Asbestos Issues in Australia and Southeast Asia
Towards the end of last year, a hectic three week tour embracing Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, provided the Coordinator of IBAS, Laurie Kazan-Allen (LKA), with the opportunity to learn about local asbestos issues and meet campaigners, NGO personnel, government officials, medical experts, academics and scientists working on asbestos problems in these countries. I would like to thank Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc. (ADSA), for helping facilitate my attendance at the 6th Meeting of the International Mesothelioma Interest Group and for introducing me to members of the ADSA family. Other people whose assistance and hospitality were much appreciated include Dr. Jayabalan and Mageswari Sangaralingam of the Consumers’ Association of Penang, Steven Benedict, ADSA representative in Victoria, and his partner Annette Watson, the Board and members of Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc., Ella Sweeney and the Board of the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia Inc. and Dr. Lee Hock Siang in Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. Although, the information gathered during meetings, personal interviews and conference sessions will be the subject of this report, I will try and share some of the outstanding memories of this trip such as: making a formal presentation at the National Poison Center in Penang barefoot, joining 1000 ADSA members and friends for a Christmas Barbecue in Perth, learning first-hand about Yallourn, the Australian Brigadoon, and eating home-reared leg of lamb while discussing life in Wittenoom with Steven Benedict.
The following meetings took place during a brief but intense stay in Penang in November, 2002:
LKA, Dr. Jayabalan and Mageswari Sangaralingam from the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) held discussions with Zariman Zainuddin, the new head of the Northern Region Office of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)1, at the NIOSH office. As Mr. Zainuddin has only recently moved to this department, Dr. Jayabalan, CAP’s asbestos consultant, recapped past efforts to identify Malaysia’s asbestos problems. Dr. Jayabalan said that a pro-ban consensus was evident at a Department of Occupational Safety and Health meeting in February, 2002. Although asbestos is not yet part of the NIOSH agenda, it is a subject which is relevant because of the institute’s responsibilities for training on safety, health and the environment and for research on chemicals.
LKA spoke of international trends in the use of asbestos, contrasting the UK and Malaysian asbestos experiences. Many Western and European countries have banned asbestos; nevertheless, 2 million tonnes are still being mined annually. Asbestos producers are targeting markets in the Far East and Asia. Although no data had been found on the sale of asbestos to Malaysia, it is clear that asbestos is being imported for use at asbestos factories. The sale in Malaysia of second-hand asbestos products stripped from reconditioned ships in Singapore has been reported. Documents from the files of Turner & Newall, the biggest asbestos group in the UK, showed that trains in Malaysia had been fireproofed with Sprayed Limpet Asbestos. It is unknown if these trains are still in service.
Mr. Rahmat Awang, Director of the National Poison Center, coordinated a meeting at the beautiful campus of the University Sains Malaysia. Academics, members of the Socio-Economic & Environmental Research Institute2 and personnel from the local branch of the Malaysian Nature Society met with LKA, Dr. Jayabalan and Mageswari Sangaralingam for this session.
Dr. Jayabalan said that a Malaysian ban on asbestos has not been implemented, despite a pro-ban consensus, because of an unfortunate development last year. During a trip to Zimbabwe in 2002, the Malaysian Prime Minister signed an agreement stating that the country would purchase asbestos from Zimbabwe. A civil servant at this meeting confirmed that asbestos was still being used at a factory in Prai; he suggested that concerned citizens should visit this factory and publicize its continuing use of this hazardous material. The delegate from the Malaysian Nature Society was keen to work with CAP to press for a national asbestos ban.
