Let’s make Australia asbestos-free

By Paul Bastian, National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union

Despite decades of litigation and lobbying, Australia is still riddled with asbestos and it’s time our federal government stepped up to provide leadership on this public health issue.

Asbestos still lurks in the bathrooms, kitchens, roofs and garages of two out of every three Australian homes built between 1945 and 1980.

Our obsession with home-renovation is uncovering much of this asbestos, and the danger is compounded by poor community awareness and different laws relating to safe asbestos handling and disposal in each state and territory.

The other problem is that up until the late 1970s nothing was written on asbestos to identify it, so you can't necessarily tell if a material contains asbestos just by looking at it.

The World Health Organisation states that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, and the inhalation of asbestos fibres is known to cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other respiratory diseases.

Australia has the unenviable record of having the highest incidence of asbestos related diseases in the world, and it’s estimated that up to 18,000 Australians are likely to die from mesothelioma by 2020.

That’s why the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the ACTU, the Cancer Council Australia, and asbestos support groups are now calling for the removal of all asbestos from public and private buildings by 2030.

That may sound like a costly exercise, but the long-term cost of inaction is far greater.

63 year-old Queenslander Ray Colbert is someone who knows just how costly exposure to asbestos can be.

Ray worked with asbestos for nine years while he was in the Royal Australian Navy.

He now suffers from asbestosis, is wheelchair bound, and can only breathe with the help of a respirator.

Ray is part of the second wave of asbestos victims who were exposed to the product through work, and he says there needs to be an education campaign to ensure there is not a third wave of victims exposed to asbestos in the home.

“We have to have a proper safety audit to identify it and once we've done that we can then set about planning its removal. Till then you're just going to create another hazard and contaminate more people.”

The AMWU along with the ACTU is are calling on the Federal Government to establish a National Asbestos Authority to act as an information hub and coordinate this asbestos removal and education.

We need to help the public identify what products were made containing asbestos and ensure there is a role for local government in asbestos removal.

A first step in this process would be to introduce asbestos safety certificates on the sale of any property or commercial dwelling. This would enable vendors to identify if there is asbestos, where it’s located, what condition it’s in, and how it can be removed.

The public health challenges posed by asbestos time-bomb are great and we need supportive public policy to prevent further suffering and disease.