Two Decades After Australia Banned Asbestos
This year, Australias Asbestos Awareness Week is November 20-26. Throughout the country, asbestos victims groups, trade unions, charities and government agencies will be organizing in-person conferences, information sessions, outreach events, religious services and home-grown community events such as sausage sizzles; 1 virtual technology will also be used for webinars and the dissemination of online resources to ensure that the national emergency caused by the mining of blue, brown and white asbestos and the use of two million tonnes of asbestos remains a high priority.2
According to government statistics, Australia has one of the worlds highest incidence rates of mesothelioma with up to 800 lives lost to the signature asbestos cancer every year. A further 3,500+ Australians die annually from other asbestos-related diseases including asbestosis, lung, larynx and ovarian cancer. The presence of asbestos in 1 out of 3 Australian homes is a serious cause of concern as is the fact that many of the people now presenting with asbestos-related diseases experienced non-occupational exposures such as those which take place during home renovations.3
Despite the fact that asbestos use was prohibited in Australia in 2003, the hazard it poses remains a grave risk to human life. In its October 2023 newsletter, the Perth-based Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) reported that three teenagers had been recently diagnosed with mesothelioma Informing Mark McGowan the Premier of Western Australia (WA) of this sad development, the ADSA urged him to allocate $5 million for a Research Chair at the National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases which is based at the University of Western Australia. Discussions are ongoing.
Reflecting on the significance of the 20th anniversary of the national ban, Melita Markey, CEO of the ADSA, was downbeat:
Asbestos still exists in millions of buildings and structures across Australia. It is estimated that around 6.2 million tonnes of asbestos materials remain in our built environment. This means that the risk of being exposed to deadly asbestos fibres is not over. In fact, their potential to harm us has only increased over the last 20 years as they age and degrade.People havent stopped dying, and they wont, as long as asbestos remains in our community. Currently, there is no priority in any Australian public health or industrial diseases strategy to develop lifesaving treatments for asbestos and dust diseases sufferers. Thats why the ADSA and Unions WA are calling for the WA Government to fund workers diseases as an immediate public health priority. We must learn from the failures of the asbestos ban, particularly as we fight to ban another deadly substance engineered stone.4
ADSA President Robert Vojakovic and ADSA CEO Melita Markey at November 2019 conference of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency in Perth.
On November 20, 2023, a 13 minute video entitled Australia's Secret Chernobyl was uploaded to Youtube; the footage documented the stark reality of the damage done not only to the people who lived and worked at WAs Wittenoom asbestos mine but also to the traditional owners of the land, the Banjima people.5 With 3 million tonnes of asbestos-contaminated mining waste dumped in local gorges and high airborne levels of asbestos fibers, the 46,000 hectares which make up the Wittenoom Asbestos Management Area is the largest contaminated stretch of land in the southern hemisphere. While some progress has been made in addressing the complex asbestos challenges facing Australians, it is clear that much remains to be done.
November 22, 2023
1 Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia. 28th Annual Ecumenical Memorial Service.
Wikipedia. Sausage Sizzle. Accessed November 20, 2023.
2 Kazan-Allen, L. The Global Mesothelioma Landscape 2015. April 24, 2015.
Asbestos and Dust Diseases Research Institute (ADDRI). ADDRI Annual Report 2022-23. Accessed November 20, 2023.
Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. About Asbestos. Accessed November 20, 2023.
3 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Mesothelioma in Australia 2021. April 4, 2023.
It is estimated that one in every three new mesothelioma cases was the result of non-occupational exposure.
Failures of the asbestos ban 20 years on November 20, 2023.
4 Email from Melita Markey. November 21, 2023.