Discussing the global campaign to ban asbestos, LKA told the meeting about the most recent international asbestos conference: the Hellenic Asbestos Meeting3. This well-attended event was the first public meeting on asbestos to be held in Greece; it attracted extensive media coverage. Many of the key problems identified by the Greek participants were familiar in Malaysia:
there is no registry of asbestos-related diseases at the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Labour; no independent epidemiological studies have been carried out, ensuring that the human repercussions of asbestos exposure remain invisible;
there has been little medical research done on asbestos nationally with few papers appearing in international journals;
there is no coordination amongst government agencies responsible for various asbestos-related issues, such as occupational health, consumer protection and the environment - "the system does not work;"
there is no government agency responsible for the health of retired workers exposed during their careers to asbestos; there is no medical follow-up of retired workers;
according to trade union representatives, workers identified asbestos problems decades ago but doctors refused to act. Doctors claimed that medical research on asbestos problems was delayed by lack of worker participation; the doctors speculated that fear of unemployment, prevented workers from submitting to medical examinations;
the Government needs a policy of "Just Transition," so that new jobs are created to replace those lost through the banning of asbestos;
trade unionists who work with asbestos are concerned about the loss of employment. There should be a provision for early retirement for all asbestos workers and retraining packages for the unemployed;
doctors must take into account occupational asbestos exposure when making diagnoses and should inform their patients of all findings;
employers must accept the responsibility for assessing occupational health risks and the Government must ensure that risks are monitored;
the Government must ensure that compensation for asbestos-related illnesses is paid and that protective measures and asbestos legislation are strictly implemented.
Dr. Parameswaran, from the Gleneagles Medical Center, coordinated a lunchtime talk by LKA which was attended by 30 medical postgraduates, doctors and specialists. Having been introduced by Dr. Jayabalan, LKA discussed the range of asbestos-related diseases and the horrific loss of life in the UK from these diseases. Although UK Government statistics report 22,295 asbestos-related deaths between 1926 and 1996, an independent researcher has calculated that the death toll over this period was 125,000, five times the official estimate. Furthermore, in a published paper, Robin Howie predicted that the cumulative number of asbestos-related deaths which will occur in the UK between 1929-2020 could reach 683,000-820,000. Huge numbers of asbestos deaths have been recorded in France, Italy, Germany, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere. According to Dr. Jayabalan, the lack of data in Malaysia makes it impossible to predict what will happen. Even amongst health professionals, there is little awareness of asbestos diseases. There is no national Cancer Registry; this makes it impossible to compile data on the occurrence of asbestos-related disease in Malaysia. For this reason, Dr. Jayabalan is working to set up a Mesothelioma Registry in Malaysia in 2003.
|Dr. Jayabalan opens the Gleneagles meeting.|
The asbestos events in Penang were organized by staff from the Consumers Association of Penang. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of meeting with CAP board members to learn about the range of their interests. In addition to being President of CAP, Mr. S. M. Mohamed Idris is President of the local branch of Friends of the Earth, Coordinator of The Third World Network and Chairman of the Institute Masyarakat Berhad. Working closely with the CAP board, these groups are playing a pivotal role in keeping environmental and health issues on the national agenda.
|Mohamed Idris (left) and CAP board members meeting LKA.|
Australia mined and imported large amounts of asbestos throughout much of the 20th century. Crocidolite and chrysotile were mined in Western Australia; chrysotile was also mined in New South Wales. By 1954, Australia was the world’s highest gross consumer of asbestos cement products on a per capita basis. Australians in many walks of life worked with or were exposed to asbestos-containing products. Thousands of workshops and homes in Australia were constructed with asbestos-fibro roofs, floors and walls. Public buildings, hospitals, schools, libraries, offices and factories contain asbestos in insulation materials, air-conditioning systems and ceilings. It is not surprising therefore that Australia has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world. Australia’s National Occupational Health and Safety Commission4 estimates that between 1987-2010 exposure to asbestos will have caused 16,000 mesothelioma and 40,000 lung cancer deaths. In the past, asbestos deaths resulted from exposures experienced during mining operations and the occupational use of asbestos products. Increasingly, asbestos-related diseases are being diagnosed in workers from sectors in which asbestos exposures had been claimed to have been "well-controlled," such as friction part manufacture and repair.
Six sovereign States and two self-governing Territories make up the Federation of Australia; legislative control over workplace health and safety, workers’ compensation and the administration of the Courts remain with individual States. According to Australian Solicitor Vincent Goldrick: "The result is that the six Australian States all have different Court systems and compensation schemes with which to deal with the tragedy of Australia’s asbestos history." Between November 29 and December 13, 2002 LKA sampled the "asbestos climate" in three Australian states by attending conferences, participating in public meetings and conducting personal interviews.
