New Zealand's Failing Asbestos Policy! 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Deidre van Gerven, an asbestos widow from New Zealand, has made it her quest to expose the government's reckless disregard of the asbestos hazard. Looking at the available documentation it is hard to disagree with her assessment that when it comes to the national asbestos legacy, civil servants, politicans and Ministry officials are “putting their heads in the sand.”1 Although New Zealand no longer produces asbestos and has banned the import of asbestos fiber,2 the import of asbestos-containing products such as friction materials and building products remains legal; no import data is available documenting the levels of these imports. Considering the widespread ignorance about the asbestos hazard, the lack of effective import controls and continuing government disinterest, there seems little reason to hope that the problems posed by decades of asbestos consumption in New Zealand will be addressed any time soon.

Asbestos usage in New Zealand rose throughout the 20th century peaking in the 1970s with an annual consumption of 12,484 metric tons.3 As in other countries, asbestos had a wide variety of uses; in 1998, a government document noted that:

“Asbestos is found in brake and clutch linings and in certain building products formerly used in New Zealand. These products include asbestos cement cladding, textured ceiling coatings, thermal insulation around pipes and boilers, and fire-protection linings on structural steel (limpet asbestos).”4

The consequences of asbestos exposures in New Zealand are predictable. In 2000, a paper published in the New Zealand Medical Journal was headlined: Increased mesothelioma incidence in New Zealand: the asbestos-cancer epidemic has started.5 The two co-authors concluded that:

“Mesothelioma incidence rates have increased progressively in New Zealand since the 1960s, and reached 25 per million for men in 1995… The incidence is expected to double by 2010.

New Zealand has entered an unrivalled period of occupational cancer deaths resulting from past workplace exposure to airborne asbestos fibres. The steep rise in mesothelioma incidence is likely to be accompanied by increases in other asbestos related diseases such as lung cancer.”

Other research has confirmed the dire predictions. Between 1954 and 2005, 797 cases of mesothelioma were registered, the vast majority of which (86%) were males older than 45 (85%). 6 The worst figures were recorded for 2005, the latest year for which data was available when that analysis was undertaken; for the first time, the annual mesothelioma incidence exceeded 100. A broader review of the occurrence of asbestos-related conditions in New Zealand covering the period March 1992 to July 2008, registered the following number of cases: 212 mesotheliomas, 107 lung cancers, 253 asbestosis and 553 pleural abnormalities. Commenting on these statistics, the report noted:

“The number of lung cancer cases reported is roughly half of mesothelioma cases. This suggests that the taking of a lung cancer history is still dominated by the smoking factor, and that the occurrence occupational factors are downplayed… lung cancer (is) clearly under-represented when compared with mesothelioma.”

“The transfer of asbestos from workers to the home is another emerging feature of asbestos-related disease in New Zealand. Family members are presenting with pleural changes or, rarely and tragically, mesothelioma.”

A cursory trawl of New Zealand Government websites suggests that many of the official online asbestos notices, reports and advice contain incorrect information, discredited recommendations and outdated data:

  • A Guide to Working with Asbestos-Cement Products, 1998;7
  • A Guide to the HSE Asbestos Regulations, 1998;8
  • A Guide to Vinyl Asbestos Floor Coverings, 1998;9
  • Asbestos Advisory Committee - Report to the Minister of Labour, 1991.10

It is strange beyond belief that a report prepared in 2007 for the Department of Labour (DoL) entitled: The Management of Asbestos in New Zealand Workplaces is not on the DoL or other government websites. Could it be that the report contained comments and recommendations which proved unpalatable to the authorities such as:

  • “Trying to manage asbestos policy by examination of cases of disease is like driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror” – anonymous.
  • “We are 10 years behind the times. We need to get together and work out a better policy or better way of doing things” – demolition and asbestos contractor.
  • “My personal feeling is that the horse has bolted on this one. If we were going to look at asbestos, it should have been done years ago” – public sector accredited employee.11

Since the report was released under the Official Information Act, nothing has changed. An informed source has confirmed that, as far as he is aware, no action has been taken to implement any of the recommendations made in the report. When asked why the government has not banned the import of asbestos-containing products, he replied: “It doesn't see the need.” Not only are unlabeled asbestos-containing products being imported but the “whole system around authorisation to work with asbestos (is)… a joke and much substandard work is being done.”

