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Mesothelioma and Asbestos in Australia

Asbestos use in Australia parallels that of other similar countries, like the U.S., but it went further. Until regulations began to be put in place in the 1980s, Australia had one of the highest rates of use of asbestos per person in the world. The country mined asbestos and also used it in manufacturing of construction materials, automotive parts, ship components, and many other products.

The result of such heavy asbestos mining and use is that thousands of Australians became sick with mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses. The second highest death rate from mesothelioma in the world is in Australia, trailing only the United Kingdom with over 10,000 mesothelioma deaths from the 1980s to the present. Asbestos is now banned in Australia, but because of the long latency period of asbestos illnesses rates of sickness and deaths are expected to continue to rise.

Facts about Asbestos and Mesothelioma in Australia

Australia was a leading producer of asbestos, mining it at several locations, and both exporting the mineral and using it in the country’s own factories and industries. Regulations were slow to come to the country, perhaps because of the economic importance of the industry.

  • The most recent fatality statistics indicate that 641 Australians died from mesothelioma in 2014.
  • By the 2020s there are expected to be nearly 18,000 cases of mesothelioma in the country.
  • One in ten carpenters, now retired in Australia is expected to die from mesothelioma.
  • Although asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003, because it is still in existing materials and the latency period for mesothelioma is decades, rates of mesothelioma are expected to keep rising for many years.
  • Reports of asbestos-related lung damage were made as early as 1935 in Australia.In 1951 the country issued safe-dust limits for asbestos exposure, but several mines consistently when well over that limit.

Where Asbestos Was Used

Asbestos in Australia, like in other countries, was used in a number of industries and products. Some of the industries with the heaviest use were construction, automotive, textile, aerospace, railroad, and marine. Many products that went into buildings of all types, cars and trucks, factories, airplanes, trains, and ships were made with asbestos materials. The asbestos was desirable in so many products because of its light weight and flexibility, and its ability to insulate against heat, cold, fire, and electricity. Some examples of products in Australia that were made with asbestos include:

  • Cement.
  • Roofing materials.
  • Fire resistant wallboard.
  • Flooring and ceiling tiles.
  • Insulation.
  • Clutch and brake linings.
  • Gaskets
  • Automotive body fillers.
  • Fire blankets and fireproof garments.
  • Felt materials.
  • Aerospace metals and ceramics.
  • Pipe insulation on ships.

Asbestos Mining in Australia

Australia had several asbestos mines. One of these, well known now for how many asbestos-related illnesses it caused, was operated by the Colonial Sugar Refinery and was located in Wittenoom, a small town in the west. The mine operated from 1943 to 1966, when it shut down due to lowering prices of asbestos and limited profits.

While the mine operated, there were approximately 20,000 people in Wittenoom, including 7,000 mine workers and 13,000 non-working residents. At present, over 2,000 of those workers and residents have died from asbestos illnesses, and many more are sick. Asbestos continued to be mined in Australia until 1984.

People at Risk of Exposure

The top five companies in Australia responsible for the most exposure and resulting asbestos illnesses are James Hardie & Poy Pty. Ltd, which made asbestos building materials, Colonial Sugar Refinery Limited, Wunderlich Limited, which made decorative, pressed metal ceiling tiles, Asbestos Mines Pty. Ltd., and Midalco Pty. Ltd. Midalco was formerly known as the Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd. Anyone who worked for one of these companies could have been exposed to asbestos. Families of these workers may also have been exposed as the fibers of asbestos could have come home on their clothing.

Anyone who worked in certain industries was put at risk of exposure to asbestos. The workers who may have been at the greatest risk include carpenters and construction workers, miners, power plant workers, textile factory workers, shipbuilders or ship repair workers, naval workers, railway workers, auto mechanics, boiler workers, electricians, plumbers, telecommunication workers, and metal workers.

Even residents who never worked with or around asbestos have been and may still be at risk of asbestos exposure. Any home or other building constructed before 1990 is likely to have asbestos in it. If materials with asbestos deteriorate or get disturbed by repair work or renovation, the fibers can come loose and contaminate the air and surfaces. Some of the places where asbestos may be found in homes include roofing, gables, eaves, vinyl, carpet underlay, gutters, sheds, fencing, imitation brick cladding, window putty, expansion joists, formed concrete, and insulation.

Regulations and Lawsuits

Labor unions in Australia began advocating for asbestos laws and bans in 1970, and the first public reports of the harms of asbestos began to appear soon after that. The first real regulations did not get put in place until the 1990s when the government passed the National Environmental Protection Council Act. In 1998, New South Wales enacted the first laws in the country to protect victims of asbestos exposure. In 2003 the government banned all types of asbestos.

The country’s Work Health and Safety Regulations Act is currently in place to protect workers from existing asbestos. It established laws for how to handle asbestos naturally occurring in the environment, how to remove asbestos, how to train asbestos workers, and how workers must be licensed to handle and abate asbestos.

The first lawsuit filed against an employer for asbestos illness in Australia was in 1977, but the plaintiff died before the case could go to trial. In 1985 the first successful claim was made for asbestos-related compensation. In 2005, James Hardie signed an agreement with the government of New South Wales to provide funds of $4.5 billion for asbestos victims, an historic milestone in compensating victims. A law was passed in 2008 to provide compensation to workers with asbestosis.

Mesothelioma Treatment Centers in Australia

Because of the number of cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases in Australia, the country is home to several treatment centers that specialize in these illnesses. These centers also focus on research into mesothelioma and treatments. Some of the most important medical centers include the Bernie Banton Centre at Concord Hospital in Sydney, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Brisbane, and the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth.

Asbestos has long been a major public health issue in Australia, and that has not changed with the banning of the mineral. People exposed in the past will continue to get sick, and those who are living with asbestos in their homes and workplaces are still at risk of exposure. Laws are now in place to provide protection, but individuals still need to be aware of the risks and to take steps to avoid exposure. Getting screened if exposure happened is important so that any illness can be detected and treated early.

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