World Monuments Fund helps expose the problems of asbestos


Adoniram Judson’s historic First Baptist Church of Mawlamyine. Photo: WMF

The World Monuments Fund will be holding an asbestos building materials workshop on 18 November at the Myanmar Engineering Society, an event sponsored in connection to an ongoing project to rehabilitate Adoniram Judson’s historic First Baptist Church of Mawlamyine.

To date there is little public knowledge on the subject of asbestos building materials in Myanmar, and the event aims to raise public awareness to its health implications, former manufacturing in the country, commonness and possible continued import from other countries. Far from having all the answers, using First Baptist Church as a case study, World Monuments Fund is most interested in bringing together concerned people to further collective knowledge, the first step in legislating a ban on asbestos building products.

In the following interview with Mizzima, Jeff Allen, Program Director for the Judson First Baptist Church Rehabilitation Project, Mawlamyine, discusses the project and talks about the problems posed by asbestos. 

How did the project to tackle asbestos at the First Baptist Church of Mawlamyine come about? 

World Monuments Fund received a grant from the US Embassy in Myanmar through the US State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation program. The project began with the idea of rehabilitating Adoniram Judson’s First Baptist Church (JFBC) in Mawlamyine. 

Initiated in late January 2016, site work began with a comprehensive documentation program. Prior to this only a vague and fractured spoken history of the current structure’s original construction and a few tattered photographs of one of the previously demolished church buildings survive.

Following international guidelines for intervening at historic buildings, World Monuments Fund was obligated to assemble base documentation before defining a conservation plan. For the January 2016 campaign two young Myanmar engineers, Min Haen and Htin Zaw, from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation-sponsored project at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung (SNDK) travelled to Mawlamyine with WMF consultant architect Thierry Grandin. Together, under Mr. Grandin’s experienced mentoring they learned hand-measuring methods, and over the course of the spring created 18 detailed digital architectural site plans, elevations and cross-section drawings. The team then went further recording building conditions through photo-documentation, site surveys and mapping. 

By April 2016 the mission results produced a second drawing set, 16 drawings featuring mapped damage to roofs, floors, masonry and carpentry. The drawing documentation phase and subsequent analysis it afforded led the project to determine and prioritize necessary actions to protect the building. It endorsed a two-point physical intervention strategy to: 1) prevent further water infiltration by replacing the decaying corrugated roof sheeting, ridge flashings and gutters plus repair the damaged wood members beneath it, and toward sustainability, 2) invest in the church congregation’s capacity to be pro-active in its care of the building.

In March 2016 a Bangkok university laboratory was engaged to detect the composition of roof sheeting. The results concluded that the defective sheeting is a concrete fiber interwoven with asbestos fibers, a carcinogen removed with extreme care in developed countries. In contrast Myanmar has no laws or guidelines in handling asbestos building materials, and it is often removed through methods that are unsafe to workers, and disposed of in a manner that is dangerous to the environment.

Needless to say, confirmation of asbestos fibers was a game changer. It required a new, more thoughtful approach to intervention. But like every AFCP-funded project World Monuments Fund implements, what at first is recognized as an obstacle actually opened up a dynamic opportunity. The project now recognizes the valuable contributions it can make to not only restoring First Baptist Church’s roof and engaging its congregation in better maintaining the building, but also using the process to exemplify best practice for dealing with hazardous asbestos building materials fabricated during the second half of the twentieth century.

From your studies, how much of a problem is asbestos in Myanmar?

 As part of the 18 November workshop, graduate engineering student Wai Yar Aung will present his research on asbestos in Myanmar. We understand it was not manufactured in the country until after the 1950s so this suggests the JFBC replacement roof installed after World War II might have been imported. We do know that later the Myanmar Government had two to three factories in the Yangon area making it possibly as late as 1993, and two of those sites are still standing. One unconfirmed report said YCDC now has authority over the properties northwest of the city.

The Myanmar Government put it everywhere! Looking around downtown Yangon you often see it as corrugated concrete fibre roofing sheets. Further unconfirmed reports say its presence as insulation has stalled rehabilitation of the Pengu Club (we have invited the developer) and the Swiss Foreign Ministry pulled out of the old courts building on Pansodan because of it. I heard the old railway station has it too. It would be interesting to confirm if these rumours are true or not.

Is the Myanmar government and local authorities taking this problem of asbestos in buildings in the country seriously? How much of an uphill struggle is it to convince people of the importance of removing asbestos?

To our knowledge there is no action or recognition of the problem. While other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have begun to recognize the issue Myanmar has not, and is late on the game. Ken Takahashi will speak in the morning session on this subject. We are inviting YCDC authorities and perhaps they can provide further information. The 18 November workshop is meant to raise awareness and provoke a better understanding of what is has happening on the subject in the country.

Myanmar people need to understand, the effects of asbestos are not immediate; it can take decades before someone has complications, usually in the form of one of a number of cancers. It’s often miss-diagnosed too. Workers, their families and the public are put at risk. Implementing its removal requires care and following proper safety procedures, and those depend on the type of asbestos fibres and material.

Has the World Monuments Fund been involved in any other projects in Myanmar?

World Monuments Fund has been active in research, assessments and surveys for Shwe-nandaw Kyaung in Mandalay since 2014. In late 2015 that project, in collaboration with the Myanmar Department of Archaeology and National Museum, moved into on-site physical conservation under a first Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant from the US Embassy. With that grant completed in June 2016, we are moving forward with a reduced schedule until 2017 when a second AFCP grant is issued to complete our work. I would love to have you visit us there early next year, it’s a great project.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

World Monuments Fund anticipates and wants, through the exemplary First Baptist Church project, to spur action on the part of the public, and non-governmental Myanmar building and preservation associations to write national regulations covering the protection of those who work on existing buildings, disposal of hazardous building materials and to safeguard the environment (many countries still produce and export it, probably to Myanmar too, but that is not confirmed). A ban on all asbestos building products sold in the country is a must. World Monuments Fund wants to see the people of Myanmar protected from asbestos and for them to take this issue into their own hands and go forward with public advocacy and demand their newly-elected government to act on their behalf.

More Articles