Asbestos scare at provincial legislature

Access to the chambers, bar area and 6th floor kitchen of the Western Cape legislature has been restricted after the roof of an unused office collapsed, exposing a section of asbestos.

According to the Department of Transport and Public Works spokeswoman, Beverline Thomas, a preliminary report has identified the areas where asbestos presents a health risk if it were to be disturbed.

“Sealed asbestos-containing material has also been found in the ceiling of the office of premiere Helen Zille,” she said.

Ms Thomas said the Department of Public Works, which owns the building, is still awaiting details regarding the estimated cost of removal and containment of the asbestos.

If areas containing asbestos are disturbed, asbestos fibres can be inhaled into the lungs, with the related health risks including asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma.

But James Retief, spokesman for the Western Cape Provincial Parliament (WCPP), said the asbestos found had been undisturbed, not airborne. “We have been advised by experts that the risk was not significant.”

Ms Thomas said after the series of incidents, an occupational medicine specialist from Groote Schuur Hospital had addressed the staff at the WCPP about the risks of exposure to asbestos. “The specialist made it clear that it is extremely unlikely that there will be any human health impacts arising from the current situation because exposure, if any, would have been low volume and of short duration.”

In the meantime, Mr Retief said that the WCPP was trying to find alternative accommodation for sittings of the House. And although arrangements had not yet been finalised, he said, the planned sitting today, Thursday August 25 would go ahead.

“The administration of the WCPP is making every effort to ensure that the disruption to the normal operations of the institution is minimal. Some degree of inconvenience will be experienced, but we are doing everything possible, in consultation with our users, to mitigate this.”

Louis Botha, the director of Western Cape Asbestos Removals, said the best thing to do when asbestos is found is to vacate the premises and call a registered contractor to have it removed.

He said that while settled asbestos poses less risk than when it is airborne, the asbestos fibres are likely to be disturbed again.

Mr Botha said many buildings in the country have asbestos roof sheets, which, if properly maintained and sealed, can last for up to 50 years without posing a health risk.

“By maintaining it and painting it regularly, and making sure it is not exposed to the elements, asbestos can be managed effectively,” he said.

“If, however, it starts to deteriorate, it can take up to 30 years for it to be disturbed.”

He said buildings that are most likely to have exposed asbestos are factories and older buildings with high roofs.

The Western Cape legislature was built in 1939.

When the CapeTowner asked Gerard Keet of the Authorised Inspectorate Authority to comment on the health hazards related to exposure to asbestos, he said there was a confidentiality clause in place that prevented him from commenting.

He referred the CapeTowner to the Department of Public Works.

The Western Cape legislature is not the only building in Cape Town affected by asbestos exposure recently.

Earlier this month the roof of St George’s Cathedral caved in after water seeped through the broken tiles and softened the cement, exposing asbestos (“Asbestos in Cathedral to be analysed,” Cape Towner, August 4).

Fundraising efforts have since been put in place to repair the cathedral’s roof.

The Dean of the cathedral, Reverend Michael Weeder, did not respond to enquiries about the progress of the repair work by the time this edition went to print.