Inconvenient truths

What is really happening in Thailand?

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The tainted cavalry arrives

A self-appointed cavalry rode into Thailand recently.

Greeted by loyal local acolytes and feted by the media – the global champions of the international ban asbestos lobby camped out in a 4-star hotel in Bangkok.

People like Dr Barry Castleman who a senior US judge labeled “unreliable” and his evidence “inflammatory” and “hearsay”.

Dr Ken Takahashi who appears confused, and perhaps conflicted, on whether he is an anti-asbestos activist from the Global Ban Asbestos Network (GBAN) or a director at the supposedly independent World Health Organisation.

The pair have been racking up the air miles alongside fellow frequent fliers like Asian Ban Network “General” Sugio Furuya.

These modern crusaders descended on the Thai capital en masse to – they hoped – herald in the prohibition of chrysotile cement.

For 70 years chrysotile has provided Thailand with a cheap and durable material to build high quality, low cost housing – tried and tested products to protect homes and buildings from the country’s heat, humidity and heavy rains.

But this highly motivated lobby talks darkly about the danger posed by chrysotile, and is urging Thailand, its government and its people to act “before it is too late” – whatever the cost.

Chrysotile is asbestos, they say, and all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic and therefore must be banned (although so are wood shavings, salted fish and silica – but there are no calls for a prohibition on these!).

These scaremongers point to health crisis in other parts of the world, places where different, more dangerous, forms of asbestos were widely used without regulation, and claim that it is only a matter of time before Thais start dying.

But in Thailand, this same well-funded group cannot point to a single case of someone who has developed cancer or illness because they lived under a chrysotile roof, drank from a chrysotile water pipe or worked in a factory that uses chrysotile.

While people are dying in their thousands from diabetes, HIV-AIDS and smoking and alcohol-related diseases, this noisy, special-interest, international lobby accuses Thai doctors of being badly trained and simply not good enough to spot an epidemic of
asbestos deaths and that 70-years is too short a timeframe for the problem to surface.

They deliberately ignore the fact that the unarguably serious health problems elsewhere are caused by other forms of asbestos, amphiboles, like blue and brown asbestos, which are highly dangerous.

And fail to acknowledge that chrysotile is a vastly different material, which, when encased in cement, is proven to be safe, and that the Thai experience only goes to underline this.

Profit motive

With perfect timing, the ban lobbyists took up residence in Bangkok just as their wealthy friends at local conglomerate, The Siam Cement Group (SCG), turned the screw on their buddies in the government to back a ban on chrysotile.

Once one of leading chrysotile cement product suppliers in Thailand, SCG gambled on other more expensive and less effective alternatives — losing it money and market share.

Now, with the noisy lobby for company SCG hopes the new rulers will ban its competitors’ products – probably forcing them into bankruptcy — and simply hand the firm a countrywide monopoly.

Hypocritically SCG co-owns a profitable chrysotile cement factory in Indonesia, but with the huge Thai market being handed to it on a platter, is it any wonder it preaches support for the idea of a ban in Thailand with the passion of a convert?

So the real question is, who really stands to benefit from a ban on chrysotile in Thailand?

The people of Thailand, who year after year, have relied on chrysotile cement to protect their homes without any ill effects?

Or, those who will reap huge profits from ripping up those buildings, stripping them of products that do no harm, and replacing them with inferior and more expensive alternatives?

The way has been well prepared.

For weeks, the loyal local recruits of the international ban lobby have filled the Thai airwaves with a well-rehearsed but blinkered diatribe as momentum for a ban gathers pace.

This local vanguard, TBAN, who unquestioningly parrot the propaganda of their international masters, have now even been granted a seat on the Thai government’s reform council.

For TBAN a place at this seat of power would appear to offer them access to a “sin tax”, similar to that paid to Thai anti-smoking and drinking groups, to fund their role in the post-asbestos country.

Money and a chance to rub shoulders with power is, it seems, a heady combination, and although the group still searches in vain for a case of chrysotile-caused illness in Thailand, it is finding itself an ever more welcome guest in Thai ministries seemingly
now closed to any other argument.

It is obvious the lobby pushing the Thai Cabinet to adopt a far reaching, ill thought through, order to ban and remove chrysotile products from the country, have much to gain from its prohibition.

While the Thai government and the country’s poor will foot the bill, many connected to those pushing the ban will line their pockets.

Without any evidence that chrysotile causes harm, the Thai government is being put under tremendous pressure to order its people to remove their roofs and water pipes, to rip out the tried and tested materials that protect their homes, and to replace them
with more costly and less long-lasting products.

There is still time for good sense to prevail. For right minded people, government Ministers and consumers alike, to point out that there is no health crisis caused by chrysotile in Thailand and what people want most is a roof that lasts, does not leak,
keeps them cool in the summer and dry in the rainy season.

Whether these voices of reason will be heard over the noisy clamour of highly organised, internationally planned, demonstrations and declarations of those with a vested interest, only time will tell.