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Asbestos kills

By Lisa Singh - posted Monday, 16 April 2012


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.

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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.

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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 publically 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.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Senator Lisa Singh is Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Water and prior to this was Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General. She was also a Minister in the Tasmanian Labor Government.

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