A consignment of 30,000 protective masks for use by construction industry workers was due to arrive in East Timor in early October. The masks have been bought by the Division of Health Services as part of UNTAET's measures to reduce the risks from handling asbestos, particularly in clearing rubble. Officials said the masks would be distributed to companies as soon as they arrive.
Asbestos is widely used in insulation materials (the most dangerous form) and as a fire retardant. Rough handling or other damage releases asbestos fibres, which if inhaled can - over a long period of time - cause mesothelioma and forms of cancer.
The alarm was first sounded in July by La's Hamutuk, a Dili-based watchdog organization involved in policy monitoring and evaluation. The organization's Scott Cunliffe warned: "Many people are not aware of the danger of being exposed to these materials." The Australian Council of Trade Unions also issued a warning. UNTAET immediately took up the matter.
A consultant's survey found that about 10 per cent of the residential and 40 per cent of the public buildings in East Timor contain asbestos cement. More than 30 building engineers employed to survey school buildings were given training in asbestos management. Now guidelines have been issued by the administration for people working with asbestos.