Over the last few months there have been increasing distress over materials containing asbestos being imported into Australia despite Australia having banned the use and import of asbestos in 2003.
While it is of the upmost concern that products containing asbestos are being illegal imported into Australia, the far more pressing issue is the amount of materials contacting materials that remain in the Australian residential sector. It is estimated that one in three homes built before 1985 contain asbestos. Asbestos production peaked in Australia in the 1970s. The asbestos products remaining in situ are largely over 40 years old. Such products are likely to be past their useful product life and, if external (such as roofs, fencing and out buildings) subject to weathering and natural disasters including bushfires.
In 2015 the Asbestos Safety Eradication Agency (ASEA) commissioned research to ascertain the level of awareness of materials containing asbestos among home buyers and DYI renovators. Of those surveyed only 29% felt confident in their ability to identify asbestos materials in their home. Prior to 1978 no warning was placed on products that contained asbestos. No Australian jurisdiction requires sellers or owners to undertake and provide purchasers or tenants with an asbestos survey identifying products containing asbestos within the home. It is a common misconception that asbestos identification is included in a standard building report however most building reports do not cover asbestos, simply informing a purchaser to “assume asbestos is present” based on the age of the property.
Further research commissioned by ASEA from the Monash University Centre for Occupational Environmental Health showed that during standard DIY renovation tasks involving asbestos containing materials asbestos fibres are released into the atmosphere well in excess of current occupational standards.
It is universally accepted that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos for the contraction of mesothelioma and that small exposures can cause the deadly cancer. There is no treatment for mesothelioma and the average life expectancy for somebody is 9 to 12 months from diagnosis to death.
Since 1996 I have acted for hundreds of persons who have contracted asbestos diseases. Over the last 15 years I have specialised in third wave low dose exposure cases, that is persons who have contracted mesothelioma as a result of carrying out or being present during the course of home renovations. These cases have been for children, such as Serafina Salucci. Serafina suffers from mesothelioma. She was diagnosed at the age of 37 when the youngest of her 4 children was 3 years of age. Serafina was exposed to asbestos at the age in 1977 when her father built a garage at their family home using asbestos cement fibro sheets. Serafina, who was 7 at the time, used the off cuts from the fibro sheets as a frisbee and drew with them on the footpath.
Unfortunately, Serafina’s story is not unique. The Finity Consulting Report commissioned by ASEA in 2016 predicted that there would be 19,400 new cases of mesothelioma in Australia before the end of the century and that non-occupational exposure to asbestos would overtake occupational exposures in the next 30 years, the majority of the non-occupational exposures being as a result of DIY home renovations and work undertaken in the residential sector.
Until there is a nationwide approach to the identification and removal of asbestos in the residential sector then we will continue to see many more persons unnecessarily exposed to asbestos and contracting mesothelioma for many years to come. The issue demands urgent attention.