Asbestos: the killer within

by MARK PHILLIPS

THE killer is lurking in our neighbourhoods in suburbs and towns all around Australia, biding its time. When it strikes, it shows no mercy and does not discriminate who it chooses as its victims.

Its name is mesothelioma, and if you thought it had been driven out of Australia when asbestos was banned in 2003, you are wrong.

Asbestos removalWhile it is no longer legal to manufacture or use asbestos in Australia, it is still everywhere: in our houses, our schools, council buildings, hospitals and workplaces. It can also be found dumped in parks and roadways.

There are many suburbs around Australia which were developed in the postwar years until the 1980s where virtually every house was built with asbestos. It can lie in the roofs, walls and floors for decades, undisturbed, but if not safely removed remains a threat to the health of anyone who is exposed to its fibres.

Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world from the 1950s until the 1980s.  About every third domestic dwelling built between 1945 and 1987 (when manufacture of asbestos products in Australia ceased following union campaigning) is thought to contain asbestos.

Asbestos was fully banned in Australia - including imports - in 2003, and since then James Hardie has been brought to account for its culpability in allowing workers to be exposed to asbestos when it was Australia's largest manufacturer.

Asbestos fibres can be dormant in the body for many years after the initial exposure before symptoms of mesothelioama appear. But once meso is diagnosed, it usually acts fast and there is no cure.

Today, about 600 asbestos-related deaths are officially reported each year, and two new mesothelioma cases are diagnosed each day.

The asbestos death rate is expected to peak by 2020, when 18,000 people will have died from inhaling asbestos fibres. Many thousands more Australians will still get this disease and die in the decades following 2020.

The compensation bill is expected to top $7 billion in today’s money.

We are now into the third wave of asbestos victims, with DIY home renovators among the most vulnerable.

The victims are often innocent bystanders.

Serafina Salucci (below) has never been near an asbestos factory, never renovated or done any work herself with asbestos sheeting.

Yet in 2007 she was diagnosed with cancer associated with the mesothelioma. Retracing her steps, she realised the most likely time of exposure was as a seven-year-old, playing with offcuts from asbestos sheeting her father was using to build a shed in her family's Sydney backyard.

She is one of the younger members of the third wave generation of victims.

Serafina SalucciFortunately, she is the only member of her family - her father died years ago and her two brothers and mother are in good health - to have contracted the disease. But that just shows how much of a lottery asbestos is.

Now 43 and with four young children, she has endured two major operations to remove ribs and a lung and much radiotherapy and chemotherapy, so far defying doctors’ predictions of life expectancy of no more than a few years.

She is now lending her name to a new campaign to make Australia fully asbestos free by 2030.

“When I was young no one knew the dangers, except the makers James Hardie,” she says.

“Now there’s no excuse. While asbestos is still in our older buildings, like houses, hospitals, schools, there’s a risk of exposure if fibres become airborne, so we must work to safely get rid of it... Dad and Mum didn’t know the danger, it wasn’t their fault because no one knew. But these days we have to protect people the best way we can.”

Last year, a review of asbestos management in Australia by Geoff Fary, backed union calls for all asbestos to be removed from buildings by 2030.

The Federal Government responded by establishing an Office for Asbestos Safety to oversee the management and removal of asbestos.

But the majority of the review's recommendations, including a national strategy to eradicate asbestos, are yet to be adopted which is why two unions have banded together for the Asbestos Free Future campaign.

Co-ordinated by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, it seeks to raise awareness about the ongoing dangers of asbestos and urge further action by the Government to implement the recommendations of the Fary Review in full.

“It's time for the Australian government to implement a strategy to effectively tackle the threat of asbestos,” AMWU National Secretary Paul Bastian said at the campaign launch.

Among the campaign's objectives are:

  • Development of a national plan, based on priority areas of identifying the location of asbestos in Australia;
  • Establishment an independent National Asbestos Authority to oversee this plan;
  • Removal of asbestos from all government and commercial buildings and structures by 2030;
  • All residential properties should have an Asbestos Content Report before sale or lease;
  • Improving community awareness and education;
  • That all removal work be done only by qualified and licensed removalists.
  • Asbestos Free Future