradication program for malaria has yet to get fully off the ground! And as for the millions of dollars required for the removal of asbestos, it should not be too hard for UNTAET to ask donor countries and the World Bank for the additional funding.
By not making asbestos removal a priority and by allowing asbestos debris to be left unattended in rubble all over Dili and other districts in East Timor, UNTAET has unnecessarily exposed people in East Timor to its dangers. This is nothing short of a criminal act.
The UN likes to portray East Timor as their success story. Can this mission be a real success when UNTAET is prepared to allow the thousands of East Timorese who managed to escape the TNI sponsored violence in September 1999, to be attacked and killed by this new enemy—asbestos the silent killer ?
UNTAET Head of Mission, Sergio de Mello has been made aware of the asbestos problem and has been urged to take it seriously. One of Sergio de Mello’s briefs is to make East Timor safe and secure for the East Timorese. East Timor is now relatively secured from militia attacks. However, until East Timor is made safe from the new killer—asbestos, Sergio de Mello cannot claim to have fulfil UNTAET’s mandate of securing the safety of East Timor. The UN and Sergio de Mello cannot claim East Timor as a success story until asbestos removal is made a top priority and starts its clean-up and civic education program before the UN hands over its mandate to the East Timorese on 20 May.
HT Lee is a Sydney based freelance photojournalist who covered the 30 August 1999 ballot and stayed on in the Dili UN compound until 10 September 1999. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.O. Box 340, Dili, East Timor (via Darwin, Australia)
Telephone:+61-417-923273 or +670-390-325013
La'o Hamutuk: email@example.com
17 Lee, McKinley King, Shaw: Asbestos problem in East Timor
Report added Jan 18
"The removal of asbestos using Australian NOHSC standard must be made a top priority. The East Timor Constituent Assembly can and is in a unique position to make UNTAET accept this fact and act on it. The cleaning up of the asbestos will be a huge task which will require additional funding from donor countries as well as additional assistance from abroad. Many organisations including trade unions in Australia would be more than happy to provide the assistance ... Finally, the clean up of the asbestos would require the importation of large quantities of disposable asbestos overalls and masks. These items could be manufactured in East Timor as a cottage industry to provide local employment." HT Lee, Julian McKinley King & Andrea Shaw
on Health & Environment:
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