This photo is a stark reminder of how our attitude toward asbestos has shifted in the last 55 years. The idea of openly shoveling asbestos as a form of competition seems completely foreign when compared to the strict regulations surrounding the substance today. But how strictly do we really monitor asbestos? Australia has the highest per capita incidence of mesothelioma in the world, and the Cancer Council estimate that up to 18,000 Australians will die from this disease by 2020. And alarmingly, the Cancer Council say new incidents of mesothelioma are actually increasing.
Asbestos in Australia
After being phased out in the 1980s, 2003 saw Australia officially ban the use, reuse, import, transport, storage or sale of any form of asbestos. Despite this, the delicate fibre continues to be found in newly built buildings across Australia. In 2016, officials found insulation products containing asbestos on construction sites in Brisbane and Perth. In January this year, a Senate inquiry found that asbestos was slipping past underfunded customs officials, from countries with loose regulations.
Based on these findings, Senator Nick Xenophon has called for an urgent overhaul of rules relating to building products coming into Australia from any country without a zero tolerance toward asbestos. This would include the USA, China, Indonesia and India. “Any country without a zero tolerance to asbestos in their products should be banned from importing into Australia, unless every one of their products is tested prior to arrival on Australian shores.”
“If we don’t sort this out now we will have another tsunami of asbestos-related deaths in years to come.”
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union assistant national secretary Brad Parker said part of the blame was on the Australian builders who were willing to compromise safety in order to save money. “Builders who’ll do anything to save a buck, ordering from dodgy suppliers who send lethal, banned material to our country because they know the government won’t do anything about it.”
The danger also continues to lurk in the handling of old asbestos materials. In a Curtin University survey, three out of four tradespeople admitted to having trouble identifying asbestos in the workplace. Carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians were all surveyed, and only a small number said they had received specific asbestos-related training. This has ICFMEU National Construction Secretary, Dave Noonan, calling for betting training and education for apprentices and tradespeople. “We need national, mandatory training for all apprentices to make them aware of the dangers and safe handling of asbestos.”
So it’s important to remember that the national ban doesn’t mean we can relax our attitude. It’s believed over 3000 products contained asbestos during the height of its use in Australia’s building industry. As the photo reminds us – we continue to pay for the mistakes of our past.
“Asbestos is not going to go away in our lifetime at least, because there is just so much of it.” – Dr Peter Franklin, senior research fellow, UWA.
Asbestos becomes a health risk when its fibres are released into the air and breathed in. Breathing it in can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma – with symptoms usually occurring 20 to 30 years after initial exposure. Removing asbestos is a dangerous procedure and anyone who removes it is required to be appropriately trained and to hold the relevant license.
Safe Work Australia provides extensive information on the best way to manage and control asbestos as a workplace hazard. If you would like to learn more, you can find valuable free resources at The Australian Asbestos Network.