Lessons from a hospital asbestos scare

April 10, 2019 18:41
A file picture of the Prince of Wales Hospital where asbestos traces were said to have been found in some ventilation pipes during renovation work. Hospital authorities have sought to allay fears of health risks to patients and staff. Photo: HKEJ

We saw media reports last month that traces of asbestos were found in some ventilation pipes at the Prince of Wales Hospital, which has been undergoing renovation works.

As asbestos fibers were said to have been detected in ventilation pipes on the seventh floor in the hospital's Special Block where renovation work was going on, there were concerns about possible exposure of maternal patients and healthcare staff, who were on the sixth and eighth floors, to the highly toxic building material.

The hospital management has insisted that it had followed all the standard and legally required procedures for detecting asbestos and that it had requested its consultant to submit an asbestos monitoring proposal to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) as it sought approvals before embarking on the renovation project in February.

However, the EPD later claimed that it did not receive any investigation report concerning asbestos from the hospital, a serious discrepancy that is fueling public concern about the potential health risks to which patients at the Special Block may have been exposed.

Under section 80 of the Air Pollution Control Ordinance, the import, transhipment, supply and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials are banned in Hong Kong.

Once widely adopted by the local building industry as a highly effective heat, electricity and sound absorbing as well as fire prevention material back in the 1980s, asbestos has been classified by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as Group 1 carcinogens, mainly due to its tiny airborne fibers.

Colorless and odorless, asbestos can hardly be detected by the naked eye.

Once inhaled, the substance can cause irreversible damage to the mucous membrane in the body. And it often takes up to 20 to 30 years before the related symptoms finally manifest themselves.

Studies have indicated that people who have breathed in asbestos would be five times more likely to come down with cancers than those who haven’t.

Among all the cancers mainly caused by asbestos, mesothelioma has proven to be deadlier than lung cancer, and has a very high mortality rate. There is basically no cure for mesothelioma apart from chemotherapy treatments that can only alleviate the symptoms and pain of patients.

Other than cancers, asbestos can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumoconiosis, pulmonary hypertension, right-sided heart failure, etc.

Since asbestos is such a health-threatening agent, the Prince of Wales Hospital and the EPD must both immediately find out what really happened in relation to the monitoring plan, and then act accordingly.

When renovation works are underway, the hospital management must adopt all necessary measures to prevent the substance from getting into the air, such as sealing off the entire construction area where asbestos materials are being removed, and using powerful vacuum cleaners to clear the asbestos fibers.

In the meantime, all patients, medical personnel and visitors must be reminded not to enter the construction sites that carry potential risks of asbestos exposure.

The hospital management must enhance dissemination of information about asbestos-related safety measures, and be fully transparent in communications with all stakeholders in order to allay public anxiety, particularly among patients and healthcare workers in the wards.

For the sake of safety, the hospital management, if deemed necessary, should also consider temporarily evacuating patients from the Special Block and relocating them to other buildings until the whole process of removing asbestos is completed.

Improving the environment and conditions in patient facilities will definitely be a good thing for both patients and hospital staff.

The hospital management must ensure that the renovation process is safe in its entirety and all possible steps are taken to ensure the well-being of the patients as well as hospital workers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong