LCQ10: Asbestos control for demolition works

     Following is a question by the Hon Mrs Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and a written reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Edward Yau, in the Legislative Council meeting today (June 20):


     It has been recently reported in the press that it is suspected that the demolition works of the former civil servant quarters (quarters) on Borrett Road in Mid-levels west did not comply with the regulations, causing carcinogenic asbestos materials to spread to the residential buildings, schools and kindergartens within 100 metres of the quarters, and jeopardising public health.  It has also been reported that it is suspected that the incident is attributable to a registered asbestos consultant (asbestos consultant) having mistakenly reported the quarters as asbestos-free.  According to some medical reports, asbestos is a kind of fibre not detectable by naked eyes and can stay in air for a long time and, if inhaled, it will reside in human bodies for years and increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.  Other research studies have also indicated that exposure to asbestos will increase the risk of quite a number of cancer diseases (including gastrointestinal cancer, colorectal cancer and cancers of the throat, kidney, esophagus and gallbladder), and the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not appear until about 10 to 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that in connection with asbestos abatement works, a Member of this Council has asked the authorities whether they will publish a list of the target buildings (the buildings) confirmed to contain asbestos materials, and the authorities have replied that they "have to observe the feelings of the owners and occupants of the buildings concerned, and do not wish to create a wrong impression to the public that all these buildings are dangerous" and refused to publish the list concerned, and focusing on the aforesaid incident of misreporting by the asbestos consultant, whether the authorities will reconsider publishing the list concerned to enable workers and members of the public to understand the situation and take precautions accordingly before carrying out maintenance works to the buildings;

(b) of the existing licensing and examination system for asbestos consultants; the mechanism put in place by the authorities, apart from relying on supervision by asbestos consultants, to ensure that the buildings are demolished in a safe manner; and how waste materials containing asbestos are disposed of properly;

(c) given that the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union has pointed out that among the nearly 1,000 construction workers who underwent subsidised physical check-ups last year, 13% have suspected lung problems, of the total numbers of confirmed cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma in Hong Kong in the past five years, together with the respective numbers of such cases involving construction workers; of the specific details of the support offered by the Development Bureau, Labour Department and Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to the workers concerned; given that the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not appear until about 10 to 40 years after the first exposure to asbestos, of the policies, in addition to the Pneumoconiosis Compensation Fund, the authorities have in place to help the workers who have no way to claim compensation;

(d) given that it was reported in March this year that of the 1 100 "asbestos old buildings" in Hong Kong, over 200 are located in To Kwa Wan district with a total of around 50 canopies with asbestos, how the authorities follow up cases of owners not agreeing to demolish such asbestos canopies; how they can effectively safeguard the health of the residents in the district; given that it has also been reported that some owners have yet to demolish the asbestos canopies after a long time because they cannot afford the huge costs involved, whether the authorities will set up a department dedicated to handling such matters, and subsidise the demolition works to be commissioned by owners; and

(e) given that at present any person who fails to appoint a registered asbestos contractor to carry out asbestos abatement works is liable to a fine of $200,000 and to imprisonment for six months if convicted, yet it was reported in 2009 that each year, there were about 100 cases in which the persons prosecuted by EPD were convicted and only fines of $2,000 to $6,000 were imposed on them, and the lack of deterrent effect of the relevant penalties may become an incentive for owners to commission low-cost asbestos abatement works which do not comply with the regulations, of the number of prosecutions instituted by the authorities for illegal demolition of buildings containing asbestos materials in the past five years; what other measures are implemented by the authorities at present which are targeted at such illegal activities; whether the authorities have any plan to increase the penalties and step up inspection efforts?



     All works involving asbestos containing material are regulated by the Air Pollution Control Ordinance (Cap. 311) (hereinafter referred to as APCO), and the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) is responsible for enforcement of the ordinance.  Premises owners are required to engage registered asbestos consultants to carry out investigation on any intended works that may involve asbestos containing material and submit asbestos abatement plans for vetting and approval by EPD.  The Buildings Department (BD) also sets relevant requirements for registered contractors, authorised persons and registered structural engineers in its Practice Notes.  All persons engaged in the repair, maintenance and demolition works of buildings shall comply with the requirements of the relevant legislation and practice notes when carrying out works involving asbestos containing material.

     When inspecting the demolition works of the former quarters for civil servants on Borrett Road in early February this year, EPD suspected that some pipes and cable trunking contained asbestos material.  Upon confirmation after sampling and testing, EPD immediately ordered the persons concerned to stop the demolition works at the above site.  EPD requested the owner of the above site to carry out an investigation on asbestos again and submit an asbestos abatement plan for its approval.  The registered asbestos contractor could only carry out asbestos abatement works after EPD's approval of the abatement plan, and the building demolition works could only be carried out after complete removal of the asbestos containing material.  EPD then approved the asbestos abatement plan in respect of the above site, and the asbestos abatement works commenced.  It is expected that all asbestos abatement works will be completed this summer.  While asbestos abatement works were in progress, all air monitoring results obtained in the vicinity of the site and at the sensitive locations nearby met the requirements, indicating that the surrounding environment had not been polluted by asbestos.  EPD now continues to investigate the suspected breach at the above site and will consider taking further enforcement action.

     My reply to the five parts of the question is as follows:

(a) Currently, most of the works involving asbestos are related to the clearance of unauthorised building works (UBW) or addition of building structure, maintenance or demolition of old buildings.  Asbestos containing material commonly found in old buildings, such as corrugated asbestos cement sheets, if in good condition, will not release asbestos fibres and thus pose no health risks to the residents or the public.  The presence of asbestos containing material can only be ascertained after sampling and testing, and some such material may be concealed inside building services installations and are not easily accessible during normal use.  Its presence can only be ascertained after comprehensive assessment by a registered asbestos consultant.  As such, the Government does not have a list of buildings in Hong Kong with asbestos containing material.

     When BD mounts large-scale clearance operations against UBW, EPD will monitor and follow up on the presence of asbestos containing material in the UBW.  BD will co-operate with EPD in its enforcement action regarding the clearance of UBW.  During inspection, if BD suspects that there is asbestos containing material in an UBW, it will enclose a pamphlet on asbestos control published by EPD with its advisory letter and relevant order to help the landlord or occupier of the premises understand whether there is asbestos containing material in the UBW to be cleared, the measures to be taken and the proper way to handle asbestos containing waste.

(b) One of the functions of the Asbestos Administration Committee (AAC), set up under section 52 of the APCO, is to assist with processing applications for inclusion in the registers of asbestos professionals.  For registration as an asbestos consultant, a person must have completed a recognised asbestos management training course and have no fewer than 12 months' recognised work experience in asbestos abatement works and management.  He must also have a university degree in science or engineering or equivalent qualifications.  Applications will be considered by the AAC.  The detailed requirements for registration as an asbestos consultant are available on the EPD's website.

     As pointed out in part (a) of the reply, under the existing mechanism, when mounting large-scale clearance operations against UBW or upon receipt of an application for building demolition, BD will notify EPD to follow up accordingly.  BD has also included in its Code of Practice for Demolition of Buildings and Technical Guidelines on Minor Works Control System the requirements for proper handling of asbestos containing material.  In addition, disposal of asbestos waste shall comply with the requirements under the Waste Disposal Ordinance.  They include proper packaging, labelling and storage as chemical waste, prior notification to EPD before disposal, and the engagement of licensed waste collectors to deliver the waste to landfills for final disposal.

