Australias Asbestos Awareness Month
Asbestos is a hot button subject in Australia. There are front-page newspaper articles, mini-series and folk songs about it and around the country there exist a multiplicity of agencies and dozens of self-help and campaigning groups dedicated to supporting victims and spreading awareness. These initiatives emerged in response to the deadly plague sweeping the country. When it comes to asbestos cancer, Australia is up there with the worlds leaders. The elevated national incidence of asbestos-related disease is a direct result of the countrys long-term love affair with the deadly dust. Between 1945 and 1975, Australia was the highest per capita user of asbestos in the world. It is little wonder then that Australia has the worlds second highest (after the UK) incidence of the signature asbestos cancer, mesothelioma. Since the early 1980s, more than 4,700 Australians have died from mesothelioma; over the coming four decades, epidemiologists predict that a further 25,000 will succumb to this aggressive cancer.1
For a number of years, November has been regarded as the de facto month for outreach and media work to raise asbestos awareness amongst the public, workers, consumers, home owners and other at-risk groups. I was invited last month to participate in a number of asbestos activities in Victoria and Western Australia and to engage with colleagues and journalists in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).2 I was privileged to not only meet with grassroots activists but also take part in discussions with prominent experts and campaigners.
On November 17 and 18, 2014, the inaugural International Conference on Asbestos Awareness and Management took place in Melbourne under the auspices of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA).3 Global and national experts representing a diverse range of groups including victims organizations, campaigning bodies, trade unions, employers associations and commercial enterprises participated in plenary and workshop sessions dedicated to quantifying the challenges being faced and devising practical solutions. Explaining the wider remit of the conference, ASEAs CEO Peter Tighe urged delegates to consider how Australia could drive change in our region and globally when it comes to the continued mining, manufacturing and distribution of asbestos containing materials.
The conference sessions were kept on track and on point by moderator Matt Peacock, a journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Matt has covered asbestos stories for nearly thirty years and wrote the best-seller James Hardie, Killer Company which was made into an award-winning mini-series.
As one of three international keynote speakers, I was given a slot of one hour and fifteen minutes to address the plenary session on Monday afternoon. For the first time that I can recall, I did not run out of time!
During the presentation Campaigning for Justice: On the Asbestos Frontline 2014, I considered the discrepancy which exists between the perception of the asbestos risk in developed and developing countries and highlighted the conditions in which asbestos and asbestos-containing products are being used in countries which are Australias neighbors. Having discussed the criminal behaviour of the asbestos industry, consideration was given to the impact Australia might have on the regional asbestos dialogue with suggestions being made for specific activities that could prove fruitful. Having been shown a new documentary about asbestos issues in South-east Asia and seen examples of recent positive developments, delegates were urged to work with grass-roots activists towards the shared goals of a global ban on asbestos and justice for all asbestos victims.
The other international keynote speakers to address the plenary sessions were Professor Ken Takahashi (Japan) and Dr. Richard Lemen (US); their topics, respectively, were: Epidemiology and Trends in Asbestos-related Diseases and Asbestos and Public Health: A US Perspective.
Professor Ken Takahashi.
Dr. Richard Lemen.
Whilst in Melbourne, I had the opportunity of interacting with Betty, the ADRI [Asbestos] House.4 This purpose built, mobile home [was] designed to demonstrate where asbestos might be found in and around any Australian home built or renovated before 1987. Award-winning Betty has made numerous trips throughout her home state of New South Wales but had ventured further afield for the Melbourne conference. Her presence in Melbourne was warmly received by many of her fans and Matt Peacock and I were delighted to be introduced to Betty by her curators Geoff and Karen Wicks.
Geoff Wicks, Laurie Kazan-Allen, Matt Peacock, and Karen Wicks.
As a result of the two days of discussion at the ASEA event, a Communiqué was issued by delegates that contextualized the debate and delineated the universal nature of the challenge: Asbestos is a global problem which needs a global solution.5 Having cited examples of best practice i.e. the Canberra Governments decision to buy back asbestos-contaminated homes prior to asbestos removal and demolition and the case study presented by Ergon Energy for a prioritized asbestos removal program delegates endorsed the work of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency and supported the adoption of an Australian-wide Strategic Plan for Asbestos Management and Awareness.
Upon departing from Victoria, I went to Western Australia where I spent time at the office of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA),6 a group which has provided care and service to Australias asbestos victims for over thirty-five years. The nature of the personal attention given and the range of services on offer to ADSA members are outstanding; the volume of work dealt with at the Osborne Park office would overwhelm mere mortals but not the ADSA staff. As well as carrying out its normal functions, during November 24-28 the Society held a public outreach initiative at the Royal Perth Hospital to provide West Australians with information about the asbestos risk and answer questions about how to minimize the hazards of asbestos, a substance which is ubiquitous throughout the States infrastructure and environment.
ADSAs Simone Vojakovic, Respiratory Nurse Amy Bersace from the Royal Perth Hospital (RPH), and ADSAs Hailey Woodcock at RPH stall in 2013. Photograph courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc.
