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Living on a Tropical Island—and an Asbestos Wasteland

Bwebwenemena Taam cooks over an open fire in her home, an abandoned facility used by the British Phosphate Commission. The entire building is made from asbestos sheeting and roofing. All images by Janice Cantieri.

BANABA ISLAND, Kiribati—Asbestos dust covers the floors of Banaba's crumbling colonial houses, buildings, and schools. It’s in the field where people plant cassava. Broken pieces of asbestos sheeting litter the ground, and children use them to make toys and skateboards.

All of this in an environment already littered with scrap metal, industrial waste, and oil sludge.

Just a few hundred people now live on Banaba, which was left nearly uninhabitable in 1979 after extensive phosphate mining by the British Phosphate Commission. (You can read more about the history of the mining and displacement of the Banaba in "Stories From the Forgotten People of the Pacific)." Though the current residents are happy to be living on their ancestral homeland, they have also spent decades surrounded by asbestos dust.

Inhaling the dust can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, both fatal diseases, along with other lung-related disorders. Even short-term exposure to can lead to diseases later in life. Asbestos use has been heavily restricted throughout the developed world for decades, but the people of the isolated Pacific island of Banaba have just recently learned of its dangers—and continue to reside amid crumbling buildings made from the toxic substance.

Families on the island say they have no other choice. The houses have yet to be rebuilt, they say, because of the island’s isolation, limited resources, and a lack of urgency from local and international governments.

"We tried taking apart some of the roofing ... and we breathed the dust—it burned our lungs, our skin turned red.--Taboree Biremon Tweet this"

Complicating the problem is that there’s very little habitable land left on Banaba. The decades of mining left the 1,500-acre island covered in phosphate pinnacles, with only about 150 acres remaining for residences and food cultivation.

“How can we build another house when these houses are on the only remaining land?” says Taboree Biremon, a resident of Tabwewa Village. Biremon, 51, explained that he, like many of the men on the island, tried renovating his crumbling house before he learned that asbestos was poisonous. He said that the islanders were unaware of the dangers until a few years ago. "We weren’t aware of the toxicity. I’m expecting lung cancer in the coming years, as are most of the men here,” Biremon said.

Asbestos roofing is used on almost all of the buildings on Banaba.

Another man in Tabwewa Village, Urakenimatang Taaboia, explained that his “roof crumbled and it blew the dust and my family inhaled it. We tried to get away but we all inhaled it,” he said. “There’s no other way to live, no way to fix the roofing, or any other places to live.”

The houses and buildings on the island, including the buildings used for the island’s two schools, were built under the British Phosphate Commission, a consortium owned by the British, Australian, and New Zealand governments. When the company left Banaba, they also left the crumbling asbestos housing behind.

"We live in a dumping zone. Why is there no one who can get rid of this? -- Romatoa Eri, Banaba elder Tweet this"

Romatoa Eri, an elder on Banaba, expressed the islanders’ frustration: “We live in a dumping zone. Why is there no one who can get rid of this?” He said. “It’s exposed in other countries … where are the former mining governments from Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand? Have they no humanity? Why did it happen like this?”

The Banabans learned that their houses were toxic only within the past few years because the island is so isolated. Currently, the only interaction with the outside world is a cargo boat that travels between Banaba and Tarawa Island every few months. As a result, most of the island has not yet received information on the dangers of asbestos and continue to breathe the chemical every day. Most families know that asbestos is poisonous, but are unaware of the severe medical implications of exposure.

The Kiribati government is aware of the issue, but detoxification measures have yet to be developed or implemented.

“[Officials] have already surveyed Banaba as part of the European Union-funded Pacific Regional Hazardous Waste Management Project now underway, and confirmed the presence of asbestos, but as of yet there is no concrete plan for its removal," said Taouea Titaake-Reiher, the director for the Environment and Conservation Division in the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development in Kiribati.

Waqa Kirite, a former Minister of Parliament for Banaba, says he has raised the issue several times in the Kiribati Parliament. But the “reply was that they were still doing reports and feasibility studies on how poisonous it is,” he said.

That response is frustrating, he said. “We have been living with it for a long time. …Maybe [the studies] will take another 10 or 20 years, but in the meantime, people are still living here.”

Kirite explained that the children make toys from broken pieces of the roofing, often using them to skateboard down the hills on the island. The dust covers the ground in the primary school and in the hall where the children play each day.

Urakenimatang Taaboia stands in front of his asbestos-roofed house. The toxic dust from the roof blows into the house every time the wind picks up, he says.

Pauline Ruutio, 49, believes that asbestos might have been the cause of her husband’s death in 2007. But because of the lack of medical services on the island, there was never an official diagnosis. Her husband Tairoa worked as a carpenter and fixed the roofing every day.

“He had a very good body, he was fit, he could climb up the roofs and fix them,” Ruutio explained. “But always when he came home from work he said there was something wrong with his breathing. They expelled him from work. He walked 10 meters and was exhausted, he coughed so much. We didn’t know what it was.”

The couple tried traditional remedies and medicine from the health clinic, but nothing worked. They decided to take the four-day journey to Kiribati’s only hospital, on Tarawa Island, but Tairoa's condition continued to worsen and he died soon after reaching the hospital, she explained.

“He died in 2007 at age 50. This is too young to die,” Ruutio said.

Though she still mourns the loss of her husband, today Ruutio is concerned for the children on Banaba who are exposed to asbestos every day.

“My hope for the future is that somebody comes and takes their rubbish out of our island. It’s not for me—it’s for my children and grandchildren. Nothing has been done, but we can’t do anything about it.”

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past 70 years. She also follows the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She is telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.

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