The incident this month that saw Rio Tintos Holcim Quarry shutdown following an asbestos contamination discovery has once again opened the wounds of asbestos poisoning in Oz.

While construction and mining sites are the most vulnerable, even schools have been found with the harmful material as of late.

The most alarming fact is that Australia has the highest death rate from mesothelioma in the world, and the death toll continues to rise. A startling estimate that up to 18,000 more Australians will die from mesothelioma by 2020 highlights the need for the action plan to be implemented as soon as possible. Contractors and employers undertaking construction on old sites need to be more aware of the presence of asbestos and undertake the necessary tests prior to work beginning on the site

But why exactly is asbestos so dangerous to site safety that it would warrant the shutting down of the site? This can be answered by examining the consequences of asbestos exposure and where it is found.

Asbestos has been used in thousands of materials and products throughout Australia for decades and have historically been used in places that were likely to experience intense exposure to the elements, friction etc. which would degrade and deteriorate the product, so asbestos was used to give the product strength and longevity.  

Within a house or a building, asbestos is most commonly found in asbestos cement sheeting, also known as ‘fibro’. Asbestos cement sheeting can be found in a flat form in internal and external walls and ceilings. This is why renovators and domestic construction workers often come across this harmful substance when breaking down old buildings or renovating them. A corrugated form of asbestos cement sheeting, also known as ‘super six’ or ‘super eight’, is commonly found on roofs, as fences and sometimes as external wall cladding. Asbestos can also be found in vinyl sheeting and tiles, external gutters, pipes and vents, backing to electrical switchboards in a black product known as zelemite, insulations to heater banks, air conditioning ducting and pipes,  gaskets to pipes and pipe joins, certain paints, brake pads and clutch pads to vehicles, mastics and glues behind wall tiles and vinyl, waterproofing in windows, roof tiles and woven textile seals to old ovens, grillers and kitchen appliances. Asbestos fibres can also be found in hessian carpet underlay recycled from the hessian bags that used to transport asbestos fibres from the mines.

Some of the diseases caused by asbestos poisoning are: lung cancer, mesothelioma, pleural disease, asbestosis to name a few. 

Smokers who are exposed to asbestos have a particularly large risk of getting lung cancer caused by inhaling the asbestos fibres. 

Mesothelioma is another type of cancer that could occur as a result of asbestos exposure. It is cancer of the pleura and may only occur 20 to 40 years after the exposure occurs. This disease grows and spreads quickly before the symptoms appear which makes early diagnosis and treatments harder.  The average survival time after diagnosis is only 6-18 months. A very small exposure to asbestos can be enough to trigger the cancer, however only a small percentage of people exposed to asbestos develop mesothelioma.

Pleural disease is another dreaded disease associated with asbestos. This is when the outer lining of the lung, called the plura becomes irritated and inflamed. This outer lining then stiffens and thickens and can become filled with liquid, which can hamper normal breathing and restrict oxygen intake.

Asbestosis is when lungs become scarred causing airways to become inflamed and scarred, restricting the flow of oxygen to the lungs and into the blood. The lungs become stiff and inelastic, making breathing more difficult. Symptoms include tightness in the chest, dry cough, and in the later stages, a bluish tinge to the skin caused by lack of oxygen. Asbestosis is usually seen in former asbestos miners, asbestos manufacturing workers and insulation workers. The scariest part about this disease is that it can take up to 10 years for symptoms to show up, which makes diagnosing harder.

The good news is that the unions of Australia are leading the fight against asbestos and have successfully secured compensation pay-outs for thousands of workers and their families. The unions have recently called for a National Asbestos Authority who can oversee asbestos related issues in the nation.

Posted by Steven Asnicar


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