Asbestos killed this man. Are you safe?

Adventurer Lincoln Hall died after early exposure to asbestos.

BY SENATOR LISA SINGH

The March death of Everest man, Lincoln Hall, is a stark reminder that asbestos kills.

Lincoln cheated death when he survived a night at 8600m near the summit of Mount Everest, without oxygen or proper equipment. But there was no escaping the disease caused by exposure to asbestos as a nine-year-old.

Australia has one of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world, with around 700 people diagnosed each year. And as Lincoln’s death some 47 years after helping his father build two cubby houses with asbestos sheeting reminds us, the time between exposure and the onset of symptoms can be anywhere from 20 to 50 years.  For those who have already been exposed to this carcinogen, the reality is that it may be too late.

Thousands of Australians families still face the loss of a loved one, as experts predict the toll of asbestos-related disease will not reach its peak until 2020. An asbestos-related death is both swift and painful. Once symptoms show themselves it is usually a matter of months before death. Just five per cent of those diagnosed with mesothelioma survive five years or longer.

The dangers associated with asbestos have been known for decades. In the 1960s mesothelioma was first reported as a fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs after it was discovered among those exposed to asbestos in South Africa. However the effects of asbestos had troubled many in Australia and across the world since 1898, when British factory safety inspectors were said to have expressed concerns about the ‘evil effects’ of asbestos dust.

Australia has a history of mining and importing asbestos – then a ‘wonder material’  – which was used to manufacture a range of products like roofing and building materials, brake and clutch linings, vinyl floor tiles, water and sewerage piping and fireproof clothing. Asbestos mining ceased in 1983 and in December 2003 all forms of asbestos were banned from use in Australia.

Australia has experienced two waves of asbestos-related disease diagnoses, the first from the mining of asbestos and the manufacturing of asbestos-related products, and the second from the use of asbestos in the construction industry.

Last year, the University of Western Australia identified the beginning of a third wave associated with home renovations. As the sad death of Lincoln last week highlights, this wave has begun and it has the potential to span future decades.

Between the 1940s and 1980s the majority of Australian homes were built using some form of asbestos product. Today, these are the homes often marketed as a `Renovator’s Delight’ and thanks to the inspiration of reality DIY renovation TV shows, these renovations are increasingly being undertaken by laymen.

Each weekend across our wide country, budding renovators take sledgehammers to their walls, ripping up tiles in kitchens and bathrooms and pulling down crumbling sheds. It’s dirty, dusty work and as people seek to turn their houses into homes, many are dangerously oblivious to the fact they are inhaling a carcinogen.

And it’s not just those undertaking the renovations at risk. If renovators are unaware of the presence of asbestos, they are unlikely to take proper precautions for its removal or disposal. Family, neighbours and people passing by an asbestos filled wheelie bin or skip on the footpath are also in danger. Breathing in a single speck of asbestos dust is sometimes all it takes to begin a devastating process.

There is an obligation on reality DIY renovation TV shows to highlight the dangers associated with asbestos. Last year, a contestant of such a show said publicly that there had been an expectation participants would work in a dusty environment and remove their masks when they were required to speak to camera.

Such shows are designed to inspire people to renovate which is why, in a bid to promote their products, prominent hardware companies form partnerships with such shows. But failing to advise viewers of the dangers associated with asbestos, especially when it has been identified and safely removed `off camera’, is deplorable. In inspiring people to renovate, there is an obligation to ensure Australians are aware renovation is not always as simple as it may be made to look. There is a need to ensure this third wave of painful and unnecessary asbestos-related deaths does not continue in decades to come.

Since being lobbied, Channel Nine has announced it will include reference to having conducted an asbestos audit on its popular renovation program, The Block. The Executive Producer said viewers would also be advised to be aware of asbestos and seek advice on its presence and removal before undertaking renovations.

I recently received an email from a young woman who, together with her fiance, had ripped up their kitchen and hallway floors several years ago. A decent amount of dust was generated during this exercise. This couple had only recently been made aware the underlay was most likely asbestos. Now, at the age of 25, this woman wrote of her distress at the thought of not being able to watch her children grow up. She had never known that asbestos had been used as underlay, so she hadn’t given it a second thought. And why would she?

The Gillard Labor Government commissioned an independent Asbestos Management Review in 2010 which is expected to hand down its recommendations by June 30 of this year. The review aims to address the enhancement of education and public awareness, the removal, handling, storage and disposal of asbestos, the mandatory reporting and disclosure of asbestos and the mandatory collection of data and reporting on asbestos-related health issues.

Yet for many, the death sentence caused by exposure to asbestos was written decades ago. All that can be done is to ensure they receive adequate compensation. Research must continue to be funded in the hope of either a cure or better treatment, and victims and their families must be provided with appropriate support.

There is no simple solution when it comes to asbestos, and the issue is further complicated by legislation falling across all three tiers of government. There is also the issue of cost. The removal and disposal of asbestos is expensive, which is one of the reasons people either fail to remove it, or do so themselves.

But what cost should we put on a human life?

The death of Lincoln Hall is a tragedy but it will not be in vain if it helps save lives in raising awareness of the very real risk associated with asbestos.

Every day, an Australian dies from an asbestos-related disease, people aged anywhere from their 20s up. If Australians continue to die from asbestos-related disease in the decades to come, we only have ourselves to blame.

Lisa Singh is a Labor Senator for Tasmania. Her interest in asbestos began when she was Workplace Relations Minister in the Tasmanian Government from 2008 – 2010. Senator Singh was the founding CEO of Asbestos Free Tasmania Foundation in 2010. She is currently the co-chair of the Parliamentary Group on Asbestos Related Disease.

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