Asbestos, the fatal fibres that still surround us
Asbestos, much like Chernobyl, the Sex Pistols and tobacco sponsored cricket, may be widely perceived as a relic of an unpalatable past consigned to the scrapheap of an unenlightened, toxic era.
Except for the reality that this potentially silent killer still lives among us, in our homes and cars, at work and in machines we use daily, despite bans on the supply, sale, use, re-use, installation and transport of asbestos-containing products coming into effect throughout Australia on 31 December 2003.
Anyone who may have regarded this milestone moment as the beginning of the end of class action-type lawsuits for asbestos-related diseases, notably lung cancer and asbestos-inhaling induced mesothelioma – estimated by the Australian Mesothelioma Register to be 60 per cent related to asbestos exposure – might reconsider following recent events Down Under.
The focal point was the presence of Erin Brokovich in Australia in early September to support a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Defence. Legal battles have flared in Katherine, in the Northern Territory, and Oakey, Queensland, over PFAS contamination, a chemical used in firefighting foam for decades that was only outlawed in 2010 and has allegedly seeped into soil and groundwater in Australia.
The decade-old connection between PFAS and cancer brings asbestos back into the frame, particularly in Western Australia which was one of the highest users per capita of asbestos in the world up until the mid-1980s, with one in every three homes built containing the product.
An investigation by us found that while asbestos may be slowly fading into obscurity, its deadly legacy remains with related diseases having only reached a peak in recent years. Once lauded for its affordability, flexibility, strength and fire and electrical insulating properties, asbestos remains all around us, but identifying the fatal fibres is not as easy as people might presume.
According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, protecting Australians from the harm of asbestos is increasingly being recognised as a complex public policy problem, almost ﬁfteen years after a complete ban on the product in Australia.
“As recently as November 2017, a Senate inquiry into protecting Australians from the threat of asbestos in non-conforming building products stated that: “Asbestos safety is a complex policy and operational area that requires coordinated efforts on a national scale.”
“Australia is often looked to as a country that has among the highest incidence rates of malignant mesothelioma due to high per-capita asbestos exposure in the past. As early as the late 1980s, epidemiological researchers started to investigate the emerging issue in Australia of asbestos-related disease, with a focus on malignant mesothelioma. Moving forward 40 years later, public health researchers and advocates still have a key role to play in measuring the pattern of Australia’s asbestos-related disease epidemic curve and understanding the risks of in situ asbestos and asbestos-containing materials.”
In bonded form, the material is relatively benign, but safety problems can arise when asbestos is drilled, sawed or disturbed for renovation purposes or needs to be disposed of as waste, which can by law only be done by licensed professionals.
All of which poses a problem if you don’t know where the asbestos is in your roof, walls, ceiling, floors, gables, eaves, flues for heaters, hot water boilers, around heaters, putty, AC pipes, air vents, electrical wires, brake pads and clutch plates.
Asbestos is not something to be ignored, considering your family could be at risk of exposure and you and/or your company liable for heavy fines or jail for putting anyone at risk of illness or death due to steps not taken to avoid risk or failure to comply with regulations.
A corporation in Australia can be fined up to $3million and an individual conducting a business or undertaking up to $600,000 or up to five years imprisonment. An individual worker can be liable for a $300,000 fine and five years in jail.
In July Work Safe Victoria announced that it had charged the owner of the Corkman Irish Pub for breaches of occupational health and safety act breaches in the identification and treatment of asbestos during the demolition of a historic hotel, formerly known as the Carlton Inn. The first charge relates to failing to identify material containing asbestos at the site prior to demolition and the second charge concerns the removal of the substance.
Work Safe Queensland announced that a Brisbane roofing company had been fined $100,000 in the Brisbane Magistrates Court for failing to safely handle and dispose of asbestos.
The company, Roofmasters, had been hired to remove a storm damaged roof and a number of people were exposed to asbestos dust.
Head of Workplace Health and Safety Queensland Dr Simon Blackwood said the extent of asbestos contamination throughout the main showroom was “widespread” and notices were issued to clean-up the site.
“Trade Tools closed their doors to the public for two months and spent lots of money on remediation work to fix the problem,” Dr Blackwood said.
“However, Roofmasters unnecessarily exposed their own workers, Trade Tools employees and members of the public to asbestos because they didn’t do things properly.”
While corporates are more likely to attract the attention of Erin Brokovich, disposing of asbestos presents its own challenges to individual homeowners who face fines of up to $100,000 in court for failing to comply with strict clean-up regulations.
If your house was built before 1987 it more than likely contains asbestos, which would best be left alone if in good condition. However, to remove more than 10 square metres of bonded asbestos from your home, you have to hire a licensed removal contractor.
Safe Work New South Wales advises: “Sprayed asbestos insulation, like loose-fill asbestos is a highly hazardous asbestos material and should not be disturbed. It requires appropriate risk controls to prevent disturbance or exposure to air-borne fibres.
“Only qualified tradespeople with training in suitable asbestos control measures can work in any areas identified as containing asbestos.”
Catastrophic bushfires in Victoria and Western Australia in recent years caused a secondary emergency during the clean-up and recovery phase on farms and hamlets as emergency workers had to contend with wind-dispersed asbestos.
The workers were warned to engage an occupational hygienist to inspect fire-damaged buildings for ruptured and dispersed asbestos that should be contained by a licensed removalist.
And in February this year Work Safe Victoria launched an awareness campaign warning tradespeople to check for asbestos before engaging in home renovation or maintenance work, particularly in older houses, that “can sometimes be difficult to recognise”.
WorkSafe Acting Director of Health and Safety, Paul Fowler, said although many tradespeople knew asbestos posed a significant health risk, many might not know how to identify it.
“If you’re a self-employed tradesperson conducting maintenance work at an old house, you need to know what to look for to identify any areas with potential asbestos-containing material before any work begins,” he said.
“Learning more about asbestos and how to identify it could be the difference between developing a severe illness or staying healthy.”
If you or a loved one is suffering from an asbestos-related disease Millner and Knights panel of specialist asbestos claims lawyers can help. Our team can quickly find out whether or not you have a claim and who it can be brought against. Call 1800 106 107 for free non-pushy advice regarding your situation.