Planning for this trip began in December, 1999, when Robert Vojakovic, President of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc. (ADSA), reported that the 6th Meeting of the International Mesothelioma Interest Group would be held in Perth, Western Australia5. Having worked closely with the ADSA for over ten years, this presented an ideal opportunity for LKA to make a return visit to Perth.
Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia
The ADSA, one of the most remarkable advocacy groups in the world, emerged out of the appalling human tragedy which flowed from the mining of crocidolite (blue asbestos) in Western Australia6. As more and more asbestos workers and their relatives succumbed to disabling diseases and early deaths, the scale of the Wittenoom legacy was becoming clearer. A group of former asbestos miners started to meet regularly to discuss issues of compensation, medical treatment and the support needs of asbestos sufferers. Over the intervening twenty-four years, the society has grown from a handful of members, a borrowed typewriter and a few cardboard files to a highly-professional operation with more than 8,500 members, eight full-time staff, 430 square meters of office space and fourteen telephone lines. Over the years, the ADSA has amassed the knowledge and developed the expertise to assist asbestos victims and their families with compensation claims, medico/legal referrals, social security enquiries and other practical matters. A medical practitioner, who specializes in asbestos-caused diseases, carries out medical examinations at the ADSA premises.
The ADSA, a non-profit charitable organization,
provides counselling and support services to asbestos diseases sufferers and their families;
provides economic assistance to those experiencing financial difficulties or social disadvantage;
works to raise community awareness of the dangers associated with asbestos and the need for medical research into these diseases;
raises funds for medical research and support services;
lobbies for equitable compensation;
proposes amendments to legislation which facilitate more equitable compensation for asbestos victims in Western Australia.
The value of the ADSA is far greater than any list could suggest. In a time when cynicism and despondence are the norm, the ADSA is a phenomenon: a social and emotional network for those in need. If an asbestos sufferer comes to the office, someone will listen. Out-of-hours, there are emergency numbers to call. Robert Vojakovic, President of the Society since 1983, has never been constrained by rules and boundaries; he truly does not know the meaning of the word "no." This ethos pervades the work of the society; if someone needs help, they need it now, not next week or next month. Staff at the ADSA do everything possible, and sometimes impossible, to see that assistance is forthcoming.
|ADSA EO and principal counsellor Rose Marie Vojakovic (centre) with Medico/Legal |
Coordinator, daughter Simone (left) , and staff member Antonella Conti.
|ADSA office staff pause briefly for LKA photo-shoot.|
Working together, the ADSA Board, staff, medical consultants and members have transformed the public debate on asbestos in Western Australia (WA). A recent example of this can be seen in the furore generated by plans to erect a monument to Lang Hancock, "the Father of (WA’s) Blue Asbestos Industry." On October 23, 2002, Perth City Council unanimously approved plans for a municipal statue of the late mining magnate to be erected the following month. The monument had been commissioned by Gina Rinehart, Hancock’s daughter, who applied to the Council for permission to situate it near Kings Park. Clearly, Ms. Rinehart had not anticipated the avalanche of protests which would be unleashed when these plans were finally made public. Members of the ADSA, their friends and supporters made their sentiments about the 3 metre high sandstone and granite memorial clear in letters to newspapers and media interviews. Replying on October 28th to Robert Vojakovic’s outspoken criticism of this project, Ms. Rinehart sent a rather confused four-page letter attempting to exonerate her father from the Wittenoom massacre claiming that his role had been "relatively minor:" Mr. Vojakovic’s reply is clear and to the point: "It is doubtful that there would have been a blue asbestos industry in Western Australia but for the activities of Lang Hancock… As well as mining blue asbestos, your father conducted a white asbestos operation at a place called Nunyerry. This was a shocking, dusty operation and a number of people who worked there have since contracted asbestos related disease." When the Wittenoom mine was closed in 1966, Hancock bought the mine and mill and declared his intention to recommence asbestos mining. According to Robert Vojakovic: "having regards to what was then known about blue asbestos, (this decision) was not just ignorant, but an insult to all of those workers and their families who had already suffered and died by that time, as a result of the conditions at Wittenoom." This sentiment was representative of the overwhelming public hostility towards this plan. A second meeting of the City Council was scheduled to reconsider the original decision; before the Councillors could convene, Ms. Rinehart withdrew her application. The current whereabouts of the statue are unknown.
