SINGAPORE: The Singapore Land Authority (SLA) will replace the roof awnings of most of the 349 terraced houses it manages in Chip Bee Gardens as a safety precaution, as a majority could contain asbestos, it announced on Monday (Jun 6). But SLA said the health risks posed to occupants remains low.
Prolonged exposure to asbestos has been known to cause lung cancer, a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma, or lung fibrosis - the hardening of lung tissue due to irritation from asbestos particles. These illnesses have a long latency period, taking up to 20 to 30 years before they surface.
Asbestos was a common material used in roofing sheets, ceiling boards and floor tiles of older buildings, because of its good insulation and strength. It was banned in Singapore in 1988, but the material is still present in many buildings built before it was banned.
In the first of four circulars sent to its tenants on Apr 27, and provided to the media, SLA said the its contractor, EM Sservices, found a damaged roof awning the day before at 20 Jalan Putih Jerneh. The circular said the contractor advised SLA that the awning could contain asbestos. The unit was vacant at that time. The roof has since been replaced with a non-asbestos awning.
SLA said further checks showed that the corrugated roofs of 323 of the 349 units could contain non-friable asbestos, which is less hazardous than friable asbestos as it is mixed and "locked in" with materials such as cement. The rest are made of non-asbestos-containing material.
SLA's appointed asbestos specialist has inspected some 110 units so far, and preliminary findings show that 10 per cent of the roof awnings in the units are in good condition and no immediate action is needed. However 20 per cent of the awnings were found to have substantial damage and need to be replaced. The rest were found to have some damage and need to be sealed.
SLA said the Manpower Ministry, which regulates the replacement and removal of asbestos, indicated that the roof awnings are unlikely to pose health risks if they are "intact and not disturbed". Still, SLA said it would replace all the roof awnings.
"Asbestos is most toxic when it is released into the air, for example if you find a particular building that is made with asbestos, when the construction workers tear it down, that's when asbestos is released into the air and that's when people who are living in the area are exposed to that," said respiratory specialist, Associate Professor Philip Eng.
However, he added that the ill-effects of asbestos has been known to both the healthcare and construction industry for years. As a result, there is no cause for panic as the construction industry is well-equipped to deal with the material.
A house sealed off for asbestos removal (Photo: SLA)
In late 2012, the Government undertook a review of its guidelines in a bid to explore safer ways of removing asbestos from buildings. In January 2014, new regulations on work involving asbestos were implemented. These include having a trained person appointed to ascertain if materials contain asbestos before demolition or renovation works are carried out on buildings built before 1991. If asbestos is present, removal work can only be carried out by an approved contractor, and under supervision. The idea is to ensure the mineral is not released into the air.
(Additional reporting by Chan Luo Er)