I first became aware of the terrible legacy of asbestos when my grandfather contracted mesothelioma – a fatal form of cancer – from inhaling a few tiny, virtually unseen asbestos fibres that lodged in his lung. While it takes many years for the disease to take hold, the result is agonizing death.
In late 1999 I arrived in Dili, the East Timor capital. It bore the scars of the scorched-earth policy pursued by the Indonesian military and ‘militias’, whereby houses had been doused with fuel and then burned to the ground. To my horror, I found another killer stalking Dili’s streets. The lethal rubble and dust of asbestos cement lay everywhere. People, unaware of the dangers, were shovelling it out of public buildings and their houses into the town’s dry and windy streets.
Graham Finny of the Australian military explained that they were aware of it and were mapping contaminated sites in order to minimize exposure and warn the incoming United Nations administration. No mention was made of the indigenous population. Six months later in mid-2000, World Bank-funded street cleaning projects were employing $3-a-day workers to handle this material without being given any idea of the danger. No-one was supplied with the paper masks and overalls required to protect against contamination and the likelihood of contracting asbestos disease.
Meanwhile others employed by the UN were shovelling asbestos debris out of public buildings into front-end loaders to be dumped in the open at the Dili tip, where young kids picked through the rubbish in search of food or saleable goods.
The costs of protection are low, while the costs in death and in compensation to UN workers and locals alike who subsequently contract asbestos diseases are likely to be high. Until its independence as a nation in May this year, the UN had responsibility for administering East Timor. This begs the question: just what price has the UN placed upon the lives of the East Timorese?
When I approached Angus McKay of the UN Environmental Protection Unit about how grossly in breach of health-and-safety laws this system of asbestos disposal would be in my country, he responded: ‘This is a Third World country. You can’t possibly expect to use Australian standards.’ Only after many warnings from organizations like Apheda (the aid agency of Australian trade unions) and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia, not to mention many concerned individuals, did the UN attempt an ad-hoc clean-up before the independence celebrations of May this year.
‘Almost everyone in Dili is likely to have been exposed to asbestos fibres,’ says occupational health-and-safety consultant, Andrea Shaw. ‘Unless urgent action is taken, the health consequences of exposure to asbestos may cause greater morbidity than the violence inflicted by the militias.’