Asbestos Awareness in Australia: Then and Now 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



In 1985, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) launched its first Asbestos Awareness Week to:

“do what we can to blunt the third wave of asbestos disease, which is already beginning and inevitably will be much worse if exposure to asbestos in public buildings, schools and in the environment in general is not reduced.”1

Nearly 35 years later, asbestos victims’ groups, charities, government agencies and institutions around Australia earmark November as Asbestos Awareness Month with a multitude of activities throughout the country aimed, in particular, at educating citizens about the dangers of asbestos in and around homes. Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of asbestos-related diseases and, due to the former popularity of asbestos-containing cement (fibro) building products, as many as 1 in 3 Australian homes still contain asbestos.2 Although its use was banned in 2003, the consequences of historical asbestos consumption remain deadly. Addressing an asbestos conference in Perth on November 13, 2019 Western Australia’s Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston confirmed that:

“Western Australia (WA) is the centre for impacts of asbestos on Australians… Here in Western Australia we’ve had very large historical exposure to asbestos including in industry – the building of houses, use in fencing, fire suppression insulation – it’s a very serious problem in Western Australia.” 3

Given the scope of Australia’s asbestos epidemic and the elevated incidence of disease in WA, it was not surprising that Perth was chosen to host a plethora of activities last month (November, 2019) to raise the profile of asbestos issues, educate members of the public and trade unionists about the dangers, engage multisectorial stakeholders from home and abroad in strategic discussions and support the hundreds of WA sufferers of asbestos-related diseases and bereaved family members whose lives had been decimated by toxic exposures.

During November 11-13, 2019, the 6th annual international asbestos conference, trade show and hospitality event organized by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) took place in Perth.4 The hundreds of delegates who attended included representatives of asbestos victims’ groups from Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and WA, medical specialists in asbestos-related diseases, researchers, asbestos analysts, politicians, civil servants, environmental officers, trade unionists, asbestos removalists, equipment providers and other interested parties from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and South East Asia. On Tuesday (November 12), ASEA’s National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management 2019-23 – which prioritized international collaboration and leadership as well as improving asbestos awareness, effectively managing legacy issues and safely remediating and disposing of toxic waste – was launched.5


ADSA President Robert Vojakovic and Chief Operating Officer Melita Markey at the ASEA Conference.

The opportunity for constructive discussions amongst the many stakeholders working on asbestos issues in Australia and abroad was well utilized by delegates. For my part, I was delighted to: hear the presentations by the ADSA speakers including Robert Vojakovic, Melita Markey, Rose Marie Vojakovic and Dr. Gregory Deleuil; catch up with Professor Ken Takahashi from the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute; have the chance to meet Dr. Anna Suraya (Indonesia), Assoc. Prof. Dr. Bui Thi An (Vietnam), Prof Dr Victor Hoe (Malaysia) and Associate Prof. Dr. P. Muongpak (Lao); receive an update on the outstanding ban asbestos campaign led by Australia’s Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) in South East Asia (being particularly intrigued by the Australian collaboration with the Cambodian inspection department to develop technical capacity and establish protocols for testing Cambodian imports for asbestos6); speak with Mark Cocker from WorkSafe Tasmania about the Tasmanian Government’s Asbestos Compensation Scheme.7


International Speakers, APHEDA representatives, and ASEA CEO and Directors at Perth Conference.

At the same time as conference speakers were addressing delegates in the air conditioned comfort of the Convention and Exhibition Centre, members of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) were wending their way from Augusta WA to the state capital Perth as part of the ADSA’s 8th annual Walk for Asbestos Research and Awareness.


Participants on 2019 ADSA Walk for Asbestos Research and Awareness. Photo courtesy of ADSA.

Dozens of walkers began their journey on November 11 at Leeuwin Lighthouse in Augusta and over the following days stopped in Margaret River, Dunsborough and Busselton before finally completing their 300+ kilometer trek in Perth on November 15, on one of the hottest November days ever recorded.


Participants of the ADSA 2019 walk arriving at their final destination: Parliament House, Perth. Photo courtesy of ADSA.