(c) Asbestosis and mesothelioma are compensable diseases under the Pneumoconiosis and Mesothelioma (Compensation) Ordinance.  The Employees' Compensation Division of the Labour Department assists with the referral of workers to the Pneumoconiosis Medical Board (PMB) for medical examination.  Despite the fairly long incubation period of asbestosis and mesothelioma, a worker who has been diagnosed by PMB as suffering from asbestosis and/or mesothelioma and has been resident in Hong Kong for five years or more is entitled to the payment of compensation by the Pneumoconiosis Compensation Fund Board (PCFB), regardless of when the symptoms are detected.  Patients with fewer than five years' residence in Hong Kong will only be eligible if the diseases are contracted in Hong Kong.  Compensation payable under the Ordinance includes compensation for incapacity; compensation for any pain, suffering and loss of amenities; compensation for constant attention, medical expenses, expenses for medical appliances; and, compensation for death and funeral expenses.

     Apart from payment of compensation, PCFB also finances rehabilitation programmes for patients.  Through hospitals under the Hospital Authority and non-government organisations, PCFB arranges professional medical staff and social workers to provide rehabilitation services for patients.  They include home visits, vaccination, counselling services, health talks, teaching of caring skills, physical training, and social rehabilitation activities.

     In addition, PCFB actively organises various publicity, education and promotional activities to increase the knowledge of construction workers, contractors and the general public of the diseases and their prevention and cure.  The aim is to enhance their awareness of prevention so that effective protective measures can be adopted to prevent or reduce the risk of the diseases.  These activities include talks, training sessions, exhibitions, dissemination of leaflets, display of posters and media advertising.

     Between 2007 and 2011, 63 cases of asbestosis and mesothelioma were confirmed by PMB and compensation was granted.  Among these cases, 36 patients (i.e. 57%) had been engaged in the construction industry.

(d) Regarding unauthorised canopies, under the existing enforcement policy against UBW, BD will issue removal orders in respect of unauthorised canopies (including those with asbestos containing material), requiring their removal by the owners concerned.  If removal has not been carried out when a removal order expires, BD will arrange for government contractors and, where necessary, registered asbestos contractors, to remove the unauthorised canopies and recover the costs involved in full from the owners afterwards.

     Starting from April 1, 2011, the Hong Kong Housing Society and Urban Renewal Authority have integrated and optimised a number of assistance schemes.  The "Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme" (IBMAS) has been launched to provide owners in need with one-stop financial assistance and technical support.  Apart from the IBMAS, eligible elderly owners can also apply for assistance under the "Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners".  Owners may also apply for assistance under the "Comprehensive Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme" administered by BD.  Owners who need to carry out removal works can obtain assistance through the above schemes.

(e) In the five years from 2007 to 2011, EPD conducted a total of 4,024 site inspections targeting asbestos abatement works to ensure that the abatement procedures and installations would fully comply with the requirements under the APCO.  Over the past five years, EPD instituted action against breaches of the statutory requirements.  Below is the number of convictions:

Year           2007   2008   2009   2010   2011
Number of       125    86     68     54     48

     Under sections 73 and 77 of the APCO, if a person carries out asbestos abatement work without prior written notice to EPD or without engaging a registered asbestos contractor, he may be liable to a maximum fine of $200,000 and to imprisonment for six months.  Over the past five years, the maximum and average fines for the convictions were $20,000 and $3,500 respectively.  We believe the current regulatory regime and penalties have real deterrent effect on owners and people engaged in illegal asbestos abatement works.

     EPD will continue to step up enforcement action against all non-compliant asbestos works through site inspections and prosecution of offenders.  It would also step up public education with a view to raising public awareness of the risks posed by improper handling of asbestos.  A concise pamphlet on the requirements for the clearance of UBW containing asbestos has been published and widely distributed to owners of premises, authorised persons, contractors and other parties concerned.  The pamphlet has been uploaded onto the EPD's website for public inspection.  Members of the public may also call the EPD Hotline on 2838 3111 to lodge complaints against any potential non-compliant asbestos removal works.

Ends/Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Issued at HKT 12:30