Asbestos debris found and removed from Pulau Ubin

Eastern island latest to be hit after toxic mineral was found on southern islands

Debris containing the toxic mineral asbestos has been found on Pulau Ubin, an island off the Republic's eastern coast.

The National Parks Board (NParks), which manages the island, said yesterday that "small pieces of debris containing asbestos were found at four isolated locations on the island and have been removed". It added that the four areas off Jalan Mamam, the Sensory trail and Jalan Wat Siam on the island were not easily accessible or frequented by the public.

This is the latest development in the spread of asbestos, which has, since April, been found at a number of places in the southern islands. On May 19, NParks said it was surveying Pulau Ubin to determine if asbestos could be found there.

NParks said the asbestos on Ubin was detected at the end of last month, and works to remove the debris and decontaminate the sites were completed by last Friday.

But its discovery on Ubin shows it is not just the islands south of Singapore that have been affected.

Debris containing asbestos has also been found on Sisters' Islands Marine Park, Pulau Hantu, St John's Island and Kusu Island, which are popular with day-trippers who visit the southern islands for their nature, scenic views of the Singapore Strait, or to worship at the temple or shrine located on Kusu.

NParks said the debris containing asbestos on Big Sister's Island, found washed ashore last month, has since been removed. Works to remove the debris in other areas are ongoing.

The two long-term residents on St John's Island have moved back to the mainland. The Straits Times understands that Ubin villagers did not have to move back as the asbestos was not found in residential areas.

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that was once a popular component in construction materials. Due to its links to health problems such as lung cancer, its use in buildings was banned here in 1989, but many earlier structures still contain it.

Structures containing asbestos pose no risk to humans if they are intact. However, when there is damage or disturbance - such as sawing and cutting - fibres may be released into the air and inhaled.

Even though the authorities have said repeatedly that short-term exposure to asbestos is not harmful, the repeated occurrence of the mineral has raised questions on how they came to be on the southern islands in the first place, and if they could have been dumped illegally by errant contractors. Investigations are ongoing to determine the source of the asbestos debris.

The collection and disposal of general and industrial waste from offshore islands is regulated by the National Environment Agency (NEA) under the Environmental Public Health Act and Environmental Public Health (General Waste Collection) Regulations.

NEA told ST that it requires waste to be collected by licensed general waste collectors for disposal at approved disposal facilities, namely the waste-to-energy incineration plants and Semakau landfill.

"Owners and occupiers of premises are required to engage general waste collectors to collect their waste for proper disposal. For industrial waste that is toxic in nature, it has to be sent to toxic industrial waste treatment facilities."

It did not say how these rules are enforced, but its spokesman added that NEA has, in the past, taken enforcement actions against offenders for failure to comply with the requirement, although those cases did not involve offshore islands.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2018, with the headline 'Asbestos debris found and removed from Pulau Ubin'. Print Edition | Subscribe