Asbestos is Everywhere!
From 1920, 195+ million tonnes of asbestos have been consumed. It should therefore come as no surprise to find asbestos-containing products in unexpected nooks and crannies but even I, who have been studying the asbestos hazard for more than twenty-five years, had never really thought about asbestos contamination in the Antarctic. For some reason I had taken on board the idea that asbestos had been used on six continents but had regarded the seventh Antarctica as exempt. After all, when you think of the ice shelves, polar waters and island territories what comes to mind are penguins, snow and clean air. Unfortunately, I have recently been disabused of this idyllic image: asbestos has indeed reached even the remotest parts of the globe.
The Australian Antarctic Division is situated in Hobart, Tasmania, 3,443 km from Casey station, Australia's closest Antarctic base. Fortunately for the people working at the Australian stations of Casey, Mawson and Davis in the East Antarctic Territory and for the people in Tasmania the location of the site where asbestos waste from the Antarctic is sent Senator Lisa Singh is monitoring the situation. Earlier this year Ms. Singh, a Labor Party Senator for Tasmania, made efforts to ascertain the current status of the asbestos contamination at Australia's Antarctic bases when she interrogated Dr Rob Wooding, General Manager of the Support Center of the Australian Antarctic Division at a meeting of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. The transcript of this exchange is informative:
Senator SINGH: The last area I wanted to turn to was the issue of asbestos. I understand that there is asbestos at Mawson, Casey and Davis stations. There has been some removal going on for parts of that for some time. Is there an asbestos management plan in place for these stations and/or a removal plan?
Dr Wooding: When we do remove asbestos, whenever we do any work on buildings down there or any changes to work, we do develop specific asbestos plans for that work. We are very conscious of asbestos and the need to be cautious in dealing with it. We do not have an overall, long-term plan to remove all of the asbestos other than that we want to remove a lot of old material from Antarctica and asbestos would be included. But that is part of a larger plan to remove a lot of old waste building and other material that is no longer needed. Obviously, we are not planning to use asbestos in future. So it is a long-term process.
Senator SINGH: You would not be able to.
CHAIR: Dr Wooding, it is a bit more than just being cautious; it is about actually implementing appropriate measures.
Dr Wooding: That is right, and we have
CHAIR: Is that what you meant?
Dr Wooding: That is exactly what I meant. We basically develop plans for every job we do down there and we are very conscious of all of the appropriate ways to deal with asbestos.
Senator SINGH: When asbestos is removed, I presume it is removed by a qualified asbestos removalist who is either on staff or brought down to the station. Is that correct?
Dr Wooding: I would have to take that on notice, Senator. I believe so, but I will give you some confirmation on how that is done.
Senator SINGH: When it is removed, where is it taken? Is it taken to McRobies in South Hobart or is it taken to somewhere else?
Dr Wooding: It depends on what the classification of the waste is as to where it would be taken. But we are restricted in where we can take asbestos waste, so it would be taken to an appropriate disposal point. McRobies is only authorised to receive some categories of waste, so again I would have to take that on notice as to where we would take it as a general rule. But if we can take it there
Senator SINGH: But it is your understanding that the proper processes are followed in regard to the removal and disposal?
Dr Wooding: Absolutely. We certainly do. I am certain of that.
Senator SINGH: Thank you very much, Dr Wooding. 1
In a subsequent response provided by Dr Gooding, he explained that:
The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) complies with Work (Occupational) Health and Safety Laws. The AAD ensures that the necessary qualified personnel are available to undertake any works involving Asbestos Containing Material (ACM). Disposal is by deep burial at the Landfill Disposal Facility at Glenorchy, Tasmania. The AAD utilises the services of a licensed organisation to dispose of the asbestos once returned to Australia. The disposal of any asbestos waste returned from Antarctica is in accordance with the local authority and Tasmanian legislative requirements.2
While details about the specific asbestos products used at the Australian bases are proving elusive, no doubt the highly prized properties of asbestos for insulation, fireproofing and soundproofing were reflected in the products selected. Having had my interest piqued by the Parliamentary exchanges I did a cursory internet search and found that just a few weeks after Ms. Singh's enquiry, the mesothelioma death was reported of a British surgeon who had worked in 1960 for a year with the Australian Antarctic National Research Expedition as a medical officer and photographer. Although it seems that the family regards Dr. Newton's encounter with an asbestos-lagged boiler in 1974 as the likely source of his hazardous exposure, they might also wish to consider his Antarctic exposure. 3
November 14, 2012
2 Budget Estimates 2012-2013 (May 2012). Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities portfolio. http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=ec_ctte/estimates/bud_1213/sewpac/index.htm
3 City surgeon who gave name to Antarctic peak falls victim to asbestos. June 14, 2012.