Asbestos is being used in new buildings almost a decade after a nationwide ban on the dangerous construction material was imposed.
Companies specialising in its safe removal say their core business is getting rid of asbestos from old buildings, but they also extract it from new projects.
Charles Faulkner, who has worked in the UAE for seven years, said he had seen asbestos in new office towers, power stations, homes and even schools.
“I have come across around 20 projects,” said Faulkner, head of environment, health and safety at Anthesis, a consultancy. “These were brand-new construction projects that have had asbestos installed in them.”
They include a residential building in Abu Dhabi, completed in December 2013, and a Jebel Ali warehouse that was finished this year. Insulation and gaskets are the most common problems.
Once a popular building material, asbestos is banned in more than 60 countries. When disturbed it releases small airborne fibres that penetrate deep into the lungs. Breathing them in can lead to an acute reaction with pneumonia-like symptoms.
Chronic exposure can lead to lung scarring, pleural disease and even lung cancer.
“It would appear that asbestos materials can be bought with relative ease from suppliers here in the Middle East and from places like Satwa and Mussaffah – even online,” said Faulkner.
An online search by his team identified eight companies in Dubai, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain openly advertising the sale of materials containing asbestos. Two companies confirmed that they sold asbestos gasket sheets.
Charles Kinniburgh, chief executive of Angus Asbestos Removal in Abu Dhabi, said that asbestos material was still available in the UAE. In the past year he had two contracts to remove it from new buildings.
“A lot of people are still unaware of the problems, unaware of the fact that asbestos is expensive to dispose of properly,” he said.
There also appears to be ambiguity in local regulations. In 2006, the UAE introduced a ban on asbestos products, although it is not clear whether the ban applies to all types of products. The law states that it is prohibited to import or make asbestos board.
Until about two years ago, a Dubai company was making products such as pipes, roof sheeting and wall boarding containing asbestos, said Kinniburgh.
“That has closed now but it was a fairly big facility,” he said.
Faulkner said there “definitely appears that there is some uncertainty” about the law. “And while some companies may know they are using materials containing asbestos, others may be doing so unwittingly by buying counterfeit products,” he said.
In Abu Dhabi the Estidama Pearl Rating System, obligatory since 2010, requires new projects to show that no materials with asbestos are used, said Yasmeen Al Rashedi, senior manager of the Estidama Department of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council.
Such materials also need to be removed from refurbished buildings that are applying for certification under the scheme.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi municipalities did not respond to requests for comment.