Many Liberians Exposed to Cancer Living in Asbestos Roofed Buildings


Monrovia – Many Liberians are quite unaware of the severe health hazards they are exposed to living or working in buildings roofed with asbestos sheets and tiles – a type of roofing sheet that can cause mesothelioma (a type of cancer).

Report by Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma (a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen), and cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovary.

Although rare, mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. 

FrontPageAfrica gathered from Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a ban on the importation of asbestos has been in place since the signing of the rectification of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is an international environment treaty signed in 2001 and effective from May 2004, that aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  

Unfortunately, not much has been done in Liberia to rid the country of this health threat. Sadly, residents of houses with asbestos roof are unfamiliar with the hazards it poses to their health.

Korpo Barclay, a resident Brewerville lives in a house owned by her family for over 30 years.

The house is roofed with asbestos sheets which have become the host for green plants growing over the house.

As the rain falls, Korpo and her neighbors put out tubs and buckets under the roof to trap rain water for household use. None of them have any idea dangers associated with asbestos roof.

“We’ve living in this house way before the war, nothing happened to us, so how do you expect me to know that the roof sheets on top of this house can make me sick or give me cancer?” she asked.

According to her, the building was built in the early ‘80s and the roof has served them well for all this while.

“I don’t know why it is not even easy to find it around these days but it is very durable,” she added.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is a process in place relative to the de-roofing of structures that were already roofed prior to the ban.

The EPA told FrontPageAfrica that individuals and institutions that want to de-foot their properties that have Asbestos will have to notify the EPA. 

“The EPA will than recommend certified hazardous service providers that will help in the development of a removal and disposal plan that has to be approved by the EPA.

 “When the removal and disposal plan meets EPA’s approval, the EPA will than send a team of environmentalists to monitor the de-roofing exercise which must be carryout by individuals dressed in PPEs or personal protective equipment.

“The substance will have to disposed in a cemetery or at a designated disposal site,” Mr. Aloysius David, Media Consultant at the EPA said.

Health effects associated with asbestos

According to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, asbestos fibres are easily inhaled and carried into the lower regions of the lung where they can cause fibrotic lung disease (asbestosis) and changes in the lining of the chest cavity (pleura). 

These diseases can lead to reduced respiratory function and death.  Long-term inhalation of asbestos fibres also increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Enlargement of the heart can also occur as an indirect effect from the increased resistance of blood flow through the lungs.

People are more likely to experience asbestos-related disorders if they: are exposed to high concentrations of asbestos, are exposed for longer periods of time, and/or are exposed to asbestos more frequently.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease in which there is scar-like tissue formed in the lungs (pulmonary fibrosis).  

This fibrosis decreases the elasticity of the lungs, making breathing more difficult. Shortness of breath is the most common symptom.

 In most cases, a common physical sign is “crackles” – sounds that can be heard through a stethoscope. Also known as “rales”, they are usually detected near the end of a full inspiration.

When diagnosing asbestosis, chest x-rays will show small irregular opacities (spots in x-ray film where the x-rays could not “see” through the tissue).

These are commonly found in the middle and lower lungs. Lung function tests can help to determine how serious the condition is. 

People with fully developed asbestosis have shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, reduced lung function, finger clubbing, and bluish skin coloration.

Development of asbestosis usually requires several years of exposure to asbestos fibers. The development and progression of asbestosis varies from individual to individual.

It is often slow with little changes over five, ten or more years.

Many cases do not advance after diagnosis. It may, however, be quicker in some individuals than in others due to different conditions of past dust exposure.

 The average time from exposure to cancer development (latency period) is 20 to 30 years.

Although lung cancer is generally associated with long-term exposures to asbestos, there are also studies which show that workers with 1 to 12 months of exposure had an increased risk in developing lung cancer a number of years later.

Lung cancer has also been reported in household contacts and family members of asbestos workers, presumably from exposure to asbestos carried home on work clothes.

Lung cancer usually does not cause symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms occur the cancer is often advanced.

Symptoms of lung cancer include chronic cough, weight loss, and shortness of breath, fever, and chest pain.

These symptoms are also common with other lung disorders, therefore to confirm the diagnosis it is necessary to carry out laboratory tests including chest x-rays.