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That asbestos roof looks exactly like ones we had (have?) on the farm. It looks very normal to me. Another advantage over corrugated iron is that it doesn't rust and you don't need to paint it.

My brother said there are three ways to get rid of an asbestos roof: pay someone else to do it legally following all the health and safety regulations (very expensive); pay someone else to do it illegally (a couple of guys with a truck drive around looking for business); do it yourself, where the regulations don't apply. Naturally, he did it himself.

Good morning Frances,

I think you get the politics of Asbestos slightly backwards: I think Ottawa made the decision to stop opposing asbestos' international listing after Quebec decided to stop its production after the last election.

That being said, asbestos has some unique physical properties, too bad it's also terribly toxic.

Someone may correct me on this (please do so if you know for sure), but my understanding was that life expectancy statistics are driven more by reduced infant mortality than by increased longevity.

I think if someone wants to have an asbestos roof, that is their decision. The hazards are well-known, but as Prof. Woolley rightly points out, hazards like that look much different when one has even more pressing concerns.

Guillaume - I wasn't saying anything about the politics of asbestos, just listing a couple of recent policy developments, trying to keep the "C" in "WCI". I agree with you that Ottawa's changed policy stance was driven by developments in Quebec, rather than the other way around.

RP - in Africa AIDS and TB are having huge impacts on life expectancy. The increase from 37 to 43 in just a few years is almost entirely due to the greater availability of antiretroviral therapies, together with a variety of other policies (promotion of male circumcision, condoms, education, drugs to prevent transmission from mother to baby) etc. The increase in life expectancy due to reduced infant mortality happened quite a few years ago.

It's also incorrect to say that the hazards of asbestos are well-known. It's not at all obvious that less educated Africans (and people living in similar conditions elsewhere) have any knowledge of the hazards of asbestos. Moreover, while you and I might know that asbestos is hazardous, but do either of us have any idea of the reduction in life expectancy associated with having a cup of coffee under an open asbestos roof? I certainly don't.

Nick - yup, I can imagine that (and can imagine you doing the same)!

There's a residence at SFU that's riddled with mould and asbestos. It's too toxic for anyone to live in, and too costly to demolish, so it just sits there, slowly decaying...

Could switch to white-painted clay roof tiles, attic fans, and angled roofs for those benefits.

Granted, this also makes the roof much heavier, and necessitates sturdier construction. You see it done in Southeast Asia, where the rain is even heavier and makes a thunderous noise off the roof even when it is solid concrete.

"life expectancy statistics are driven more by reduced infant mortality than by increased longevity"

In the case of Zambia, I'd guess that the price of copper plays a role too.

During the 50's and 60's many African countries saw increased life expectancy as the causes of infant mortality were addressed. Life expectancy then dropped in the later part of the century as AIDs spread through the population. Zimbabwe once had a life expectancy of 55 years, now it is below 40 years.

Rachel, thanks for commenting. Yes, the impact of aids on this continent is truly hard to comprehend.

Patrick, yes, natural resource wealth matters, but good governance is absolutely vital. See, e.g., the impact of diamonds in Botswana v. Congo.

What is the increased risk of living under an asbestos roof? My guess is that it's small. I'd be willing to bet it's fewer years off your life than, say, driving an extra 15km a day back and forth to work.

But I don't know. I'm just guessing.

I've worked in a few hospitals with asbestos in the walls. The issue is that, as long as it's under wraps and not disturbed, it doesn't float around the air and get into people's lungs. A roof doesn't sound like a very disturbance-free structure, but on the other hand an outdoor location would reduce the harm of stuff flying off it as it degrades.

That was a fascinating anecdote. You're right that the risk isn't known with great certainty, other than the fact that you have to absorb it for a very long time to start getting serious effects. On the other hand, we now have an issue with nanoscale fibres under development and industrial application (e.g., carbon nanotubules), that are small enough to cross cell walls, never mind get into your lungs. There is some research going on into nanotoxicity, but I doubt the research is ahead of the spread of such materials. Our own cheerful enthusiasm about nanotechnological advances is not that different from the Zambian father's about a better roof for his family.

