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Asbestos – the town that needs to leave its past behind

In the late 1800s, when the people of eastern Quebec realised the money that could be made from what was known locally as “cotton rock”, they decided to name their settlement after it. They never could have guessed what it might one day mean to come from a town called Asbestos.

All these years later, Canada is still mining, manufacturing and exporting asbestos.

At the American Public Health Association conference last week, a resolution (you can download it here) was passed calling for a global ban on asbestos mining, and manufacturing, and the export of asbestos containing products.

Canada received particular mention for continuing to export the stuff to developing countries while banning its local use, and also for blocking the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in a list of hazardous substances requiring prior informed consent when exporting them under the Rotterdam convention.

But Dr Yossi Berger, an occupational health and safety expert with the Australian Workers’ Union, believes it’s time to shift the debate beyond bans, and to start looking at removing asbestos from buildings and anywhere else it may be putting lives at risk. He writes:

“It’s a good thing that the American Public health Association is calling for a total ban on asbestos containing materials (ACMs).  But it’s now time to shift the paradigm.  There are millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ACMs currently in use around the world.  These, I believe, are ‘faulty’ products that should never have been manufactured.  The Australian Workers’ Union recently called for a once and for all total removal.

Hundreds of thousands more people will be killed by ACMs.  Currently hundreds of thousands of people are the walking wounded as a direct result of exposure to ACMs.  They painfully understand the preciousness of every single unobstructed breath of air.  Their lives and that of their families’ have become nurseries for terror.

Drago told me that, “Each night I don’t know what the morning will bring for me”, and he adds in a rasping voice between laboured breaths and coughing, “I feel guilty when I look into my wife’s eyes and see the pain”.

I believe that ACMs are unsafe in any condition.  This is so despite painting over them, despite cladding over with safer products, and despite various poorly implemented laws and regulations.

No one can tell me which single asbestos fibre entering someone’s lung right now is the one that will not kill them, but if you don’t breathe any fibres you will not suffer an asbestos-related disease.  Doesn’t it follow that whilst extremely dangerous such products can be made safe by reducing exposure to fibres?  Yes, in theory.

But the time I inspect such presumed ‘safe’ ACMs in industry I see a great deal of damaged material, constantly vibrated and shaken material releasing fibres, I see it in broken bits on the ground, split and stuck back on with tape, I see the empty spaces where warning signs should be, I ask in vain for records of the presence and supervision of such materials, I try to find informed people, informed workers about the risks of such materials; in my dreams!  These ‘safe’ materials are temporarily safe only if these things happen, and they typically don’t.  What do I tell the worker who asks me, ‘Can the little bit extra fibres I’ve breathed kill me?’

It’s for these reasons that the AWU makes the case that such materials are ‘unsafe at any speed’.  They present permanent mortal risks that too frequently eventuate.  The AWU has called for what amounts to a total product recall, a total removal program over a 20 year period.

We have called on the federal government to implement a national removal program.  Such a program must be developed as a Prioritised Removal Program (PRP).  Once ACMs are discovered the program commences.  We argue that all buildings – once assessed and the PRP is triggered – (starting with industry, public spaces and schools) must have an asbestos designation and an ACMs identifier that’s colour coded as  red (immediate removal), amber (3-6 months) or green (6-18 months), an  Asbestos Presence Ticket.   This must be prominently displayed.

We need to move past banning and into total removal.  But a ban is good start.”

Comments 3

  1. rmacfarl says:

    Calling for complete removal of all in-situ construction asbestos is over the top. Half if not more of the industrial zones of our major cities, not to mention large proportions of our residential areas, are constructed of asbestos cement sheeting. It is simply not feasible or sensible to call for immediate wholesale removal – it creates more risk than it mitigates.

    In situ, when inspected and maintained in satisfactory condition (not damaged or worn), asbestos cement sheet represents a low risk. Demolition risks releasing fibres during removal so must be carried out with great care, and at great expense.

    There need to be protocols requiring long-term monitoring and progressive removal of construction asbestos, but calling for knee-jerk immediate removal is a poor allocation of resources and does little to mitigate the long-term health burden to individuals and the community from asbestos-related diseases.

    As a hygienist specialising in asbestos once told me, you are at greater risk standing on a street corner, from exposure to asbestos from old car brake pads, than you are standing in a building clad in asbestos cement.

  2. Rosslyn Envall says:

    I wanna know about the houses that are partially demolished and then transported by road to other locations with no apparent checks as to whether asbestos is present, or has been disturbed in the removal process.

    How does this affect residents near the house’s original site, along the route along which the house is transported, or the new site, where the old house is put together again?

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