Home Renovation Asbestos Exposure

This week's Medical Journal of Australia includes a research report entitled "Asbestos exposure during home renovation in New South Wales". From a questionnaire sent to 10,000 randomly selected people on the New South Wales electoral roll there was a 37.5 per cent response rate. Of those respondents, more than 44 per cent had renovated their home, with around half being do-it-yourself renovators.

More than 60 per cent, or 527 people, reported being exposed to asbestos during their home renovations. Three hundred and thirty-seven people reported that their partner had been exposed to asbestos during renovations, and perhaps most tragically 196 people reported that their children had been exposed to asbestos during renovations. 

More than 20 per cent of renovators reported that they planned further home renovations in the next five years. Around one-third of all homes built in Australia contain asbestos products. As a general rule, if a house or unit was built before 1990, it is likely that it has asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos inhalation has been established beyond doubt as the cause of fatal malignant mesothelioma cancer. There is now no question and no debate about the fact there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.

The disease can take decades to develop after exposure. Even if all asbestos were removed from all buildings in New South Wales today, we would see cases develop over the next 40 years. Yet people renovating their homes clearly are still not aware of the need to protect themselves and their families from asbestos-related diseases, which are completely preventable.

The 60 per cent of renovators quoted in the medical journal's report were only the ones who could both recall and were aware that they were exposed. The real figure is probably much higher. The Federal Labor Government established the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. It also approved a national strategic plan to improve asbestos identification and management, and remove all asbestos-containing materials from government and commercial buildings by 2030. The plan includes examination of the feasibility of removal of asbestos from residential buildings as well.

The findings in the Medical Journal of Australia reinforce how critical it is for the new Federal Coalition Government to continue to promote the work of the agency, in particular the educational and awareness programs for owners and tenants of residential properties. For instance, the agency has been able to develop and promote simple advice to parents that could save a child's life by advising how to damp down and contain asbestos fibres that have been exposed during an accident or a home renovation, and not to use the vacuum cleaner. But of course people need to know that there is asbestos in their home in the first place.

The New South Wales Government should legislate to require sellers and lessors of residential properties to provide asbestos advice with every contract for sale and with every residential tenancy agreement. The Government also should develop a requirement for asbestos content reports for residential properties from a licensed assessor prior to the sale or lease of a property, or when the property is subject to substantial renovation requiring building approval.

Asbestos is a major public health issue. It is totally preventable. We know how to fix it. What we need is for the O'Farrell Government to show the political will to do something about it.

The Hon. Peter Primrose
19 September 2013