Zambias one central problem is its excessive fertility. They have to cut this by a factor of 3, or more, or everything else is pretty much futile.

When I do a cost-benefit analysis, I start with putting numbers to the various factors, however crude the estimates are, in the beginning. I see that as very beneficial.

I can still remember being given asbestos clay to model with in elementary school in Ottawa in the early 60's.

We certainly didn't understand the health risks then.

"There's a residence at SFU that's riddled with mould and asbestos. It's too toxic for anyone to live in, and too costly to demolish, so it just sits there, slowly decaying"

In fairness, that could describe a lot of condos out in Vancouver, asbestos or no.

My understanding was that the Quebec asbestos industry was shutdown largely because it was a perenial money loser and continued to operate in its finals year only because of massive inflows of taxpayer's cash (the Jeffrey mine was finally shutdown when the PQ pulled the plug on a proposed government loan promised by the former Liberal government). While I don't have too many compunctions about fufilling the market-demand for potentially dangerous products in the third-world, I expect people to do so at a profit (could you imagine Columbian coke lords continuing to export drugs to America at a loss?). I'm not inclined to use limited public funds to subsidize the practice (surely, even in Quebec, the Liberal government could have found a more socially redeeming way to waste its taxpayers' money).

genauer - here's data on fertility rates by country http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN/countries . You're right, Zambia's fertility rate, at 6.3, is one of the world's highest - more than twice that of neighbouring Botswana or of South Africa. (This, by the way, is one reason that South Africa has a massive illegal immigration problem). It's weird to walk down the street and just see children absolutely everywhere. There are so few school places that the schools meet in shifts - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I don't know how teachers cope. There are hardly any middle age or older people at all (though admittedly I find it hard to judge Africans' ages).

Bob "I expect people to do so at a profit" - yup!

Jim - and remember asbestos everything in high school chem labs? As Guillaume says, it was seen as an amazing miracle substance.

Shangwen - great, nonotoxicity, another thing to worry about!

Phil - I wouldn't have sat there drinking my coffee under that asbestos roof if I thought that there was a significant health risk.

Here in Australia asbestos has been banned for years, and mines closed. There's a lot of old asbestos around, mostly in situations where - if left undisturbed - it won't do any harm. But you can buy sheets of building material with all the same properties for much the same price as asbestos sheet used to cost. I clad the kids cubby in the stuff. Is there any reason why asbestos-free roofing sheet can't be made in Africa? i would guess not - if they persist in using asbestos, it's because the companies want to avoid the costs of change. Seems like one of those cases where regulation makes a lot of sense.

Brings back high school memories to me. Our school had asbetos ceiling tiles, but no problem said the authorities as long as there were no holes in them..
Well maybe, but don't tell that to the students.

I did a little research and found this random source: http://www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/country-health-profile/zambia

So while Zambia has it really bad (rank 170+ in life expectancy across every age) it is still not the age 43 (but that can be due to different source). Anyways #1 cause of death in Zambia is HIV/AIDS with terrifying 25 percent followed by pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria (together another 25 percent). All types of canceraccount only for 1% of death causes. So yes, it seems that living a life without constant rattle of rain for weeks on end during rain season may very well be worth it even if they knew about risks associated with asbestos.

"I've worked in a few hospitals with asbestos in the walls. The issue is that, as long as it's under wraps and not disturbed, it doesn't float around the air and get into people's lungs. A roof doesn't sound like a very disturbance-free structure, but on the other hand an outdoor location would reduce the harm of stuff flying off it as it degrades."

It depends in part on the form of the asbestos. In the roof, it would probably be a hardboard that is like concrete, and is not in a loose form like batting that would be used for insulation. That makes it more stable and less likely to be inhaled, which usually only will occur when cutting or otherwise manipulating the material. Frances, that means you were likely perfectly safe (well, at least from asbestos).

