Pacific region awash with asbestos

For the first time, authorities in the Pacific now have an idea of just how much asbestos there is in the region, and are trying to work out how to get rid of it before it becomes a health risk.

A survey has found that some South Pacific countries are awash with the hazardous building material which can lead to lung diseases or cancer.

The Pacific environment agency SPREP says that until now there's only been anecdotal evidence about the quantity and condition of asbestos in the region.

SPREP's Pacwaste project manager, Stewart Williams, says the survey, done with European Union assistance, found that the once-common building material is widespread, including in public buildings such as schools and hospitals.

"Primarily in buildings, in roofing material, in wall material, sometimes in flooring, and also in water pipes. The condition, compared to what it would be in Australia and New Zealand is that it's typically not painted, and so it is quite weathered. So therefore what we've got is we've got asbestos that's in poor condition which shows that there is risk."

Mr Williams says fortunately most of it has been found before it has become airborne, which is when it becomes a health issue.

He says the agency is now working to try and help the region's governments develop a programme to get rid of asbestos before it becomes an issue, with limited funding.

"Now that we actually know the amount of asbestos there is and the locations, one of the things that's occured is that there is a priority action list where we'll address those locations that have the highest risk, mostly because they're public buildings in poor condition and we can get rid of it within the amount of money we've got. If you wanted to remove all of the asbestos that we found in the Pacific it's over $100 million, and of course we've got $2 million, so it's a gradual process that people have to do."

Mr Williams says the bulk of asbestos, though, is in residential buildings, and education programmes will be launched to encourage owners to protect themselves from asbestos.