Constructing with hazardous materials

  • 2000-10-12
  • Jorgen Johansson
The construction market in Latvia is on the rise. Older houses are getting face-lifts, and more and more new buildings are being constructed. But some of the new buildings bring the same old hazards, like radon gas and asbestos. Jorgen Johansson reports.

Over the last 10 years, Latvia has gotten a wider choice of construction materials. Few materials are not available in Latvia today.

Construction companies from abroad have introduced new ways of thinking and new ways of dealing with construction work in Latvia. Nevertheless, there are still some construction materials in use that are dangerous to people's health and the environment, such as asbestos and "blue concrete," which emits radon gas.

The construction company Skanska Konstrukcija SIA, a subsidiary of Swedish Skanska AB, operates only through sub-contractors in Latvia, where they have had operations since 1993. As a company, they believe this is a good way of ensuring the right construction materials are used on sites they are responsible for.

David Sandberg, construction department manager for Skanska Konstrukcija SIA, said they put a lot of effort into design control, material specification and supervision.

Sandberg said he suspected the presence of asbestos and "blue concrete" in houses built in Latvia during the 1970s.

"The experience in handling these materials is not so great," Sandberg said. "We have a special program, based on environmental aspects, for removing hazardous materials."

Sandberg said Skanska Konstrukcija SIA sends out lists of materials they don't want their sub-contractors to use.

"It's a young country when it comes to awareness of these materials," Sandberg said. "As far as I know, asbestos is still produced in Latvia."

J.O.Z. PEAB Group employs some 80 people in Latvia. The company is mainly focused on constructing buildings but they are also involved in reconstructing houses. One of their biggest projects in Latvia concerns Riga's airport, where the company has built new buildings and renovated older ones.

J.O.Z. PEAB Group director, Karlis Plensners, said there are not many hazardous materials when houses built before World War II are renovated, since houses were built fairly similar throughout Europe at the time.

"During communism, they imported construction ideas, but they didn't bother to find out whether they were hazardous or not," Plensners said.

Radon, an extremely toxic and colorless radioactive gas, is constantly in the environment. But the quantities are very low and it doesn't really pose a threat. Radon can also be found in building materials, mainly concrete, and in buildings where the ventilation system doesn't provide sufficient circulation. Inhaled over a longer period of time, it can cause lung cancer.

Radon exposure is estimated to contribute to from 7,000 to 30,000 lung cancer deaths each year in the United States. The effects caused by radon gas are enhanced by smoking.

"There's a lot of import of concrete from Belarus, and there they have problems with radon concrete," said Plensners. "But it is improving. I have heard that it's getting more difficult to import it because the radiation levels are measured at the border."

Zanis Sulcs, executive director of a consortium of Latvia's building material producers, said there is strict border control on what is brought into the country. "As far as I know, concrete containing radon is no longer imported," Sulcs said. "Some concrete was let into the country last year, but it was quickly discovered and halted."

There is a problem in Latvia concerning the handling and disposing of asbestos.

Environment engineer Hanna Kauppinen said it's common that construction workers don't know how dangerous asbestos is.

"They remove asbestos with their bare hands sometimes," Kauppinen said.

Asbestos is the common name for a group of silicate minerals which separate into thin but strong fibers. There are six different kinds of asbestos used commercially - chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, anthophyllite, tremolite and actinolite. Asbestos is not combustible, has high tensile strength and has good thermal and electrical insulation properties.

Thus, asbestos has been used for thousands of different products, including roofing and flooring products, textiles, reinforcing cement, pipes and other materials, and thermal insulation.

Sulcs said that over the last 50 years, insulation materials containing asbestos have been commonly used all over Latvia to insulate roofs.

"By 2002 all asbestos containing materials are to be replaced," Sulcs said. "Now, materials without asbestos from overseas are used to a greater extent, and all building materials used in Latvia have to be certified according to Latvian standards."

It is not yet known what amounts of asbestos or what periods of exposure to it are hazardous. The fibers may enter the body through breathing, eating or drinking.

Kauppinen said it can take some 20 to 30 years for signs of asbestos-related diseases to appear.

"The human body can't really break down asbestos fibers because of the fibers' shape," Kauppinen said.

Diseases attributed to asbestos exposure include asbestosis, mesothelioma and gastrointestinal cancers.

"Asbestos is more common in ceilings but also as insulation on sewer pipes," Plensners said.

Sandberg said Skanska Konstrukcija SIA has encountered asbestos under roof tiles in Latvia.

"Then we go and talk to the right authority for permits to remove it," Sandberg said.

Kauppinen said the European Union has elaborate rules for handling and disposing asbestos on construction sites.

Presently, the Latvian policy is to adjust the legislation to meet EU standards.

There are more problems involved in Latvian construction works that do not pertain to building materials.

"The bureaucracy and the corruption are both big minuses," Plensners said.

Sandberg spoke of what a builder has to go through before the actual construction of a building can commence.

"One has to go through 10 to 15 different institutions before one can start building," Sandberg said. "All these institutions have different regulations and they must all be met. Then the construction begins under supervision, and when it is completed, it's inspected one last time."

There's also a difference between renovating a building and constructing a building, starting with an empty piece of land.

"If there's a building which is integrated already, one cannot just start using modern technology without paying attention to the building itself," said Sandberg. "Still, if one starts from scratch, one can use whatever modern equipment is available."

The Latvian construction market is gradually improving with new techniques and materials, making it possible to build almost all year round.

"There's absolutely no lack of building materials in Latvia," Sandberg said. "On a normal construction site, we buy some 90 percent of the materials we use within the country."

Plensners said the quality of Latvian constructions is increasing more and more because of higher demands.