6th Meeting of The International Mesothelioma Interest Group
The ADSA participated in the organization of the program and social events for the IMIG conference. Conference participants had the opportunity to witness the ADSA at work during its Annual Christmas Barbecue at Perth’s beautiful Kings Park on Sunday, December 1. In mid-afternoon, delegates arrived from the first sessions of the conference to find volunteers working the "barbies:" Harvey steaks (world famous and rightly so) and Aussie bangers were grilled to feed over 1000 guests.
Aboriginal dancers, Australian musicians and a troupe of Irish dancers entertained picnickers who made full use of the tree-shaded meadow by spreading out picnic blankets, setting up deck chairs and erecting tents7.
Special guests who joined in the festivities included a certain gentleman from the North Pole who made a much-appreciated long-distance journey to wish the young and not-so-young: Happy Christmas.
Bob Kucera, the Minister for Health of Western Australia, has been a stalwart ADSA supporter for many years. During the picnic, he presented a gift on behalf of the ADSA to Dr. Greg Deleuil, the Group’s long-serving general practitioner, supporter and friend.
|Bob Kucera making presentation to Greg Deleuil (right).|
The original oil painting by Roderick Anderson is a breath-taking depiction of the beauty of the Wittenoom gorge, a beauty despoiled by the decision to mine asbestos.
|The Minister and Robert Vojakovic give Greg's painting an airing.|
For my part, the major benefit of the IMIG conference was the chance to meet many of the scientists, doctors and health professionals who work at the cutting edge of mesothelioma research. Throughout the four day event, speakers at plenary and workshop sessions briefed colleagues on developments in a wide range of areas including mesothelial cell biology, drugs and new therapies, surgical techniques, new diagnostic protocols for early screening, gene therapy, radiology and the SV40 controversy8. Naturally, the presentations were highly technical with abbreviations such as ERKs, Fra-1, CGH, CTL and PCNA hitting the air like Australian fast bowlers striking out English cricketers. It was reassuring to know that even the medicos had difficulty following some of the discussions! Fortunately, I had brought my own interpreter to the conference; his comments about the conference will be on the IBAS website shortly.
The State of Victoria
After the First World War, construction began on a series of power stations in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The electricity generated by these plants was destined for Melbourne, 160 kilometers away. The State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) which owned and operated the facilities in Yallourn attracted more than one hundred thousand workers to the area9. Unfortunately, the unregulated use of asbestos in the power industry seriously endangered their health. According to the late George Wragg, a SECV fitter and turner in the Latrobe Valley10: "every person who entered a thermal power station complex in Victoria before 1979 would have inhaled high levels of asbestos fibre." The State Government now admits that the lives of at least 6,000 former Latrobe Valley power workers are at high risk from occupational exposure to asbestos11,12. Alas, it was not just the workers whose health was damaged; more than 10% of Latrobe compensation claims are brought by workers’ wives, family members or power plant visitors. Asbestos from the power stations contaminated local houses, schools and open spaces; according to a TV documentary13, in some streets, as many as one in four families has lost someone to asbestos-related disease14.
Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. (GARDS)15, now located in Newborough, Victoria, was formed in 1993 by community members concerned about the area’s asbestos legacy. GARDS volunteers hold monthly meetings, make home visits to asbestos sufferers and attempt to raise the profile of local asbestos problems. GARDS officials have worked closely with legal and medical specialists to highlight members’ needs, change restrictive legislation and improve community health services. Despite their best efforts, demands for an occupational medicine clinic with specialist diagnostic facilities, a palliative care hospice and a respite care facility go unanswered. More than 90% of long-term SECV employees who develop asbestos-related lung cancer do not bring compensation claims. Knowing that asbestos contamination from imploded sites is a real possibility, GARDS members monitor demolition of industrial facilities in the region. In the first issue of their newsletter they warned: "This year the old Lurgi gas plant near Morwell will be demolished. Highly contaminated with coal tar residues/asbestos, GARDS was concerned to learn that the site remediation contract for the gas plant has been awarded to CMR who also project managed Yallourn power station demolition."
