Kenya faces cancer epidemic caused by asbestos roofs

Kenya is facing a national health crisis caused by the widespread use of asbestos sheets as a building material.

Government now spends nearly 10% of its health budget on the treatment of asbestos-related cancers, and the figure is set to rise, according to broadcaster KTN.

The country’s National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) says the government should take action to replace asbestos on public roofs to avoid worsening health hazards.

"The cost of environmental damage caused by asbestos pollution, including asbestos-related cancers, is higher than what we would spend to replace the roofs," said Izaak Elmi, chief research officer at Nema.

In the 2013/14 fiscal year, he said, the government was expected to spend $33m out of its total health budget of $330m on treating asbestos-related cancers.

Aidah Munano, the principal secretary in the ministry of housing, told a parliamentary committee last week that the government was replacing asbestos roofing.

Kenya banned the use of asbestos in 2006, but nearly all government institutions, including educational facilities and residential estates built in the 1950s and 1960s, have asbestos roofs. These roofs are now ageing, and spreading the dust that causes mesotheliomas, as well as lung and oesophageal cancers.  

HTN reports that large Nairobi residential estates such as Bahati, Kimathi and Ofafa Jericho have asbestos roofs that are used to collect drinking water for resident.

One resident said: "Whenever it rains, we collect the rainwater, which saves us when taps run dry. As you can see, we repaired the roof ourselves a few years back," she added pointing to a section of the roof patched with iron sheets.

Kenya is not unique among lower income countries in failing to enforce the strict anti-asbestos measures taken for granted in richer nations. Tanzania banned asbestos in 2003, but is only now surveying its public buildings and putting in place a programme to "expertly destroy" asbestos products.

Asbestos was widely used around the world because it was an ideal material. It did not burn, rot or corrode, it was an excellent thermal and acoustic insulator and it possessed elasticity and tensile strength.

Image: The western part of the Kibera slum in Nairobi (Kreutzschnabel/Creative Commons)

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