Australias Asbestos Landscape 2021
The frequency of alerts in Australia over illegal asbestos imports continues unabated with reports of asbestos-containing building products,1 ferries,2 automotive parts3 and toys4 repeatedly making their way into the media. Just a few weeks ago, an eagle-eyed trade unionist in Brisbane raised the alert over a product thought to contain asbestos at the Queens Wharf development site; workers walked off the site until the all-clear was give.5 Whilst the Brisbane incident was a false alarm, other such incidents in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne sadly were not. According to a statement by the building materials manufacturer and supplier USG Boral, samples of fire-rated plasterboard material imported from China were found to contain very low levels of asbestos. The company advised workers to refrain from installing, distributing or supplying the products.6
Trade unions representing construction workers were furious at the latest asbestos incident with Jade Ingham from the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) saying We have warned repeatedly that the use of cheap imports not subject to the same quality standards as Australian materials is a recipe for disaster Quite simply, there is no such thing as a safe level of asbestos a lethal material that has been completely banned in Australia for nearly 20 years. 7
Despite the 2003 ban and the efforts of the Australian Border Force8 to prevent these toxic products from being imported, construction workers have been victims of workplace asbestos exposures on multiple occasions. In 2016, asbestos was found in roof panels at the new Perth Childrens Hospital; government tests confirmed the contamination in the material sourced from China.9 The CFMEU warned that hundreds of workers could have been exposed to the asbestos material used on the site of the A$1.2 billion hospital.
Added to the ongoing challenges posed by the flow of asbestos goods into the country are thorny legacy issues such as the failure of the State of Western Australia (WA) to decontaminate land on which the notorious Wittenoom asbestos mine had stood. The mine, mill, outbuildings and land in this Pilbara town are so contaminated that in 2007 the town of Wittenoom was degazetted that is, removed from maps and road signs. A bill currently wending its way through the WA Parliament the Wittenoom Closure Bill provides for compulsory acquisition of remaining private properties [and the] demolition of remaining structures.10
There are, alas, several drawbacks with the solution to the problem posed by the most contaminated site in the southern hemisphere one of which is the fact that the 120,000 toxic acres do not belong to the State of Western Australia but to the Banjima people as per a 2014 court ruling.11 A November 1, 2021 commentary in The Indigenous Times pointed out that the moral responsibility for cleaning up this mess belongs to the state, which owns the mineral rights. The fact that not a penny of the A$200 million in the Mining Rehabilitation Fund has been spent on remediating Wittenoom was, wrote Wayne Bergmann and Clinton Wolf, a state shame and a national disgrace.
For a number of years, Australian asbestos victims groups, public bodies, local councils and other campaigning organizations have coordinated efforts to raise asbestos awareness in November with some events scheduled to take place during Asbestos Awareness Week this year from November 22 to 28, 202112 and others spread throughout the month.13 With up to 4,000 Australians dying every year from asbestos-related diseases, the need for increased public awareness of the asbestos hazard and for support for the injured and their families is beyond doubt.
ADSA Ecumenical Service, 2016.
The Perth-based Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) will be holding its 26th annual ecumenical service on November 26. Before Covid put an end to long-distance journeys, I have had the privilege of attending several of these services and was always moved by the sheer number of people whose lives had been decimated by the loss of a loved one to asbestos-related disease.14 Although the ADSA has cancelled its hugely popular annual Christmas barbecue, out of an abundance of caution, this year it has embraced one of the more unusual problems caused by Covid. Because of the state-wide lockdown, West Australians have been unable to vacation outside of the State. For this reason, the idea of an adventure holiday in the derelict mining town of Wittenoom has grown in appeal despite the associated dangers and inconvenience. The ADSA launched a high-profile media campaign to remind WA residents of the deadly health hazard posed by a trip to the toxic Pilbara town.
Groups elsewhere in Australia will be directing their resources at countering another outcome of the pandemic: the multibillion-dollar boom in home renovation fuelled by funds not spent on foreign holidays. Asbestos material was widely used in the construction of Australian homes after World War II; one third of properties still contain asbestos. With tradies and home renovators in mind, the alerts will be: Stop playing renovation roulette because its not worth the risk15 and Think Twice About Asbestos.16
House Schematic from the Website of asbestosawareness.com.au
Underlining the inclusivity of Novembers high-profile campaigns, resources have been translated into several languages including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. For example, see the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA) cautionary factsheets shown below (see also: higher resolution PDF versions of the ASEA factsheets).
Whilst grappling with their own asbestos demons, groups in Australia have reached out to other countries in the region to share their knowledge about the asbestos hazard. 17 There are grounds for optimism that these collaborations will hasten the end of the use of deadly asbestos in Asia. The future is asbestos-free!
November 5, 2021
1 CFMEU Construction. Asbestos Warning Issued on Some Boral Board Products. October 12, 2021.
2 Whilst most of the deadly imports originated in China, three of the new river class ferries for Sydney had been built in Indonesia.
Labor, union slam offshore build of ferries after asbestos found in new vessels docked at Carrington. August 24, 2020.
3 Counterfeit car parts surge during the coronavirus crisis report. September 29, 2021.
4 Remote-controlled cars are urgently recalled as they contain deadly asbestos - and they've been on sale for five years. August 5, 2021.
5 Asbestos scare: Workers walk off building sites, including Queens Wharf. October 12, 2021.
6 The products being withdrawn by USG Boral over the asbestos contamination included: Firestop® Plasterboard, Fire WetstopTM Plasterboard, MultistopTM Plasterboard range (3/3HI, 4/4HI, 5/5HI) and ShaftlinerTM Mould Stop Plasterboard.
7 CFMEU. ASBESTOS WARNING ISSUED ON SOME USG BORAL BOARD PRODUCTS. October 12, 2021.
8Australian Border Force. Prohibited Goods: Asbestos. Accessed November 5, 2021.
9 Asbestos found in $1.2b Perth Children's Hospital, says WA Health Minister. July 14, 2016.
10 Final closure of Wittenoom nears as Bill returns to Parliament. August 4, 2021.
11 Blue sky spin and bias hide toxic legacy. November 1, 2021.
12 Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. Newsletter October 21, 2021.
National Asbestos Awareness Week 2021.
13 Australians Told Stop Playing Renovation Roulette! Amid Renovation Boom. October 27, 2021.
14 Kazan-Allen, L. Asbestos Awareness in Australia: Then and Now. December 11, 2019.
15 Australians Told Stop Playing Renovation Roulette! Amid Renovation Boom. October 27, 2021.
Fact Sheets & Checklists: Homeowners, Tradies, Commercial & Non-Residential, Naturally Occurring Asbestos.
17 Union Aid Abroad APHEDA. Calls for Asbestos Bans across Asia and Pacific Intensify. October 19, 2021.