The silent killer in Slovenia's buildings


Asbestos is a remarkable mineral - it insulates, it's a flame retardant and it's been used in buildings for many years. And for many years its threat to health went unrecognised or ignored. Asbestos can cause lung cancer and asbetosis - a scarring of the lungs leading to breathing problems and heart failure.

In Slovenia, asbestos still exists in many older buildings, in pipe insulation material, textured paints and other coating materials. In Slovenia the material was used in many products and today the question is how to get rid of it without exposing people to the deadly fibre.

I spoke to Dr. Marko Vudrag the former director of the Institute of Public Health in Ljubljana and asked him when the danger of asbestos became an issue?

"The use of asbestos was massive and universal until the 1960s. At that time asbestos lung malignancy among workers in industry producing or using asbestos was confirmed. These findings were alarming. That is why the first limitations of the use of asbestos were introduced in the late 70s and early 80s - first in the US and after that in EU member states. In Slovenia such measures were first taken in 1996."

The problem of asbestos is that the latency period before the outbreak of the disease can be very long and many people who worked with asbestos were not aware of its health risks and were not properly protected. As they inhaled dangerous asbestos fibres, they often were unaware what effects this would eventually have on their health. Dr.Vudrag:

"I think that products containing asbestos usually last 35 to 40 years, which means that these products will soon need replacing. If we are exposed to asbestos we can suffer the consequences maybe after 20 to 30 years of exposure."

But how many people were actually exposed to asbestos in Slovenia and is it possible to determine which areas of the country are mostly affected?

"According to information on employment in individual enterprises that used asbestos it can be observed that several thousand workers - in Slovenia about 23,000 - were under occupational exposure in Slovenia. According to the latest information asbestosis has been confirmed in more than 1,000 persons. The majority of those who have contracted the disease live or used to live around Anhovo (the biggest factory in Slovenia using asbestos in its production) in Ljubljana and in Maribor, asbestos using big enterprises. Most of them were exposed to asbestos in their workplace. You should know that there are about 200 enterprises using asbestos in Slovenia. 14 major enterprises use asbestos in production."

Intact and undisturbed asbestos does not pose a health risk. Asbestos becomes a problem when, due to damage or deterioration over time, the material releases fibres into the air. Improper attempts to remove these materials can release asbestos fibres into the air in homes, increasing asbestos levels and endangering people living in those homes.

"There are numerous regulations concerning the environment and health including the law on the protection of the environment and several other regulations, regarding dangerous material. There are regulations on waste treatment as well as the statute on treatment of waste materials containing asbestos. All these regulations are good and professional, they must be strictly followed to prevent environmental and especially health damage. Perhaps what we need in Slovenia is a professional inspection service to control how people treat waste containing asbestos. We really need professional training."

I asked Dr. Vudrag how the patients are treated to help them:

"We don't have any treatment about that. We have malignancy disease it's a big problem for our health care system and especially for our patients."

Dust was carried home on the clothes of workers, dust that was cleaned from their clothes by their wives at home, dust that was packed around the heating systems in houses and offices and schools. This means that not only workers who were directly exposed to asbestos at the working place but also their families and those living near those factories can face severe health problems. According to Dr.Vudrag, due to the long latency period, the number of cases of asbestosis or asbestos-related cancer will not peak for another 20 years.