The funny thing about travelling in developing countries is that people always worry about the exotic dangers, when the largest source of risk is driving on the roads (well, at least for tourists that have anti-malarials and other inoculations). That probably also speaks to the priority of asbestos as a health risk in less developed countries (which has been mentioned by others) when compared to road accidents, infectious disease, smoke inhalation from indoor fires, access to safe drinking water and myriad other risks. In other words, it is kind of a first world problem (not that I am suggesting that we shouldn't try to help limit the use of asbestos in less developed countries, just that it is a lower priority).

You should read a bit about asbestos. It really is fascinating, including the fact that it kind of is a miracle substance, just too bad about the health effects. But, even the health effects happen by an interesting mechanism, due to the unique nature of asbestos fibres. Fascinating stuff.

J.V. "followed by pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria (together another 25 percent)."

Some of those cases of pneumonia and malaria may also be AIDS related, which only reinforces your point i.e. that cancer caused by asbestos (as opposed to cooking over wood or smoking or...) is really not that much of a worry.

My high school had asbestos ceiling ties; they were ubiquitous in the 1950's throw-up boxes that prevail here in Southern Ontario. It was safe as long as it was undisturbed, but a few times over my high school career a water broke on the second floor or a washroom flooded. That meant a possible disturbance and the school board's standing policy was to cancel school for the day until the repairs could be completed.

The way I read
http://www.inspq.qc.ca/pdf/publications/342-asbestosindooroutdoorair.pdf (from Quebec, especially page 19 – 20) your risk sitting under that asbestos roof is more than 100 times less than riding the bicycle during that time, possibly even much lower, as long as your host doesn’t work on the material.

On the other hand, it does make sense for us, rich enough, to eliminate even such low probabilities, because there are many potential causes, which can add up, or even have cross-multiplying interactions we will never ever be able to find out.

For peoples movement, there is a nice site:

genauer - "your risk sitting under that asbestos roof is more than 100 times less than riding the bicycle during that time"

Clearly I should have hung around and drunk coffee all morning today, rather than spending my morning cycling around bumpy dirt roads!

the safest thing would have been, you just stayed in bed all day .....
not really true either, your body needs some exercise.

The world bank data link was good. They are now getting really usable.

So far I took most data from the CIA world Factbook. The update pretty timely, keep a consistent and easy to extract data format, and you can download it as one zip file.

From this year on, with a more detailed demographic partitioning


I should have been more precise:

your risk "dying from asbestos" gotten while sitting under this roof ...

When you ride your bicycle, drive into a pothole and hurt your head, or get run over by a car, the (mono)causality is pretty clear, and will be duly noted in your death certificate.

Sitting under this roof, there are a lot more possibilities, what can happen to you, and which, especially in combinations, will kill you slowly, or just shorten your final years somewhat.

- The roof falling on top of your head
- the light is falling of, and give you some electrical shock
- I hope I get this politically correct: your charming driver seduces you, and then you get AIDS

In these cases your death certificate will also state your correct, clear cause of death.

- you inhaled some 20 fibers, of which 3 have an effective form, or
- your driver bought cheap coffee, which is grown on the cyanide heap from the copper mine next door
- the dust of the mine is floating over with the wind

... and much more

Together with the particulate matter, you inhale while biking for the next 20 years in Canada, and the cigarettes you smoked 20 years ago, you develop breathing difficulties 10 years earlier than otherwise, and fall of the stairs of the nursing home in some coughing attack, after having caught a cold, because of some other negligence.

What did you die from? And nobody will make an autopsy, and a scanning electron microscope picture, to say whoops, we got some 3 asbestos fibers here as well, lets count that by 1% into this bucket as well.

Your death certificate will say : age related natural causes

Because there are so many possibilities, and often accumulating, for various dangers, the single probabilities must be soo low.

But, if we are no longer exporting asbestos, who is?

I am wondering if in fact these panels no longer use asbestos, but just as we often use kleenex or coke or other names in a generic/colloquial way, is these are just cememnt panels with some other fibre now being used, but the colloqial name has remained the same - maybe they use glass fibres or something else.

i had a friend in cuba and visited her house near pinar del rio around 2006 - her mother had just spent a lot of money to replace the roof - it too had corrugated panels made of a cement-like material (not metal) - i highly doubt that cuba would be using ones with asbestos.

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