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Asbestos future hangs in the balance

Staff Writer/Businessday

THE future of the asbestos industry in Zimbabwe hangs in the balance after South Africa announced plans to outlaw the manufacture and use of asbestos with new le

gislation due before parliament later this year.

The move could affect Zimbabwe’s foreign currency earnings as it earns more than US$40 million annually in foreign currency from asbestos exports.

Turnall Ltd, which is listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE) exports finished asbestos products to South Africa.

South Africa’s Environmental Affairs and Tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk told the National Assembly last month that his department would focus this year on dealing with the lethal effect of asbestos on human health.

“Although no asbestos is currently mined in South Africa, and 65 of our major mines have been rehabilitated, much still remains to be done,” said Van Schalkwyk.

In terms of the amendments to the Environmental Conservation Act, signed recently into law by President Thabo Mbeki, Van Schalkwyk’s department will exercise control of products containing asbestos even before they become waste.

Some products are expected to be exempted from the new regulations and will be given three to five years in which to phase out the use of asbestos fibre.

The director-general in the Environment Affairs and Tourism ministry, Chippy Olver, told journalists last month that the study, which had led to the decision to prohibit asbestos, was taken to the National Economic Development and Labour Council to be negotiated with business and labour.

The phasing out of the use of asbestos would apply to oxyacetylene cylinders, some seals and gaskets and brake linings, Olver said.

He said his department was in the process of evaluating tenders for a comprehensive study to begin in August, to determine the levels of secondary asbestos pollution in the worst affected provinces.

Building Industries South Africa chief executive officer Pierre Fourie last month said the industry was phasing out the use of asbestos, with several building product manufacturers moving toward environmentally friendly substitutes.

He cited Everite’s decision to use asbestos-free Nutec fibre cement, which contains wood fibre.

The department’s action comes at a time when environmental lobby groups were beginning to doubt government’s willingness to outlaw the use of asbestos.

In the latest Building Industries Federation South Africa publication, Gideon Erasmus of non-governmental organisation Environmental Governance Trust accused government of “dragging its feet” in bringing asbestos users into line.

Erasmus also expressed concern about the trend for South African companies to import asbestos from Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s major export destinations of chrysotile asbestos fibre are South East Asia, the Far East, Middle East and Africa. Zimbabwe is the fifth largest producer of white asbestos after Russia, Canada, China and Brazil.

The Mutumwa Mawere-led Africa Resources Ltd (ARL) produces and handles asbestos through Shabani Mashava Mine (SMM), African Associated Mine (AAM) and Turnall.

Since last year, South Africa has raised concern saying asbestos was harmful to people’s health.

Last year Mawere invited MPs from South Africa who were led to Zimbabwe’s only two mines of chrysotile asbestos fibre – Shabani and Mashava.

Analysts point out that Mawere’s move was meant to try and influence the South Africans to side with Zimbabwe on the asbestos issue.

Zimbabwe is due to host an asbestos conference in November where asbestos exporting and importing countries are scheduled to meet and chart the way forward in the wake of an anti-asbestos lobby.

AAM managing director Obert Dube said South Africa had not come out clear on the ban.

“At AAM we don’t sell asbestos fibre to South Africa but rather our product passes through South Africa during its transportation to the port,” he said.

“If there are regulations in terms of transportation, we will abide by those regulations.”

Turnall are likely to be affected since they sell asbestos products to South Africa.

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