All of the money raised by the walk was donated to fund Dr. Melvin Wee Loong Chin’s ADSA PhD scholarship in mesothelioma. An interim cheque for $60,000 was presented to Dr. Chin at the December 1 ADSA picnic at Whiteman Park, Perth.


From left: ADSA President Robert Vojakovic, medical oncologist Dr. Melvin Chin, ADSA Walk Coordinator Simone Vojakovic and ADSA Counsellor Rose Marie Vojakovic. Photo courtesy of ADSA.

This was the 32nd annual ADSA Christmas picnic and over the years the format and festivities have been honed to a fine art with even Father Christmas making a flying visit down under to take part.


Father Christmas.

The pastoral care and social fellowship provided to ADSA members are at the core of the Society’s work and the annual Ecumenical Service held this year on November 22 provided the opportunity for the community to come together and grieve for those whose lives had been sacrificed by asbestos companies, State and Federal governments. Within the sanctity of the Redemptorist Monastery, a memorial service was held amidst candlelight and choral music. The smell from the boughs of fresh rosemary – traditionally regarded as a symbol of friendship, loyalty and remembrance – decorating the church wafted through the air; the symbolism was reinforced by the sprigs of rosemary on blue ribbons worn by members of the congregation. On the screen to the right of the altar, photographs were shown of ADSA members who had passed away from asbestos-related diseases.


ADSA’s Melita Markey addressing the congregation at the Redemptorist Monastery, November 22, 2019. Photo courtesy of ADSA.

Sugio Furuya, the Coordinator of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN), arrived in Perth the following week to lead an asbestos workshop at a trade union event in Freemantle on November 27. On Tuesday, November 26, he had the opportunity to visit the Society’s offices in Osborne Park and observe a typical clinic day; the reception area was buzzing with members awaiting appointments with the ADSA medical advisor Dr. Gregory Deleuil. In conversations throughout the morning with Robert and Rose Marie Vojakovic, Melita Markey and Greg, Sugio learned about the ADSA’s history, services and ongoing challenges. He was intrigued by the cabinet of curiosities displayed in the Society’s lobby containing implements and souvenirs from the Wittenoom crocidolite (blue) asbestos mine.



In the afternoon Sugio, accompanied by Laurie Kazan-Allen and David Allen, visited the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases (NCARD), an Australian Centre for Research Excellence based at the University of Western Australia where they met Administrative Officer Tracy Hayward and Ph.D. students and staff from Iran, Cambodia, Singapore and Australia who discussed their research into checkpoint blockade immunotherapy, T cell signalling and the role of genetics in mesothelioma causation; the possibilities for mesothelioma researchers offered by proteomics and bioinformatics were also discussed. The visitors were given a fascinating tour of the NCARD labs by Nicola Principe and her colleague Caitlin Tilsed.


NCARD visitors (from left): Laurie Kazan-Allen, Sugio Furuya, David Allen, Nicole Principe. Photo courtesy of Tracy Hayward.

For more than 30 years, the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) has led the campaign by trade unions and labor federations to protect workers from occupational exposures to asbestos; over the years, the BWI’s highly vocal support for a worldwide asbestos ban has attracted unwelcomed attention from asbestos stakeholders. At the Geneva meeting of the Rotterdam Convention this year (2019), members of the industry lobby warned the BWI to keep it’s “Hands off Chrysotile [White Asbestos].”


Asbestos lobbyists demonstrating at the 2019 meeting of the Rotterdam Convention.

Unsurprisingly, the subject of asbestos had a prominence at a November 27 study day for BWI representatives held in the coastal town of Freemantle near Perth. Sugio Furuya was the keynote speaker at the asbestos workshop which was attended by delegates from Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cambodia, Nepal, New Zealand and Australia; Laurie Kazan-Allen was the moderator and rapporteur. In his 20-minute presentation Sugio encapsulated the progress made in the ten years since the Asian Ban Asbestos Network (ABAN) had been established, highlighting both the successes and remaining challenges faced by network members.


Sugio Furuya making his presentation at the asbestos workshop.

