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
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.