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ASBESTOS: A Silent Killer in Nigeria




Dele Igbinedion

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that has been used as insulation and as a fire retardant in a wide variety of applications. In Nigeria, it is used mainly as roofing and tiling material.

Due to its fibrous nature, asbestos can produce dust that, when inhaled, becomes deposited in the lungs. This can cause or contribute to the development of illnesses including asbestosis (a fibrous scarring of the lungs) and mesothelioma (a malignant tumor in the lining of the lungs or the abdominal cavity). These are very fatal diseases.

Most asbestos particles are coughed up or swallowed. Those that are long and thin are not as easily cleared and can cause cancer. Science has established beyond doubt that the odds of getting cancer increase with the level and duration of exposure to asbestos fibres.


When someone inhales asbestos fibres, there will usually be no immediate symptoms, but there remains a long-term risk of chest and abdominal cancers and lung diseases. The most dangerous asbestos fibers are too small to be visible. After they are inhaled, they can remain and accumulate in the lungs.

Asbestos can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (a cancer of the chest and abdominal linings), and asbestosis (irreversible lung scarring that can be fatal). Symptoms of these diseases do not show up until many years after exposure began. Smokers are at higher risk of developing asbestos-induced lung cancer. 

Most people with asbestos-related diseases were exposed to elevated concentrations on the job; some developed disease from exposure to clothing and equipment brought home from job sites.

This is how it happens:

1. Asbestos fibers are inhaled through successively narrower passages, from the trachea through the bronchial tubes to the bronchioles. Fibers embedded in these airways can cause lung cancer.

2. Fibers can reach the clusters of honeycombed air sacs called alveoli, leaving scar tissue. Excessive scarring restricts breathing. This is asbestosis, a condition resulting mainly from occupational exposure.

3. Fibers can pass through the alveoli and migrate to the pleura, the lining of the chest cavity. There, they may injure the mesothelial cells and promote malignant tumours. This is mesothelioma, a fairly rare cancer that is usually discovered 25 to 40 years after initial exposure. Nearly all victims die within a year of diagnosis.

4. Mesothelioma sometimes occurs in the peritoneum, the lining of the abdominal cavity. 


The conditions caused by asbestos could be common among present or former employees of asbestos manufacturing companies, sales outlets and/or present or former users of the product.

It could also spread to other persons who come into daily contact with the unwitting carriers, as it the fibres are airborne. In the UK, a widow who contracted the disease associated with asbestos inhaled the fibres from her husband’s clothes as she washed them. She was consequently able to recover substantial damages.


The widespread use of asbestos in manufacturing and the United States ended in the 1970s, and since then, the government has strictly regulated workplace exposures. Several federal and state agencies have authority to regulate asbestos, including the US Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Sufferers have brought multi-million Dollar lawsuits against asbestos manufacturing companies and have recovered a lot of money to aid sufferers and their survivors.


In Britain, it has been outlawed due to its hazardous effect on health and some years ago, some South Africans who worked for asbestos manufacturing companies were able to sue and recover in the UK for asbestos related illnesses.

Professional indemnity insurer Zurich Professional has recently urged solicitors in the UK to make sure their non-domestic conveyancing processes include detailed questions on asbestos risk management. Under the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, which came into force on 21 May 2002, any business in the UK that does not actively manage asbestos risks will be prosecuted.  

In Belgium, asbestos use in any building is illegal. Indeed, the European Union refused to use its headquarters in Brussels since for many years now because asbestos was found to have been used in constructing the building. Instead, it has commissioned a company to remove all traces of the product. Only after this is completed will the building be utilised. 


As the Western governments outlawed asbestos use in their countries, the evil companies manufacturing these fibres moved to Africa. In Nigeria in particular, it is being manufactured in many centrally located cities like Kano, Lagos and Sapele and promoted as an essential ingredient for building. Most houses in Nigeria today have asbestos as major materials, from roofing sheets to the pipes used for supposedly modern toilets. In fact, most Nigerians consider it a symbol of affluence that their homes are roofed entirely with asbestos roofing sheets, whereas, they unknowingly signed their death warrants when they purchased the materials. 

It is also used as for brake linings for cars, among others. So, the average mechanic who works with these brake linings is at risk of contracting diseases associated with asbestos. Ditto for the car owners, drivers etc of the cars that use the products.

Sadly, the “Nigerian” companies involved in the manufacture of the product are all foreign owned. My investigations revealed that a closely guarded Belgian company registered in Brussels, Belgium owns them. Ironically, while the product is banned in Belgium, these people recklessly manufacture and distribute it in Nigeria putting countless millions at risk. How many of our people have died, as a result of inhaling the fibres should be anyone’s guess.

Many more people may be contracting the disease and dying in ignorance unless action is taken to avert it.


If you or a loved one has Mesothelioma, you were exposed to asbestos. As indicated above, the asbestos manufacturers and distributors know that asbestos is hazardous, yet they decide not to warn of these hazards. Consequently, you may have a right of recovery against those manufacturers, which can help off-set the costs of treatment and provide compensation for your pain, sickness and suffering.


Your first concern is to file within the statutory deadlines. If you have been diagnosed with Mesothelioma, you must file within 7 years.

If you are the executor of the estate of a person who has died from asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible to file a claim but the claim must be within a short time of the death. A family member exposed in a secondary manner (for example, through asbestos fibers brought home on clothes by a parent who worked in an asbestos environment) may also be eligible to file a claim.


If you have Mesothelioma, that alone is not grounds for damages. In order to establish a claim (against manufacturers, distributors, and/or contractors) it must be established that you had been exposed to the specific asbestos product at a specific location. 


i. Find victims and persons who are suffering from asbestosis or mesothelioma that can be traceable to asbestos exposure. Doctors, Consultants and other medical personnel who know people suffering from this disease can help in this.

ii. Locate former employees of asbestos manufacturing companies or other companies that use asbestos products in their line of business to find out their health situation.

iii. The media should develop interest in this subject and sponsor articles discussing asbestos related diseases. All hands must be on deck.


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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.