Hospital told to clean up asbestos

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am

Seven staff on health watch after exposure to toxic material found dumped in tunnel

The Hospital Authority has been ordered to improve asbestos management after the toxic substance was found in a tunnel under Queen Elizabeth Hospital, leading to a health watch on seven people.

The discovery, in January last year, was not reported to the public or hospital staff. It came to light after a former staff member complained to the Ombudsman last month about the hospital's handling of the case.

The hospital confirmed that about a square metre of asbestos debris was found in a service tunnel during a kitchen renovation project on January 23 last year. The Environmental Protection Department subsequently issued an asbestos abatement notice and advised the authority to take preventive measures to 'minimise such problems in future'.

The general manager of the authority's Kowloon Central Cluster, Susanna Ko Yuk-ying, said the hospital immediately hired an asbestos consultant to remove the debris.

Seven members of staff from various service units who passed by the site during that period were traced.

'We arranged all seven people to have medical consultations at our staff clinic and X-rays. According to our medical advice, there is no need to have follow-up consultations,' Ms Ko said.

The kitchen project contractor denied responsibility for the asbestos. The hospital suspects the debris could have been left behind after the theft of a copper hot water pipe sheathed in the insulating material. The hospital reported the theft to police and installed closed-circuit television cameras in the tunnel.

The 200-metre service tunnel, which runs under several hospital buildings, houses electrical wires, pipes, pumps and engines. Only authorised people can enter it.

Asbestos is a common material in old buildings, including the hospital, which started service in 1963.

On January 25 last year the hospital reported the incident to the Environmental Protection Department, which inspected the site the next day.

'As the asbestos debris, no matter how it was caused in the first place, imposed an imminent health risk, an asbestos abatement notice was immediately issued to QEH requiring them to hire a registered consultant to prepare an asbestos decontamination plan and a registered contractor to carry out the debris clearance work as a matter of urgency,' a department spokesman said.

The department wrote to the authority again on February 7 last year asking it to 'ascertain other asbestos works and to review contract management for future similar works'.

On August 22 it issued a preventive asbestos abatement notice 'mandating [the hospital] to carry out a comprehensive asbestos investigation by a registered consultant and to implement the management plan before eventual replacement of the remaining aged asbestos pipes'.

The department said the hospital would not be prosecuted as there was insufficient evidence to show who was responsible for the debris.

The former employee who lodged the complaint with the Ombudsman said he was motivated to do so by the hospital management's lack of care for its staff. The source, who refused to be named, said it was only after his and colleagues' repeated requests that management provided health checks for affected staff.

'Management should have informed all hospital staff ... the doors to the basement were sometimes open and it was possible some asbestos debris could spread out from the service tunnel to the ground level.'

The service tunnel connects to a busy corridor on the ground level.

The source quit earlier this year after a series of arguments with the hospital's management.