|GARDS members pictured on the day of my visit.|
During the day I spent with GARDS, it became clear that even though the local incidence of asbestos-related deaths is sky high, successive State Governments continue to ignore the community’s needs. The sole program to monitor disease levels amongst the 70,000 people who live in the Latrobe Valley was designed without any community or union input; its exclusion of family members and contractor employees (including the construction work force) are major flaws. The involvement of the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, the SECV’s public liability and workers compensation insurer, in the lung function review project16 raises serious concerns. Designating John Lenders, the Finance Minister of Victoria, as the point of contact for asbestos victims pretty much illustrates the level of support which GARDS can expect from official sources.
The ASDA is represented in the State of Victoria by Steven Benedict, a former Wittenoom miner, who now lives on a beautiful farm not far from the towns of Trafalgar and Moe. The views from the farmhouse windows of rolling hillsides, fertile vineyards and lush pastures are a far-cry from the parched earth and dusty environment he experienced during his time at Wittenoom.
Having fled his native Croatia in the 1950s, Steven was granted political refugee status by the United Nations in 1960. A few months later, his life in Australia began when he boarded an Italian passenger ship in Naples for the three week journey "down-under"; his intention was to take up the offer of a place at Melbourne University. When the ship docked at Fremantle, a recruitment agent came on-board offering passengers "the best job in the country." Promises of easy and well-paid work convinced six young men to join the Wittenoom workforce17. None of the immigrants spoke English and Steven acted as translator during the negotiations. His usefulness amongst such a multilingual community was apparent, but Steven remained committed to his original plan. The agent was persuasive: one year at Wittenoom could finance an entire university course. In fact, Steven did very little interpreting at Wittenoom, spending 12 to 16 hours a day as a fitters’ assistant in the asbestos mill. The levels of asbestos contamination at the mill were off-the-scale: "The old mill was still full of asbestos as tufts of blue asbestos hung from the rafters and old steel structure under which we worked in the engineering workshop. The blue clumps were all over the ground and visible on the road everywhere… We worked hard in hot summer days in the cloud of asbestos dust that worked its way into every crevice of our bodies, ears, mouths and noses. We often took lunch breaks eating sandwiches right there on the job over the mill crushers or mine scrapers with asbestos fibers floating around us and on our food. We breathed it and ate it unavoidably every day. We were told that to ingest asbestos fibers was not dangerous." With all the overtime, Steven calculates that during his one-year contract, he experienced two years worth of exposure.
Steven first became aware of the hazards of asbestos in 1966. Since then, he has studied and written about the subject. As an Advisor of Occupational Health and Safety in the Department of Labor and Industry in Melbourne, he did everything he could to alert colleagues about the hazards. He has watched his Wittenoom friends, their relatives and others succumb to asbestos-related diseases. Of the original 11 men who arrived in Wittenoom with Steven in November, 1960, only 3 have survived.
Today, Steven does more in 24 hours than most people do in a week. Having recently planted 1,200 trees on the hillside sloping down towards the river, he works full-time on the farm; he undertakes engineering projects, paints wonderful pictures, many of which feature the spectacular landscapes of Western Australia, writes articles and uses his amazing facility with foreign languages to surf the internet for items on asbestos. When speaking about an asbestos conference which was held in Brazil three years ago, I began to tell Steven about Fernanda Giannasi, the leading anti-asbestos campaigner in Latin America. In retrospect I realize that I should not have been surprised that Steven already knew her!
