Draft regulations will be published in the Government Gazette on Friday to ban the import and export of all asbestos products, along with new measures to phase out the local manufacture and use of asbestos-containing products.
The decision to publish the regulations - which provide for hefty fines and a maximum jail term of 10 years for offenders - was approved by the cabinet last week.
Prized for its high strength and its heatproof and fireproof qualities, the tiny fibres of asbestos can cause fatal and debilitating illnesses such as asbestosis after penetrating deeply into the lungs.
Scar tissue builds up in the lungs and restricts breathing
Because the tiniest of the needle-like fibres cannot be expelled, scar tissue builds up in the lungs and restricts breathing. Asbestos is also strongly linked to the deadly lung cancer disease mesothelioma.
From an economic perspective, the new South African ban is not expected to lead to major job losses, with government statistics suggesting that fewer than 200 people remain directly employed in the domestic asbestos manufacturing industry.
According to the department of environmental affairs, alternative fibres and materials are available to replace most asbestos-containing products.
Everite, the biggest producer of asbestos roof sheeting, switched over completely to a new tree-based fibre product called Nutec three years ago.
Federal-Mogul, the largest local supplier of brake and clutch linings, also stopped using asbestos nearly 10 years ago, according to Johnny Frankiskos, Managing Director of the company's friction products division.
Asbestos is also strongly linked to the deadly lung cancer - mesothelioma
Frankiskos said the company's Durban factory had also been decontaminated at a cost of millions. This had involved replacing the roof entirely, as well as repainting and vacuuming all buildings to remove fugitive asbestos fibres.
However, the new government measures are not aimed at removing or replacing existing asbestos products.
Smashing down asbestos roof sheets and gutters without adequate safety precautions could create bigger health risk exposures than leaving them in place for the time being, said senior environmental affairs department official Joanne Yawitch.
Instead, the regulations aim to ban any further manufacture of such products and to ensure much stricter safety standards for workers when old buildings are demolished.
Those companies which continue to stock asbestos-containing products will be allowed a four-month grace period once the ban takes effect, while a limited number of companies will be granted exemptions on condition that they submit phase-out plans to the government.
Companies which maintain that there are no alternatives to asbestos usage will have to explain their reasons in detail and outline what steps they are taking to find alternatives.
South Africa, a major world supplier of asbestos for nearly a century, closed its last asbestos mine in 2001 and has been under increasing pressure to ban asbestos completely.
Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said in a statement that although asbestos mining had been halted, the fibres still posed a very real threat.
He said there had been an increase in the number of asbestos-related diseases reported over the past four years among people who had never worked in or lived next to asbestos mines.
Total asbestos usage in South Africa had declined by about 40 percent between 2000 and 2002, while a National Economic Development and Labour Council study estimated that by banning asbestos, South Africa could save nearly R27-million every year in disease compensation and health costs.(Source: The Mercury 3 November 03, 2005).