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Make asbestos list public, say lawmakers

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Make asbestos list public, say lawmakers

Legislators are urging the government to name buildings known to contain asbestos, after a report revealed that the cancer-causing dust may have been released following the improper demolition of a Mid-Levels block in Borrett Road.

‘The list should be made public, so those who live near the buildings know of the risk,’ said medical sector lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau, who raised the issue of asbestos exposure to construction workers involved in the government’s urban renewal project, Operation Building Bright (OBB), in the Legislative Council in July last year.

The list is the result of a survey of 1,400 buildings in the scheme, which began in 2009 and aimed to give old and decaying blocks a facelift and safety check. The checks revealed some 1,100 of the buildings on the list contained asbestos, but the Environmental Protection Department refuses to release the information.

The South China Morning Post reported yesterday the department had begun an investigation after halting the demolition of blocks at 21, 23 and 25 Borrett Road following the discovery a consultant had wrongly claimed asbestos was not present there before work began. The Mid-Levels site is less than 100 metres from the English Schools Foundation’s Island School, the Carmel Jewish Day School and several kindergartens.

The department, which hired consultants to conduct the OBB surveys, also said it stood by the Development Bureau’s stance in a July 13 meeting last year. It considers warning letters and follow-ups sufficient to address the issue, and agreed with the minister’s statement.

The department had to ‘observe the feelings of the owners and occupants of the buildings concerned and does not wish to give the wrong impression to the public that all these buildings are dangerous,’ Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said. The owners on the list range from large property developers to private individuals.

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Asbestos in building materials poses little risk, but inhaling loose fibres can cause lung cancer, asbestosis and a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma – which develops an average of 40 years after exposure and leaves most patients dead within a year of diagnosis. Scientists have yet to determine a safe level of asbestos exposure, with some experts saying that one fibre is enough to kill.

Hong Kong is looking to ban the import and sale of all asbestos products within the year. It has banned the import and sale of blue and brown asbestos since 1996.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that asbestos causes 100,000 deaths each year.

Lee Yarnall, director of Aspec, a company hired to organise asbestos surveys and removal plans for OBB, said the letters, notices and random check-ups were comprehensive, but it was possible not all of Hong Kong’s construction industry may be following the proper procedures.

‘It’s like with fines for noisy construction work. Construction managers used to absorb fines into their costs, until the [government] started increasing the penalties,’ Yarnall said.

Currently, violators of the Air Pollution Control Ordinance face a maximum HK$200,000 fine and a six-month jail term, but in reality the courts have handed out much lower penalties, imposing fines of HK$200 to HK$75,000 since 2008, according to the department.

The sums are minor considering that it could cost developers up to HK$3 million to remove the asbestos from 21, 23 and 25 Borrett Road.

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