|Hospitality from Steven Benedict and partner Annette Watson.|
New South Wales (NSW)
Government policy towards people with asbestos-related diseases in NSW appears the most reasonable of the states visited. The current system includes a specialist Court, the Dust Diseases Tribunal of NSW, to adjudicate and expedite asbestos claims. The Tribunal also hears claims for recovery between employers and asbestos suppliers, building occupiers, power station designers and others. In NSW, an asbestos case can come before the Court for directions within 1-2 hours of issue; usually, a hearing will take place in Court, at home or in the hospital within two days. It is routine for asbestos cases to be concluded within three months. In the past, defendants were able to delay court hearings by various means; these delays are no longer tolerated by judges. Measures which speed-up proceedings include: the use of evidence from previous cases, the adoption of the Helsinki criteria for diagnosing asbestos diseases and a standard date of knowledge, set at 1956, for big companies. NSW also has a compensation authority: the Workers Compensation Dust Diseases Board of NSW; this no-fault scheme pays pensions, medical expenses and death benefits and also funds medical research into dust diseases.
On November 25, 2002, NSW Minister for Industrial Relations, John Della Bosca, announced that the State Government had allocated $2.4 million over the next 3 years to set up and run The Asbestos Diseases Research Institute. According to the Minister, this centre of excellence will: "bring together a substantial proportion of all asbestos related diseases patients from across New South Wales for specialised case management and will optimise the standards of treatment in a network of hospitals throughout New South Wales." This scheme was devised after consultation with groups such as the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the NSW Dust Diseases Board and the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia Inc. (ADFA). The announcement of this scheme was made during a reception at the Australian Maritime Museum to launch Asbestos Awareness Week, an ADFA initiative. The substantial role played by the ADFA in improving the plight of asbestos sufferers in NSW has grown dramatically since the group was formed. The decision to set up a support group was made on May 15, 1990 at a public meeting attended by 100 asbestos victims, family members and supporters. The early successes of the group were wholly dependent on the work of dedicated volunteers with first-hand knowledge of the damage asbestos had done to the community. During the 1990s, support grew and ADFA was able to open a small office and employ part-time staff.
The Foundation aims to:
assist asbestos sufferers and their relatives;
raise awareness of asbestos problems;
reduce the number of future victims by highlighting ongoing risks from asbestos still in the community;
establish a center of medical excellence for the treatment of asbestos victims;
consult with government departments and lobby for changes in discriminatory policies and restrictive legislation;
raise funds for medical research;
liaise with like-minded groups in NSW such as NSW Cancer Council and the Australian Lung Foundation.
On December 11, 2002, ADFA held its Annual General Meeting in Granville, a Sydney suburb. In her presentation, Ella Sweeney, ADFA’s Executive Officer and an asbestos victim herself, presented a progress report, expressed the Foundation’s appreciation to all its supporters and declared that ADFA would continue to make significant strides during 2003.
|Ella Sweeney and LKA after ADFA AGM.|
The Asbestos Round-Table held at the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM)18 offices, in Singapore on December 16, 2002 was the last meeting of the tour. The attendance of key government personnel including specialist medical advisers from the Occupational Health Department and training and industrial hygiene specialists from the National Environment Agency19 contributed to an interesting exchange of information. National regulations dealing with occupational asbestos exposure are: The Factories (Asbestos) Regulations 1980, the Factories (Asbestos)(Amendment) Regulations 1989 and the Factories (Medical Examinations) Regulations. In Singapore, the use of asbestos in buildings has been banned by the Ministry of the Environment since 1989; the use of asbestos in new vehicles is prohibited. Although the last asbestos factory closed in Singapore in the 1980s, asbestos cloth is still being imported from China. According to the doctors present, the incidence of asbestos-related cancers noted by the Singapore Cancer Registry is low. One possible explanation is the established practice of bringing foreign workers to Singapore to undertake manual tasks, some of which might have involved occupational exposure to asbestos. At the end of their two year terms of service, workers return to their home countries taking the potential for disease with them.
Documents obtained at the meeting included:
Guidelines on the Handling of Asbestos Materials (MOM, 2000);
Removal of Asbestos Containing Materials in Buildings;
Guidelines on the Removal of Asbestos Materials in Buildings (MOM, 2000).
