A Health Ministry expert urged Vietnam to limit consumer exposure to chrysotile, or white asbestos, but construction insiders prevailed by arguing the material is safe and cheap.
Exerts on both sides of the debate clashed at a conference held in Hanoi on Wednesday.
The Science, Technology and Environmental Committee at the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature organized the conference with the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Science and Technology to resolve conflicting opinions about the material.
The EU bloc is one of 54 states that have imposed an absolute ban on all kinds of asbestos.
Vietnamese consumers once widely employed all kinds of asbestos, but are now restricted to the use of white asbestos.
The material is used in everything from roofing tiles to bulletproof vests.
White asbestos is now the last legally-excavated form of asbestos in the world.
Russia excavates half of the global annual output of two million tons, followed by China with 0.44 million tons, according to figures at the conference.
Russia also uses the material to make water pipes.
Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen from the Medical Environment Management Department at the Health Ministry said the use of white asbestos must end.
Huyen cited various studies compiled by the World Health Organization which indicated that asbestos of any kind can cause lung, larynx, and ovarion cancer.
She said prolonged exposure to white asbestos has been linked to asbestosis, or lung inflammation caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers, and mesothelioma which are tumors that appear in the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen over the course of 30 years.
There’s no safe limit for asbestos exposure and the only sure form of protection is to stay away from it, she said.
"Asbestos is very dangerous, more so than tobacco, and has placed a heavy medical burden on the world. Our children will continue to suffer its effects if we don’t stop using asbestos now”
- Nguyen Thi Thu Huyen, an official with the Ministry of Health.
Huyen said at least 107,000 people die of asbestosis and mesothelioma a year because they have to work with asbestos, which causes half of the world's work-related cancer deaths.
She said around 400 people also die from using asbestos products every year.
Around 125 million people are exposed to asbestos at work, worldwide--to say nothing of consumer exposure--she said.
When the fibers are inhaled and digested, they can begin to cause health problems as long as 40 years after they are ingested, she said.
“Asbestos is very dangerous, more so than tobacco, and has placed a heavy medical burden on the world. Our children will continue to suffer its effects if we don’t stop using asbestos now,” she said.
But Dr. David Bernstein, a Swiss mediator with extensive experienced in public health, dismissed her concerns.
Bernstein, who was called to the conference by the Ministry of Construction, said white asbestos is not cancerous like the blue and brown types.
He said its weak structure allows it to be easily dissolved in the body over the course of 3 to 15 days.
Doctor Ericson Bagatin of Brazil, the world’s third-largest excavator of white asbestos, said 60 percent of houses there use white asbestos roofing tiles.
Bagatin said the country is still debating the health risks involved in the material.
Doctor Le Thi Hang, deputy director of the Hanoi-based Construction Hospital at the Construction Ministry, said a survey of workers at Vietnam's white asbestos roofing tile factories found no cases of cancer or asbestosis.
The researchers did find a number of workers who suffered from chronic respiratory inflammation.
The survey also found a few problems related to the workers' abdomens and kidneys, she said.
She said Tan Trinh Commune in the northern province of Ha Giang is home to one such factory and most people in the commune use the roofs, but the cancer death rate is no higher than in surrounding communes.
After hearing the various arguments, Vice Minister of Construction Nguyen Tran Nam said Vietnam will continue to allow the manufacture and use of white asbestos due to a lack of “convincing evidence” against it.
The argument seemed to be supported mainly by the material's exceptionally low price.
Doctor Bach Dinh Thien, head of the Institute for Tropical Construction Materials Research, said they have explored alternatives to white asbestos, but every other option proved more expensive.
He did not go into specifics.
Vietnam produced the first roofing materials from white asbestos in 1963 in Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring Dong Nai Province.
The country now has more than 40 asbestos roofing tile factories which churn out 80-90 million square meters a year--a quantity that satisfies over 60 percent of the country's roofing material demands.
The demand for the materials is higher in rural and mountainous areas, officials said.
Insiders said annual demand will rise to roughly 100 million square meters, by 2020, because the tiles are soft, durable and cheap.