Friday 28 November is being observed as National Asbestos Awareness Day in Australia when groups from around the country will come together for Asbestos Remembrance Day Services paying tribute to the thousands of Australians who have died from asbestos-related diseases and reminding all Australians about the continuing dangers of asbestos.

The National Health and Medical Research Council estimates that more than 25,000 Australians will die from mesothelioma over the next 40 years. Australia currently sees about 600 mesothelioma cases reported annually, a figure that is expected to rise to more than 900 cases annually by the year 2020.

Barry Robson, President of Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia and long-time advocate for awareness of the dangers of asbestos said that there was no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.

Australians affected by asbestos-related diseases in the past have primarily been men exposed to asbestos fibres in mines and asbestos factories (First Wave), and people in the workplace exposed to fibres from products in the workplace (Second Wave).

According to Mr Robson, with at least 1 in 3 Australian homes containing asbestos, many homeowners, renovators, tradies and handymen are putting their health and the health of families at risk during home renovation, maintenance and demolition work if they are exposed to dangerous asbestos dust and fibres, causing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer. He observes that the very real and present danger today is when people don’t know the risks of inhaling asbestos dust and fibres, or how to protect themselves and their families.

Asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a type of cancer that mostly affects the lining of the lungs and develops between 20-50 years after inhaling asbestos fibres. There is no cure and the average survival time after diagnosis is 10-12 months. Inhaling asbestos fibres may also cause other diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and benign pleural disease.

A study published in the Medical Journal Australasia in 2013 reveals more than 60% of DIY renovators have reported being exposed to asbestos dust during home renovations; 53% said their partner had been exposed, and 40% said their children had been exposed to asbestos dust during home renovations. These figures indicate that the Third Wave of asbestos-related diseases will include people who renovate or maintain homes without taking the proper precautions.

From the end of World War II until 1954, 70,000 asbestos cement houses were built in NSW alone (52% of all houses built) with 25% of all new housing clad in asbestos cement until the 1960s.

Peter Dunphy, Chair of the Asbestos Education Committee that conducts the national Asbestos Awareness campaign said that Australia has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related diseases in the world. This is because Australia was among the highest consumers of asbestos products accounting for more than 60% of all asbestos product manufactured, and 90% of all consumption of asbestos fibre used in asbestos cement until a complete ban of asbestos came into force in Australia in 2003.

As a result, there is still a high volume of asbestos-containing building materials that remain hidden in brick, weatherboard, clad and fibro homes and buildings such as garages, outside toilets and farm structures. According to Mr Dunphy, if a home was built or renovated prior to 1987, it is likely to contain asbestos.

If in good condition and left undisturbed, asbestos generally doesn’t pose a health risk. However, it’s important that anyone working in and around homes or buildings constructed or renovated before 1987 knows the dangers of asbestos and learns how to manage it safely.

Asbestos could be hiding anywhere in the home including under floor coverings such as carpets, linoleum and vinyl tiles, behind wall and floor tiles, in cement floors, internal and external walls, ceilings and ceiling space (insulation), eaves, garages, roofs, around hot water pipes, fences, extensions to homes, garages, outdoor toilets, backyard and farm sheds, chook sheds and even dog kennels.

Asbestos Awareness Ambassador Cherie Barber admits she was unaware of the dangers of asbestos when she first started renovating in 1991, and would never hesitate to pick up a hammer or stand in a cloud of dust, shovelling building waste into a skip bin. Now aware of the health risks of asbestos exposure, she takes every precaution when renovating dated, tired old houses, and also uses the opportunity to publicly educate fellow renovators about the risks of asbestos.