Medicine

Mid-Levels suits over asbestos weighed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am

A Cheung Kong subsidiary or its demolition contractor could face legal claims from residents and schools in Mid-Levels, where tiny particles of cancer-causing asbestos dust may have been released during improper demolition of its buildings.

The English Schools Foundation is seeking information from the Environmental Protection Department (EPD), while several residents are consulting lawyers about possible claims.

'I'm taking this very seriously,' said one resident who declined to be named, but had said in an earlier interview that he was seeking independent confirmation that no fibres had been released.

The resident said he had already given notice to his landlord, and several other residents of the Hong Villa apartment block were also looking into the matter. 'I'm a zero-risk kind of guy,' he said.

The risk from asbestos exposure from common building materials is slight, but inhaling asbestos fibres can lead to a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma, to lung cancer and other health problems later in life. Scientists have yet to determine a safe level of asbestos.

'No one has identified the threshold of exposure,' said Ignatius Yu Tak-sun, clinical professor and head of the division of occupational and environmental health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has been researching asbestos exposure for several decades.

'Indirect exposure of the wife and children of people working in asbestos mines - we're talking about fibres carried on clothes, small doses - have been shown to cause cancer. In theory, one fibre can kill.'

But mesothelioma, which appears about 40 years after exposure and kills almost all patients within a year of diagnosis - shows up only in people who have come into contact with asbestos, Yu said.

He said that, contrary to popular belief, all types of asbestos are health hazards, and noted that the government plans to introduce legislation this year to ban the import and sale of material containing asbestos.

Despite the evidence linking diseases to asbestos exposure, anyone seeking legal recourse would have difficulty. 'Trying to prove where the asbestos came from would be ... extremely difficult, if not impossible to do,' Lee Yarnall, director of Aspec, an independent asbestos consultant registered with the government department, said.

'The EPD and Labour Department will concentrate on proving workers on the site have been exposed to asbestos-containing materials and take enforcement action against the developer or demolition contractor only on those grounds.'

Cheung Kong said its contractor had told the company the work would not involve asbestos and 31/2 floors of one block and one storey each of two other blocks had been demolished before the truth was learned. After a report by a consultant, the EPD gave permission for abatement work.

The department reported 50 prosecutions over illegal asbestos work last year.