Asbestos, Hurricanes and Cancer in Cuba

Dmitri Prieto

Roofing materials with asbestos are common in Cuba and there doesn't seem to be any concern among authorities.
Roofing materials with asbestos are common in Cuba and there doesn’t seem to be any concern among authorities.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — For a few years now, cancer has been the leading cause of death in Cuba.

When Hurricane Matthew swept through Guantanamo province in early October, news about how Cuban industries making building materials readying to help the victims, immediately appeared on our TV screens.

One of the most repeated images broadcast by Cuban TV after a hurricane destroys houses and buildings in Cuba is that of factories manufacturing asbestos-cement roofing sheets, where hard-working workers prepare to make what will become the new roofs of some homes, industries and workplaces, whose original roofs were blown away by the hurricane.

However, as their name points out, this roofing material contains asbestos. And asbestos causes cancer.

I was surprised to hear how a part of the structure of the recently completely skyscraper that is the National French Library had been knocked down in Paris, after the simple discovery that there was asbestos in some of the materials.

By means of a European Union (EU) directive, all of its Member States have had to ban the sale or use of any kind of asbestos since 2005, and in 2006, the EU launched a campaign with the bold motto: “Asbestos is deadly serious!”

I don’t know what’s going on here in Cuba, with its powerful institutionalism and strong medical culture, where it still seems like asbestos isn’t worrying anybody.

Asbestos causes diseases when it is inhaled. Its particles do not evaporate into air and they’re not hydrosoluble either, which means that they linger about for a long time, while they are carried far away by the wind and water, before settling. Asbestos fibers can’t move through soil either. Generally-speaking, they don’t break down and they remain for many years. Drinking water can contain asbestos, especially if water pipes are made out of fiber cement.

The link between exposure to asbestos and lung cancer has been known since 1935. Today, asbestos is the most well-known industrial material out of those that are linked to this type of cancer. And in 1991, the World Bank decided not to finance the manufacture or use of products containing asbestos. This subject shocked the world again in 2001, after the World Trade Center collapsed, when asbestos dust was released into the air.

The World Health Organization, international medical institutions and US regulatory authorities have drawn up a list of products that contain asbestos and cause cancer in humans, with a higher mortality rate. The use of asbestos has been banned in every first world country for decades now, although asbestos use continues in some underdeveloped countries. Spain banned it completely in 2001. The international ban on asbestos is governed by the Rotterdam Convention (in effect since 2004), signed by over 100 Member States, but not without controversy as some countries still produce asbestos.

This is a peculiar mineral as it forms into fibers. You can make asbestos fabrics. It’s extremely resistant to heat and was historically used in protection suits and overalls for people who worked with fire, or who could be exposed to it. In Cuba, many people from my generation will remember “asbestos racks”, which were used in school chemistry labs to place some kind of recipient over the flame, while it heated up.

Dating back as far as the 1st century AD, in Rome, Pliny the Elder described how slaves who wove clothes made out of asbestos got sick lungs. In 1906, in London (England), the first case of “asbestos-related pulmonary fibrosis” in a young textile worker was recorded.

There are two diseases that this substance causes in the lungs and lung membranes: cancer and asbestosis (lung or pleural lesions which can also incapacitate and kill people); both of them have long (30+ years) “latent periods” – the time between inhaling asbestos and then getting sick. The minimum quantity of asbestos exposure considered to be safe isn’t known.

Lung cancer is up to 10 times more common among those who have worked with asbestos than in the general population. In 2000, it was the main cause of death due to occupational diseases in the UK. Furthermore, combining asbestos exposure and cigarette smoke greatly increases the chances of somebody getting lung cancer.

The European Commission has estimated that there will be 500,000 asbestos-related deaths in the upcoming years, 10 times more than occupational accidents. It is estimated that asbestos-related cancer will cause more than 200,000 deaths over the course of the next decade in Great Britain. As asbestos is so dangerous, in the United States asbestos is normally handled by more underprivileged social classes..

Because asbestos is responsible for the deaths of exposed workers, there are NGOs in the world who are working to defend these workers’ right and those of their families.

All of this may be true, but it seems like none of this is known here in Cuba[1]. Every time a strong hurricane hits, the tired and smiling faces of workers making asbestos-cement roofing materials appear, ready to help those who have lost the roof over their heads and who are in a hurry to put it back. Roofs that cause cancer.

The easy, fast and cheap always ends up with a high cost to pay: suffering and death for patients, pain for families, public expenditure on cytostatic drugs and sophisticated equipment.

This dilemma needs to be resolved. Moreover, by the way, asbestos-cement roofs are the first ones to be blown off whenever a hurricane strikes.

[1]The majority of the statistics that I state here are from Wikipedia in an article published in 2012, “Asbestos”.  I don’t have a more up-to-date set of figures, and I don’t even know if Cuban “decision-makers” read Wikipedia. I don’t know what EcuRed (a kind of Cuban government Wiki) says about all of this.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov has 254 posts and counting. See all posts by Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

4 thoughts on “Asbestos, Hurricanes and Cancer in Cuba

  • Very interesting article. I am currently doing research on a public health project for my global health research practicum at University of Illinois Chicago, and my focus is on lung cancer in Cuba. I’m actually a bit surprised that the issue of asbestos as a possible carcinogen hasn’t been taking up more urgently, just as other healthcare issues have in Cuba. It is indeed a country that is admirably very proactive when it comes to health promotion so I’m curious as to the reasons why this is any different. Do you have more work on this topic? I would love to get as much information as possible as it could help me with my research here at the university. Thanks.

  • Dmitri, I am on the side of the Cuban people, for their welfare and against any policies that endanger their health. I doubt very much, however, that the policy makers of Cuba spend any time reading Havana Times. So why don’t you send your concerns – as a citizen and a scientist – to the local authorities? How about sending a letter expressing the scientific facts about the dangers of the use of asbestos in construction to the following entities:

    1. Granma
    2. Cubadebate
    3. Ministry of Construction (Ministerio de la Construcción (MICONS))
    4. Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente (CITMA))
    5. Ministry of Public Health (Ministerio de Salud Pública (MINSAP))
    6. Your local CDR
    7. The Mayor of your city
    8. Your local Parliamentary Representative

    The authorities for certain already know the dangers of asbestos. After all Cuba has a very impressive and internationally-recognized high level of scientific knowledge and medical education system. I am aware that the US blockade and other hostile actions imposes a very difficult and devastating constraint on Cuba’s modernization and development in general. However, the correct approach is not the Stalinist model that the Cuban leadership has adopted. Cubans are creative and resourceful. They can surely find healthy and affordable solutions to roofing materials instead of asbestos cement.

    I am not naive and idealistic about political realities in the current Cuban system but I am suggesting that you engage in a bit of peaceful civic activism at the local and national level. You owe it to yourself, your people and the future!

  • I don’t know exactly how safe they are for the families living under that type of roof, but in a poor country, what other options they have, or even better what would you recommend?

  • Asbestos cement is certainly not a material of choice, but of itself is not a powerful carcinogen because the fibre is ‘locked’ into the cement. In the UK, buildings which have asbestos cement roofing are everywhere, and used; the advice is not to disturb the roof and it will be fine.

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