The majority of the time allotted for the workshop was reserved for a roundtable discussion during which each delegate spoke of the asbestos reality experienced by his/her union colleagues. Amongst the recurring challenges faced were:

  • a lack of political will by local, state and federal governments to take action on workplace asbestos exposures;
  • the political and economic influence of powerful vested interests supporting asbestos use with politicians in some countries having shares in asbestos companies;
  • the difficulty in identifying asbestos-containing products not only by customs inspectors but also by consumers with new asbestos-containing products being developed to disguise their hazardous composition – i.e. flat asbestos-containing sheets as opposed to corrugated ones (the old corrugated type was easily identified);
  • the invisibility of asbestos victims and the lack of medical capacity to diagnose the injured.


Report-back from asbestos workshop to plenary session of BWI study day, by Laurie Kazan-Allen.

During discussions at the ASEA conference and the BWI study day, questions were asked about the asbestos policies of some international agencies and institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and their seeming reluctance to adopt restrictive policies on asbestos use. It was therefore, a great relief to learn that on November 27, 2019 the Australian Senate unanimously passed a motion on asbestos sponsored by Senators from the Green and Labor Parties and supported by the government. The Asbestos Motion noted that:

  • all forms of asbestos were carcinogenic to humans;
  • according to the World Health Organization 125 million people, including populations in the Asia-Pacific region, remained at risk from occupational asbestos exposures;
  • the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases was to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
  • Australia was a founding member of the Asian Development Bank;
  • The Bank’s Safeguard Policy prohibited investments that included the “production of trade in or use of unbonded asbestos fibres;” this, however, did not apply to the purchase and use of bonded asbestos cement sheeting where the asbestos content was less than 20%. The effect of this proviso was to allow the continued use of almost all bonded asbestos-containing materials by the construction sector.

The Asbestos Motion called on the Federal Government to lobby for a change in the Bank’s policy in order to end the use of asbestos in projects it financed.8 A subsequent statement by Senator Duniam (Tasmania) confirmed Australia’s ongoing leadership in the global struggle to protect populations from asbestos:

“Australia has raised concerns with the ADB at senior levels about the use of asbestos-containing material. DFAT's Environmental and social safeguard policy on managing asbestos risk states that Australia promotes global efforts to ban the use of asbestos, calling for the application of international good-practice approaches to the management of asbestos hazards. It also seeks to improve awareness of asbestos risk, provide safety alternatives and support the phase-out of asbestos-containing material. In 2020, the ADB is expected to commence a review of its 2009 Safeguard Policy Statement. Australia will use this opportunity to further lobby for a prohibition on the use of any asbestos-containing materials in ADB financed projects.” 9

It is hoped that now that Australia has joined the world’s largest trade pact: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,10 it will use it’s membership to extend the campaign to end the asbestos epidemic which has caused so much heartache at home and abroad.

December 11, 2019.


1 Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia.. Asbestos Awareness Week 1985. [Hard Copy]

2 A book published in October 2019 entitled: Asbestos In Australia: From Boom to Dust provides useful background reading on this subject:

3 McNeil, H. One person a week suing James Hardie as WA becomes only state with asbestos cases still on the rise. November 18, 2019.

4 2019 Asbestos Safety Conference.

5ASEA. National Strategic Plan for Asbestos Awareness and Management 2019-23. November, 2019.
ASEA RELEASE: Claims that Chrysotile Asbestos is “safe” shows the importance of Australia’s asbestos work in SE Asia and the Pacific. November 7, 2019.
Also: ASEA: National Strategic Plan 2019 - 2023 Launched. November 12, 2019.

6 How Cambodia is Tackling the Dangers of Asbestos. 2019.
Also see: Spotting the Dangers of Asbestos in Cambodia. September 30, 2019.

7 Asbestos Compensation Scheme. October 29, 2019.

8 Senator Faruqi. Asbestos Motion. November 27, 2019.

9 Senator Duniam. Asbestos Motion. November 27, 2019.

10 Benson, S. World’s largest trade pact an ‘enormous’ victory: Morrison. November 5, 2019. The Australian.



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