By RICKY VAN DER ZWAN and JULIE TUCKER
The digital age crashed into the bronze age when the roll out of Australia’s high-speed broadband network was disrupted by the discovery of asbestos in Telstra pits in recent weeks.
Workplace relations minister Bill Shorten is expected to introduce a bill to parliament later today to set up national registry for residents and contractors exposed to asbestos as a result of this work. In light of the strong link between asbestos exposure and lung cancer, the register is a sensible first step in managing the health risks associated with exposure to asbestos.
Q: What is asbestos?
A: Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral which humans have been mining for more than 4,000 years, principally for its fire-retardant properties.
Mining and production of asbestos increased substantially from the end of the industrial revolution in the middle of the 19th century, eventually peaking in the middle to late 20th century. By then asbestos was being used as a component in hundreds of everyday products such as building materials, brake linings, fuse-boxes, and pipe insulation.
Q: What are the heath risks?
A: Exposure to even a single fibre of asbestos dust can cause significant health problems. Every one of the six variations of the fibrous silicate minerals known collectively as asbestos have the potential to cause malignant lung cancers, mesothelioma, pleural plaques (calcification of the lungs), or asbestosis (pneumoconiosis, a type of lung disease).
Already in Australia asbestos diseases account for at least 3,500 deaths every year. That rate is predicted to rise until about 2020, with current estimates suggesting 40,000 Australians eventually will die. And it’s likely these statistics will be an under estimate.
Asbestos diseases often take decades to manifest following exposure and many individuals may not even know they have been exposed. Once manufactured, asbestos can be difficult to recognise. It can be shaped and painted and so it often looks like other types of building materials.
Most problematic is that unlike, say, nuclear waste, asbestos does not have a half-life. It can be left alone for a few decades or for 30 generations and when it is disturbed it represents exactly the same health threat as it did when it was originally mined.
Q: Who is at risk?
A: Those characteristics are now having impact. Asbestos diseases were once a blue-collar affliction, affecting mainly men, often decades after exposure. Increasingly, younger DIY builders and women are presenting after, often unknowingly, they’ve encountered asbestos during home renovations, or after it’s been dumped on the footpath or in a skip.
While television renovators lustily knock down walls to rebuild a whole house in a day or a week might have had their own work sites checked for risk, drilling a hole to hang a picture at home, or having the kids build a cubby out of waste from the vacant block next door can be a risky proposition.
Not a home renovator? Even disaster zones pose potential threats after bush fires, floods and storms.
The best way to handle asbestos is not to handle it. There are experts who can inspect buildings and homes for asbestos and manage its removal. Various government agencies both state and federal have been equipped to manage the issues associated with the discovery of asbestos.