Albania is covered in 90,000 tons of communist-era deadly asbestos – and there is little public awareness of the risks or proper tracking of the resulting deadly diseases, environmentalists say.
As tourists looked for a Riviera-bound bus under Tirana’s scorching August sun, dust rose from the mud pavement of the improvised bus station in a former industrial area of the city from where thousands of people leave each day for southwestern destinations.
The bus sits next to a building where most of the deteriorating communist-era roof is gone. The rest is cracking and deteriorating, with small pieces of the roof having fallen on the floor below. The roof is made of a composite of cement and asbestos fibers, whose prolonged inhalation can cause deadly lung illnesses that take a decade or more to show symptoms.
Because of its deadly nature, asbestos has been banned in the developed world, where high public awareness about its dangers have led to costly cleanup and maintenance operations to make sure it poses no dangers to people.
Like the bus station, Albania, however, is still literally covered in communist-era deadly asbestos – much of it old and deteriorating, which makes it more dangerous. And there is little public awareness of the risks, environmentalists say, noting that the most deadly form of asbestos-related diseases, mesothelioma, is already present at an estimated 120 cases per year in Albania’s 2.8 million residents.
The population at large does not know much about the risks associated with asbestos, says Romeo Hanxhari, an academic who has studied the issue for years. And he adds that’s troubling because “we have determined there are approximately 60 new cases of mesothelioma per year based on hospital diagnostic data, but these are likely to be under-reported and may be twice this estimate.”
Research shows the amount of asbestos used in Albania between 1930-1990 was estimated at approximately 188,000 tons while around 90,000 tons are still in use.
“The most widespread asbestos containing product in Albania is the asbestos-cement containing 10-25 percent asbestos,” says Hanxhari, who adds most of it was made in Albania. “In the ‘60s a factory for asbestos-cement was built and operated 1992. The material was compressed into flat or undulated sheets to build roofs or walls, and was also made into a range of other products such as pipes, drains, guttering conduits, tanks, etc.”
A team of researchers from the Association for New Environmental Policies, a Tirana-based NGO, attempted a couple of years ago to estimate the asbestos disease burden in Albania only to find there was no real monitoring taking place by health authorities. The researchers found out that healthcare officials only asked lung disease patients if they smoked — 98 percent of patients are smokers — but they did not go any further to distinguish the lung cancer causes.
The use of asbestos has been banned in the EU and Albania, but the problem remains with what to do with the tons that are already there, says Petrit Vasili, a medical doctor turned politician and Albania’s former health minister. He authored a book on the topic, “Asbestos: The silent cancerous killer.”
“The methods that need to be used to remove the threat are scientifically clear, so we have to use them and to make sure that we don’t make the problem worse by eliminating asbestos the wrong way,” Vasili said at a conference in 2013.
Any removal of asbestos products needs to be done with great care so the material is not released into the air and breathed in by workers, however, TCJE journalists have found evidence that when industrial sites were torn down at Tirana’s Ish Uzina Enver neighborhood, asbestos sheets were simply treated as other materials to be discarded.
TCJE reporters who interviewed locals in hotspots said there was little awareness on the streets of the deadly nature of the material present in so many Albanian cities and towns.
In addition to the bus station near the Ish Uzina Enver neighborhood of Tirana, where old industrial sites are all covered in asbestos sheets, TCJE.org journalists found old and damaged asbestos sheeting in Tirana’s main vegetable market, Pazari i Ri, in farms around Tirana, and industrial sites around several major cities including Fier, Vlora, Elbasan and Korça.
One of the worst-polluted areas, is the former asbestos factory in Vlora, 110 kilometers south of Tirana. Although the manufacturing operations ceased in 1992, the site still contains asbestos-cement debris.
Some of the asbestos products have also been used to cover homes elsewhere. In one small town, for example, Laç Vau i Dejes, in the northern Shkodra County, an entire neighborhood’s homes were covered with asbestos-cement tiles.
“It’s known as the Eternit neighborhood,” one local says, referring to the trademark name of the asbestos-cement of the gray roofing material. “I grew up there. I had no idea it was dangerous.”
Luckily for most Albanians, the use of the materials in home construction was not widespread, but old industrial sites and warehouses used to store farm animals and agricultural goods are still widely covered with the deadly material, much of it deteriorating, which makes it easier for the deadly fibers to spread in the air, escaping their bonding with the cement.
As part of its EU integration process, Albania will have to follow EU asbestos directives, action plans, initiatives and standards in the near future, experts say, and it will be an uphill battle to clean the country up.
Another problem is that despite the official ban, there are reports that small amounts of construction material that contains asbestos still gets into the country and is used.
“While large asbestos factories which operated in Albania during the Communist era are gone, a few small units and workshops continue to process asbestos,” notes a report by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat. “Considering the historic use of asbestos in the country, asbestos-cement pipes and building materials and asbestos insulation are an integral part of the national infrastructure.”
There have been local and international efforts to deal with the situation. In April 2012, for example, a training program by the Albanian Institute of Public Health, supported by the World Health Organization, took place in Albania to train officials and workers on basic occupational health services to eliminate asbestos-related diseases. Albanian occupational physicians, medical doctors, nurses, technicians, health educators, epidemiologists and civil servants attended lectures by international experts.
As a result of the intensive discussions which took place in 2012, local and international experts came up with a joint statement highlighting the need to address the widespread hazard posed by asbestos in Albania which they say constitutes “a major threat to occupational and environmental health.”
After years “of lobbying and research into the asbestos topic in Albania, we are happy to see that this is the right moment when all the stakeholders in the country, especially the political ones, have started slowly but firmly to see clearly how very serious this problem is for us, and are collaborating with us on pushing toward some small but concrete actions,” says Hanxhari, the university professor and environmentalist, adding it is vital that political and social awareness increases to contain the harm already done and protect any further exposure of the population to the deadly material.
Reported and written by Andi Balla, this article has been produced as part the Human Rights Reporting Program of the Tirana Center for Journalistic Excellence.