Australian Scandal Grows amidst Global Confirmation of Asbestos Hazard 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On February 16, 2024, an Asbestos Factsheet was uploaded to the website of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which reported that:

“Globally in 2016, occupational exposure to asbestos caused an estimated 209,481 deaths, which stands for more than 70 per cent of all deaths from work-related cancers…There is ongoing evidence that mismanagement of asbestos is resulting in elevated healthcare expenses that surpass any benefits. Over the lifetime of all patients with an asbestos-related disease, burden of disease costs has been estimated to be US$11 billion… An examination of the economic effects of asbestos bans concluded that in countries that transitioned away from asbestos, no negative economic impact was seen following the enforcement of the bans.” 1

The validity of the underlined portion of the paragraph above was substantiated by the asbestos scandal which has rocked Sydney, Australia over recent weeks. The discovery of asbestos in mulch used at parks, playgrounds, schools, sports centers, hospitals, electrical substations, supermarkets and domestic gardens has led to closure of premises, cancellation of events and extremely high levels of public anxiety.2

Asbestos is a hot button topic in Australia which was, in the aftermath of World War II, one of the largest per capita asbestos consumers;3 data released this year (2024), showed that after the UK, Australia had the world’s highest age-standardized mortality rate for mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. Although asbestos use was banned in Australia in 2003, the long-tail legacy of the widespread use of asbestos and products containing it continues to endanger human life throughout the country.

In January, 2024 it was reported that the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) of New South Wales (NSW) – the State’s environmental watchdog – had known: “for more than a decade that producers of soil fill made from construction and demolition waste were failing to comply with rules to limit the spread of contaminants such as lead and asbestos into the community.”4

Given the EPA’s complacency, the contamination crisis now unfolding in NSW was “destined to happen,” according to Jason Scarborough, a senior waste compliance officer at the NSW EPA from 2009 until 2018. Despite the collection of “objective, science-based, and risk-focused” evidence, remedial action wasn’t taken. Motivated to speak out by his “concern for the community,” Scarborough was categorical that:

  • “‘Both the regulator and industry were fully aware of these issues’ in waste recovery for more than 10 years.
  • The EPA abandoned much-needed reforms in 2022 for one type of recycled soil product without explanation other than saying, ‘We’ve heard what industry had to say.’
  • The regulator must now focus on ‘protecting the community’s health’ over ‘saving a dollar.’”5

The twists and turns in Sydney’s asbestos debacle, the daily revelations about additional discoveries and reports about dramatic consequences – such as the cancelation of an event scheduled for February 18, 2024 at the Sydney Mardi Gras – have made this story high profile not only in Australia, but also in China, Vietnam, the US, UK, Italy, France and elsewhere. The possibility that a Sydney concert by American pop star and global icon Taylor Swift could be affected by the asbestos contamination propelled this story into the stratosphere.6

Trying to regain control of the narrative, NSW’s Minister for the Environment Penny Sharpe announced the formation of a NSW Asbestos Taskforce to quantify the problem, identify the source and trace suppliers and purchasers of the toxic material:

“The NSW Government is committed to ensuring the community is safe from any potential harmful impacts of contact with asbestos. This is the largest investigation the Environment Protection Authority has undertaken in recent decades. The complex, criminal investigation involves multiple lines of enquiry. Our number one priority is to finish contract tracing the supply chain – so that any potential receiver of the mulch is notified. That means we can take immediate action to make the area safe. The surge workforce means we can get to the bottom of the supply chain much faster. I am also taking advice on options to strengthen penalties for those who do the wrong thing.”7

As of now, representatives from multiple agencies and more than 100 EPA officials are involved in the investigation.

Calls for urgent action have been growing with Shadow Environment Minister Kellie Sloane backing the establishment of a publicly accessible central EPA register listing all the sites under investigation.8 “The public,” Sloan said “has a right to know whether playgrounds and public spaces in their area are being investigated for asbestos contamination. This register should inform the public in real time and give them the assurance to go about their daily lives. People deserve transparency while the regulators go about their important work of uncovering contaminated sites.”

As the authorities in Australia struggle to get to grips with the multi-faceted challenges in NSW, delegates to the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) will be meeting at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.9 According to the conference material, the Assembly “provides a unique platform for courageous decisions and new ideas to chart a bold plan of collective environmental action.” With five days of discussions, one can but hope that there will be time to devise a multilateral action plan to end the social and environmental injustices caused by the mining, processing and use of asbestos. The future is asbestos-free.

February 21, 2024


1 United Nations Environment Programme. Asbestos Factsheet. February 16, 2024.

2 Rose, T., McLeod, C. Mulch containing asbestos found at Rozelle parklands may have been used at other Sydney sites. January 10, 2024.
Ô nhiễm amiăng lan rộng tại Sydney [Asbestos contamination is widespread in Sydney]. February 19, 2024.
NSW Government. Asbestos in mulch – information and investigation updates. February 15, 2024.

3 There are high rates of disease amongst former workers from chrysotile (white) and crocidolite (blue) asbestos mines in Australia; residents in mining towns like Wittenoom, Western Australia and Baryulgil, New South Wales were also affected by toxic environmental exposures.

4 Cox, L., McLeod C., Rose, T. NSW watchdog failed to act on contamination risk despite ‘damning’ asbestos findings. January 28, 2024.

5 Cox, L. Ex-senior watchdog staffer says NSW asbestos crisis ‘destined to happen’ after decade of regulatory failure. February 18, 2024.

6 Antrobus, B. Taylor Swift’s Sydney concert venue to be tested for asbestos after mulch contamination scare. February 16, 2024.
Ô nhiễm amiăng lan rộng tại Sydney [Asbestos contamination is widespread in Sydney]. February 19, 2024.
NSW Government. Asbestos in mulch – information and investigation updates. February 15, 2024.
悉尼石棉事件:一所小学需关闭数周 至少22个地点据报受污染 [Sydney asbestos
incident: One primary school closed for weeks as at least 22 sites reported to be contaminated]. February 16, 2024.
A Sydney, in Australia, è stato trovato amianto nel pacciame usato in diversi parchi pubblici e in alcune scuole [In Sydney, Australia, asbestos was found in mulch used in several public parks and some schools].
Australie. Sydney emportée par une psychose après des contaminations à l’amiante [Australia. Sydney swept away by psychosis after asbestos contamination]. Feb 16 2024
Zhuang, Y. Asbestos Contamination Multiplies at Public Sites in Sydney. February 18, 2024.
Australian authorities say more Sydney schools tainted with asbestos. February 18, 2024.

7 NSW Government. Press Release - New Asbestos Taskforce to support investigation into mulch. February 15, 2024.
Rose, T., McLeod, C. Mulch containing asbestos found at Rozelle parklands may have been used at other Sydney sites. January 10, 2024.

8 Opposition calls for asbestos register for at-risk sites. February 14, 2024.

9 This meeting will take place between February 26 and March 1, 2024.
Program of the Sixth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly.



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