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Regulatory vigilance vs subpar building products

THE Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said earlier this week it had “intensified” its investigation into the manufacture of allegedly substandard steel reinforcing bars in the country, citing warnings from Asean steel industry experts and evidence from similar investigations in China.

The DTI’s vigilance in trying to prevent low-quality reinforcing bars from finding their way to the market and subsequently to homes, office buildings and other structures where they might fail is reassuring. That is part of the DTI’s job, and the reminder that the agency is, in fact, doing its job is welcome.

However, what would be even more welcome, as far as a number of construction experts are concerned, would be if the DTI showed the same enthusiasm for monitoring the quality of other building products as well.

The specific issue with the steel reinforcing bars, most of which are produced from recycled scrap steel, is that they may not be of appropriate quality for use in construction due to the way they are manufactured by several mills here in the Philippines. Reinforcing bars need to be of a specific composition to have adequate strength, but achieving the right formulation of the steel by the process used here – called an induction furnace – is difficult. China found that quality deficiencies were so widespread in induction furnace-produced reinforcing bars that it banned induction furnaces entirely, and the Asean Iron and Steel Council (AISC) has recommended that the Asean governments do the same.

According to local building experts, poor quality steel reinforcing bars are just one of the problems they encounter in trying to find suitable materials for construction projects. Other products that are frequently found to be subpar include concrete hollow blocks, many of which are manufactured by hand in small workshops. Examples of these are concrete and ceramic tiles used for paving, floors, or in bathrooms; plastic water pipes, particularly the type used for drainage, as they are largely made of recycled plastic; cement, which may contain inert material as filler; and steel wire of the sort used to tie reinforcing bars together or for other general purposes.

It is not as though the DTI is not aware of these other potential problems, or lacks guidelines for monitoring and stopping substandard materials from reaching the market. The DTI does have standards for building products and enforces them when it can, but the DTI also has limited resources and multiple responsibilities; the fact that some builders readily can give examples of poor products indicates that enough are eluding attention to be a significant problem.

It is a problem that the DTI should take more aggressive, visible steps to address, even at the expense of some of its other programs. The government’s “Build, build, build” infrastructure development initiative is encouraging an increase in other types of construction – construction expanded by about 12.86 percent year-on-year through the second quarter, compared with the overall GDP growth rate of 6.0 percent – and demand for all types of building products is putting pressure on supply. That is just the sort of circumstances in which unscrupulous suppliers can find a market for substandard goods, if enforcement of quality standards is lax or inconsistent.

The time to discover that a brand-new office building or house was built with poor quality materials should not be when the building falls apart due to a natural disaster or other calamity. The DTI taking energetic regulatory steps to publicly demonstrate the same zero tolerance for substandard materials of other types as it has with steel reinforcing bars will help to ensure such tragedies do not happen.


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