Given the size of the current problem and the growth of asbestos mortality predicted for the years to come, it is hard to understand the government's attitude. While some might categorize it as complacent, Deidre calls it “criminal”:

“I lost my husband Thom to mesothelioma on June 1, 1997. With hindsight, I now believe there were earlier warning signs of his disease. If I had known then what I now know, I'm sure Thom could have been diagnosed earlier. It is too late to help him now, but from what I've read since his death, there will be many people as yet undiagnosed who may be able to be helped. The Government is failing them.

My brother has now been diagnosed with asbestosis. I believe my father died from asbestosis and my sister's ovarian cancer was probably from the asbestos that was in talcum powder that we used in those days. The Government is failing them.

The fact that the import of asbestos-containing products is still legal in New Zealand and that there are no efforts to even track how many contaminated brakes, roofing tiles and gaskets are coming into the country is gross negligence. I have written to various Ministries – the majority of them pass the buck. It is unacceptable that so little is being done to avoid the avoidable – no one need die from asbestos-related diseases in the future. The fact that so many more will die in New Zealand is horrific.”

A letter from the Ministry of Environment confirmed the fragmentation of government responsibility for asbestos saying that the:

  • Environmental Risk Management Authority oversees the operation of the legislation under which the import of raw asbestos is banned;12
  • Customs Services provides information related to the regulation of imports;13
  • Ministry of Health generates information about the health effects of asbestos;
  • Public Health Unit of the Ministry of Health is responsible for information about asbestos in public places;
  • Department of Labour has the remit to protect working from the asbestos hazard.

Confused? Who wouldn't be.


Since the text for this article was finalized, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale struck the New Zealand town of Christchurch. 14 Speaking within hours of the disaster, the country's Prime Minister John Key said that “We may be witnessing New Zealand's darkest day…” In the midst of strong aftershocks, emergency rescue efforts are being made to locate survivors.

Unfortunately, the ubiquity of asbestos in the country's infrastructure adds another layer of danger to the already perilous conditions. As has been seen in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi, the presence of asbestos-contaminated rubble in Queensland necessitated the use of specialist personnel and equipment to minimize the hazards to clean-up crews. Recalling the infamous cyclone which wiped out the Northern Territory town of Darwin in 1974, Dr. Gregory Deleuil, medical advisor to the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia, said that, as a resident of Darwin, he had first-hand experience of the destruction. Tracy reduced his home town to “a city-sized asbestos-contaminated demolition site." As a medical practitioner, with a specialism in asbestos-related diseases, Dr. Deleuil has diagnosed two of the emergency responders involved in the Tracy clean-up with asbestosis.15

Perhaps, the tragedy which has now occurred in New Zealand will be the incentive needed for the government to take effective action on asbestos; the first step would be a comprehensive ban on the import of all asbestos-containing products. Once this has been done, a national asbestos strategy could be implemented.

February 22, 2011


1 The website run by Deidre is:


3 According to the United States Geographical Survey (USGS), annual consumption (in metric tons) in New Zealand was: 2 (1920), 795 (1940), 3,888 (1950), 4,873 (1960), 8,662 (1970), 12,484 (1975), 4,952 (1980), and 1,304 (1985). The USGS says that “by 1990, New Zealand had stopped using asbestos.”

4 A Guide to the HSE Asbestos Regulations 1998

5 Kjellstrom T, \hich\af0\dbch\af11\loch\f0 Smartt P. Increased mesothelioma incidence in New Zealand: the asbestos-cancer epidemic has started. N Z Med J. 2000 Nov 24;113(1122):485-90.

6 Asbestos and Other Occupational Lung Diseases in New Zealand - 1992 – 2008





11 Impac. Report for Department of Labour, New Zealand. Management of Asbestos in New Zealand Workplaces. 2007.

12 The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

13 As if this division of labor is not enough to prevent effective action being taken to protect the population from asbestos exposures, other information says that as of 2009 it was the Minister for Enterprise and Commerce whose consent was required for asbestos products to be imported.

14 New Zealand PM says Christchurch quake death toll may rise. February 22, 2011.

15 Marriner C. Asbestos peril after Yasi Toxic zones in clean-up. February 20, 2011.



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