Australians have become complacent about asbestos

The Roman Empire used it for household goods, its name is derived from the Greek word for indestructible and evidence of it has even been found in ancient China. But despite the many volumes of scientific evidence proving its poisonous nature – and decades of campaigning by the Australian union movement – asbestos is now threatening to have a resurgence in Australia.

Union Aid Abroad APHEDA is working regionally to help stamp out the use and production of the product with its Asbestos. Not Here. Not Anywhere. campaign.

It has teamed up with the federal government’s Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, which aims to provide global leadership on the subject and persuade other nations to ban the substance.

CEO of the agency Peter Tighe said the decline in Australian manufacturing, particularly the car industry, meant Australia was more reliant on its trading partners for goods like spare parts.

China and many of our near neighbours are prolific users of asbestos and incorporate it into vehicle brake shoes and discs, which means the substance that was effectively banned nation wide is now on the rise again.

“Australia began to phase out its asbestos mining, product manufacturing and installations – on a state-by-state basis – in the 1980’s and 90’s,’’ Mr Tighe said.

“In 2003, a national ban was placed on imports of asbestos. We still have an enormous asbestos legacy in this country as it was very widely used in construction during the post WW II building boom.”

Mr Tighe said that if Australia wanted to banish asbestos within its borders, it must convince its manufacturing trading partners to do the same.

“We are finding that Australians have become complacent about asbestos,’’ he said.

“The surveys we have done show that people know asbestos is “bad”, but they can’t identify it and they don’t know what to do if they find it.

“The wider community tends to think of it as an old issue that has been dealt with and when it comes to public attention the government often tends to want to hose down the issues to avoid hysteria. Our agency pushes back against that because we prefer people to know the facts so they can take proper precautions.”

Mr Tighe said DIY home renovators were frequently at terrible risk because they would attempt partial demolitions, alterations and additions unaware they were touching and potentially even breathing in asbestos particles.

“You can’t see it – the fibres are one tenth the width of human hair,’’ he said.

“It stays in the atmosphere for three days before settling. You can breathe it in and the particles can lodge in your lungs.

“The first wave of people we saw with asbestos related disease in this country were the asbestos miners and their families, the second were the people who worked in manufacturing products from asbestos, the third wave we are seeing are the DIY home renovators.”

Mr Tighe said reality TV often left out footage of tedious but important preparatory work.

“Shows like The Block are very popular, but what you don’t see is that before the couples are bought in to start work The Block brings in asbestos professionals to identify and remove asbestos,’’ he said.

“It is incredibly important work that must be done before renovating. We want people to know – even if they are on a shoestring budget – they must do this before any renovations begin.”

Mr Tighe said the difficulty in stopping asbestos related deaths – which the agency estimates at about 2,000 each year – is that so many nations are still willing to use it.

“The pro-asbestos lobby is a lot like the old tobacco lobby,’’ he said.

“It pushes very hard to continue asbestos mining and the production of asbestos goods and it relies on the myth of ‘safe asbestos’. But there is simply no such thing as safe asbestos.”

Find out how to get involved in our asbestos campaign

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