The Commonwealth of Australia is comprised of six states and various territories; all of the states and two of the mainland territories have their own parliaments. These political arrangements affect various aspects of life including states asbestos protocols. On November 26, 2014, the Environmental Health Directorate of the Department of Health, Western Australia held an asbestos seminar for stakeholders in environmental and public health. As many of those in attendance represented local councils, the agenda featured presentations on: the management of asbestos in non-occupational settings and disaster situations, the assessment and management of asbestos soil contamination, the classification of contaminated sites, health surveillance and research programs for asbestos-related diseases and the impact of asbestos exposures on the population in Western Australia.7 Although some of the more technical aspects of the discussions escaped me, I was very interested in the presentations by Dr. Fraser Brims, Peter Franklin and Robert Vojakovic which concentrated on medical and social issues. I was delighted to take part in the afternoons discussion session which allowed for a lively and robust exchange of views to take place.
On the morning of November 28, the annual ecumenical service of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) was held at the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth. The church was packed as hundreds of ADSA members and their families gathered to remember those whose lives had been lost to asbestos diseases. Welcoming the congregation, ADSA President Robert Vojakovic reported the sad news that since the 2013 ecumenical service, 390 Society members had passed away from asbestos-related diseases; since the first ADSA service was held in 1996, there had been a total of 3,678 asbestos deaths. President Vojakovic was categorical about the price ordinary people have paid and continue to pay for Australias use of asbestos:
no additional or further risk to the community is acceptable. The general community not government advisors, will have to decide on the level of acceptable asbestos risk with which they are prepared to live. Since it is impossible to scientifically prove or disprove that a very low level of exposure to asbestos will cause malignant cancers, the only option available is zero exposure or as low as practicable.
The current epidemic of asbestos diseases cannot be ignored any more. Therefore our organization will need more support from the public, politicians and whoever can lend a hand to convince the federal government to take urgent action to protect Australian families. Now some families are even losing up to three generations including children and grandchildren to mesothelioma. This is a sad reflection on the Australian government which is allowing generations of families to be wiped out by asbestos diseases without lifting a finger to prevent it.
ADSA President Robert Vojakovic. Photograph courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc.
The healing quality of the service was amplified by the beautiful surroundings of the monastery and the lovely music provided by the Perth Christian Choir. As always, ADSA staff had made every effort to create an atmosphere that was uplifting and inclusive. From the beautiful boughs of rosemary decorating the pews, to the small sprigs fashioned into boutonnières and given to every attendee to pin on his/her lapel, everyone was enfolded within the ADSA fellowship. The prayers and readings were well-spoken and well-chosen to reflect on the theme of this years service: there but for the grace of God go I. The address by Stan Clifton, whose close friend Rod Triplett had died of mesothelioma earlier this year, was a moving memorial to a much-loved man from Western Australia and a salient reminder of the cost paid by so many families and communities for the profits of James Hardie, Wunderlich and other asbestos conglomerates.
As members of the congregation responded to the invitation to light candles, it seemed as if the church was a mass of movement. Nearly everyone stood up to wait patiently in a queue which snaked down the central aisle. To the background of the ADSAs theme song Friends for Life, [Amigos para Siempre], they waited their turn to take the tapers from Robert or Rose Marie Vojakavoic. The sadness of their faces was softened by the candlelight which flickered at the front of the church. As the ceremonial aspect of the day drew to a close, people filed out into the Perth sunshine to enjoy the refreshments provided and socialize with others with whom they shared a common bond.
ADSA Officers and Staff after the Ecumenical Service 2014.
These are just a few examples of events which took place in Australia last month, there are many others; all required careful planning and logistical support. Some of them took months, even years while others were brought to fruition in a few weeks. In a day and political age when such work is often overlooked, it behoves us to congratulate every victim, volunteer, official and member of staff who went the extra mile so that the invisible epidemic of asbestos-related disease could be visualized for all to see. No shame is attached to the sufferers they have nothing to hide. Whether it is in doctors surgeries, conference halls, churches, lawyers offices or operating theatres, their needs are paramount. The shame attached to asbestos is reserved for those who allowed a deadly industry to profit at the expense of ordinary people. Their guilt should not go unpunished and the legacy of the asbestos genocide should remain indelibly etched on the collective memory of humankind.
December 12, 2014
1 National [Australia] Health and Medical Research Council. Asbestos-related diseases.
2 International conference says NSW must follow ACT Government's Mr Fluffy asbestos demolition. November 19, 2014.
4 Betty the ADRI [Asbestos Diseases Research Institute] House.
5 Communiqué from Australias 1st International Conference on Asbestos Awareness and Management. http://www.asbestossafety.gov.au/files/Communique_from_Asbestos_Awareness_and_Management_Conference_201114_0.pdf
7 Asbestos Awareness Week Seminar.
The presentations can be viewed at: http://www.public.health.wa.gov.au/3/1009/1/environmental_health_seminars_and_workshops.pm
For information about WA statutory requirements for managing asbestos see: