New Zealand: Asbestos Epidemic 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



A serious under-reporting of asbestos-related disease in New Zealand is revealed in the current issue of the Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association. The paper entitled Mortality, morbidity, and asbestosis in New Zealand: the hidden legacy of asbestos exposure was written by Dr. Pam Smartt, a senior research fellow at the Christchurch School of Medicine Department of Public Health and General Practice.1 Dr. Smartt found that the number of male deaths from asbestosis between 1988 and 1999 was 264 and not 44 as had previously been claimed:

“Death rates for New Zealand males dying with asbestosis increased between 1974-1999. Only 17% of deaths of males dying with asbestosis were directly attributed to this cause; the remainder were attributed to other non-malignant and malignant respiratory disease. Deaths from asbestos-related lung disease were grossly underestimated.”

When the death toll from mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer is added to that from asbestosis, up to 12,000 New Zealanders could suffer fatal repercussions from hazardous exposures to asbestos. Dr. Smartt wrote:

“The legacy of this exposure is an aging population of men with asbestos-related diseases, which includes some of the most debilitating malignant and non-malignant diseases of the lung.”

Even though 20% to 40% of New Zealand males were likely to have been exposed to asbestos, doctors assume tobacco is solely to blame when smokers contract lung cancer2. The Chairwoman of the Medical Association, Dr Tricia Briscoe, is calling on medics to acknowledge the prevalence of asbestos exposure in New Zealand. She said: “This level of exposure means it is important for doctors to be aware of the risks when doing medical check-ups and consultations.”3

While no occupational category has remained unaffected by this epidemic, those most at-risk are men in the building trades such as Ross Lehmann, a former fitter and welder, who died from an asbestos-related disease. His lawyer, Hazel Armstrong, condemns the Accident Compensation Corporation's (ACC) plan to appeal a District Court judgement which awarded Mr. Lehmann's widow a lump sum of $100,000 in August, 2004. The appeal is expected to heard by the High Court in 2005. Similar verdicts ordering the ACC to compensate the families of three other asbestos victims also hang in the balance. Ms. Armstrong, who is critical of the Government's lack of support for asbestos victims, was scathing about the inordinate time it takes the ACC to process claims. She pointed out that once these diseases manifest themselves, time is a luxury patients no longer have. The existence of the ACC blocked victims from suing negligent building companies:

“ACC provide a shelter behind which negligent employers can hide -- James Hardie being one. In Australia they don't have that shelter and the workers are suing and getting on average A$245,000 ($271,347) for the same condition.”

November 14, 2004


1 The New Zealand Medical Journal, 05 November, 2004, Vol 117 No 1205.

2 The vast majority of workers who experienced occupational asbestos exposure between the 1940s and 1980s were smokers.

3 In her paper, Dr. Smartt estimates that between 6% and 23% of male lung cancer deaths are attributable to occupational asbestos exposure. Notwithstanding the role asbestos played in lung cancer mortality, only 0.4% (90 out of 24,590) of death certificates for male lung cancer fatalities mention asbestos.



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