Across Asia, countless efforts are being made to rebuild shattered communities after the 2003 tsunami and more recent disasters, such as the earthquake in Java and then killer waves along the Sumatran coast. But while aid groups have committed millions of dollars to repair buildings in the disaster zones, a meeting of several hundred health and environmental experts in Bangkok last month has raised the spectre of another disaster in the region, this one man-made. The meeting heard that chrysotile asbestos, a material long banned in construction in many western countries, is being used widely in rebuilding efforts and the construction industry as a whole, and will trigger a wave of fatalities that could run into the thousands, with Thailand at the epicentre. 'Increasing asbestos consumption in Asia will, in years to come, assuredly result in an epidemic of ill-health and death,' warned Laurie Kazan-Allen, a spokeswoman for the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS). 'Asian countries consume more than 50 per cent of global asbestos production.' Deaths from asbestos still aren't officially reported in Thailand, but a Japanese doctor in recent weeks verified the country's first case of asbestiosis. One of the world's highest-ranking countries for per-capita asbestos use, Thailand reported in 2004 that it had 16 factories mixing asbestos into building materials, with 1,900 workers, registered at the Ministry of Industry. The Thai construction industry has for more than two decades relied heavily on rae yai hin because it's cheap and heat-resistant, which is why corrugated roof tiles and wallboards laced with the substance are common. Despite the fact that 40 countries have banned the asbestos materials because of studies linking it to cancer, Thailand - and much of Southeast Asia - continues to use it. Thailand spent US$54 million to import 181,348 tonnes of chrysotile in 2002, up from 90,700 tonnes in 1987. Manufacturers in producing countries, including China, Russia and Brazil, appear eager to fill that demand. A 2004 government report from Quebec - the site of Canada's two active mines - stated: 'Chrysotile shipments increased slightly in volume [about 2.5 per cent], thanks mainly to strong growth in the Asian demand for chrysotile-based building materials.' 'Without exaggeration, we're exporting human misery,' the conference was told by Canadian MP Pat Martin, who condemned his government's continued funding of the Chrysotile Institute, an industry lobby group that helps promote and export the deadly material. The issue came to light in May when Swiss-based doctor David Bernstein told Thai authorities that chrysotile was safe if used 'cleverly'. His visit was just one week after the World Health Association reaffirmed that all types of asbestos cause asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer and that there was no safe level of exposure. Dr Bernstein received funding of more than US$1 million from the Chrysotile Institute in 2003 to complete a report on the mineral's benefits - a report that's been dismissed by leading experts. But the debate over its use has gone on for decades in Thailand. 'In 1984, Canada successfully pressured the government of Thailand to not require skull-and-crossbones warning labels on sacks of asbestos,' said American environmentalist Barry Castleman during the conference. Thailand's safety standards have been criticised by many of the country's labour activists and public health professionals. 'It's a joke, really,' said Somboon Srikhamdokkhae, whose high-profile crusades for better standards earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. 'In Thailand, it's common to contact factories scheduled for inspection to warn them. Give them time to prepare.' A medical survey by Thailand's Health Department in 2003 showed that 29 per cent of high-risk workers - those producing fibre-cement products such as roof tiles - had abnormalities in chest X-rays. However, figures are skewed because employers make it difficult to track industry-related illnesses and deaths by firing sick workers, something that Ms Somboon, now 47, experienced herself after contracting byssinosis, a deadly lung disease, after more than 12 years in Thailand's unregulated textile industry. 'The owner usually tells the sick employees they have contracted the disease outside of work. They refuse to take responsibility,' said Ms Somboon, who formed a self-help labour organisation to help others fight for their rights. As well, most doctors in Thailand aren't trained to diagnose problems stemming from exposure to asbestos, respiratory illness specialist Somkiat Siriruttanapruk said. 'To check X-rays you have to know how to read it, to be an expert in the disease and chest X-rays.' Environmental monitoring carried out since 2000 showed most measured air samples from the 16 construction plants had asbestos levels higher than the standard Thai safety level of two fibres per cubic centimetre. 'Two fibres per cc is grossly unsafe. It's looking towards an epidemic,' said Robert Vojakovic, president of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. The vacuum of knowledge about the hazards of asbestos has left a deadly legacy in much of Asia. The conference heard that many survivors of the tsunami have returned to houses and schools rebuilt with chrysotile asbestos, paid for by western nations. With a latent period of 20 to 30 years before asbestos inhalation causes full-blown asbestosis and mesothelioma, experts say the health costs will be staggering. But Ms Kazan-Allen of IBAS remains cautiously optimistic after the conference resolutions included a call for a total ban on the material in Thailand. 'People in Asia are entitled to live and work in a healthy environment. We don't need to see another pile of bodies to prove that asbestos is a killer.' she said.