The material contained in these informative publications is detailed and practical. Sample forms for hygiene monitoring and disposing of toxic waste are supplied as are lists of air monitoring firms, analytical laboratories, approved asbestos removal and disposal firms and environmental management courses. Mandatory procedures are described step-by-step including those for: identification of asbestos materials, notifying the Chief Inspector of Factories of plans for "at risk" work, medically examining workers20 and obtaining written permission for removal and disposal of asbestos materials. The use of wet removal methods and High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters for industrial vacuum cleaners are compulsory. Some of the ways to contain exposures during removal work include: the isolation of affected areas (clear labelling of work sites is mandatory21), a prohibition on the use of power-operated tools, minimal breakage of asbestos-containing sheets or panels, the use of appropriate respirators, personally fitted and carefully maintained, the use of protective clothing and a ban on dry sweeping. The threshold limit value for all forms of asbestos in Singapore is 0.1 fibres/cc; this compares favorably with current EU threshold limit values of 0.6 fibres/cc for chrysotile and 0.3 fibres/cc for the amphiboles.
The value of a trip such as the one described above cannot be quantified in terms of audience numbers, business cards exchanged or the weight of asbestos documents obtained. Often it is the unscheduled activities that provide the most worthwhile experiences - such as bumping into a scientist in the computer room at the IMIG Meeting who described the academic and commercial pressures affecting SV-40 research. The opportunity to meet colleagues, many of whom I have been in contact with for a number of years, adds another dimension to professional relationships and builds bridges which will, hopefully, be of mutual benefit.
It is criminal that, despite all we have learned about the dangers of asbestos over the last hundred years, asbestos producers remain determined to sell this lethal fiber. Grass-roots efforts to ban asbestos are on-going in towns, states and countries all over the world. By comparing experiences and coordinating actions we can overcome the disadvantages of geography and lack of resources. The dissemination and acquisition of knowledge empowers us; working together we will make a difference.
January 17, 2003
1NIOSH website: http://www.niosh.com.my
2Socio-Economic & Environmental Research Institute (SERI) is a think tank set up by the Penang State Government "to formulate strategic planning and policy recommendations that seek the betterment of the quality of life for its citizens through adherence to the principle of sustainable development." Its website is located at: http://www.seri.com.my
3 When entering many buildings in Malaysia, it is customary to remove one's shoes. Making a PowerPoint presentation while barefoot was a unique experience.
4National Occupational Health and Safety Commission website: www.nohsc.gov.au/
5The 6th Meeting of the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG) took place from December 1-4, 2002 at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, University of Western Australia, Perth.
6More than 25,000 men, women and children were exposed to asbestos by the activities of the Wittenoom crocidolite mine. It is predicted that following these exposures, 3,500 former workers and residents could die of asbestos-related diseases.
7Unlike in England where tents would be used as protection against the wind and rain, the tents in Kings Park were for protection from the sun, an almost alien concept for an Englishwoman!
8IMIG website: http://www.imig.org
9The life of Yallourn paralleled that of the local power industry. Yallourn, built and owned by the SECV, was designed as a model town. It's tree-lined streets, comfortable houses and local amenities made it a pleasant place to live. There was civic pride and a plethora of social activities; it was a good place to bring up a family. As the power stations aged, their usefulness declined. The company decided that the coal underneath the town was more valuable than the town itself; plans were made to tear down Yallourn. The company said it wanted to work the coal seams underneath the town. Local people suspected this wasn't true as the high water content of the coal made it unsuitable for use by the power industry. What if, people speculated, the SECV wanted to hide the scale of the asbestos epidemic it had caused by dispersing the local population? Nowadays, there are no signs to show that Yallourn ever existed: not a building, street or road sign survived the demolition crews. The only proof that this town existed is in the lungs of the people who had the misfortune to once inhabit it.
10See: The Asbestos Time Bomb by George Wragg published by Catalyst Press, 1995, ISBN 0 646 23749 7.
11Time Bomb for 6000, Herald Sun, page 1, April 17, 2002.
12According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information, this figure is a gross underestimate. Reports from the SECV's insurer calculate that more than 100,000 SECV employees in the Latrobe Valley were experiencing serious levels of exposure until the 1980s. This number excludes family members who may have suffered para-occupational exposure.
13Power Without Glory , part of ABC's Four Corners Series, was broadcast on February 26, 2001.
14The State of Victoria has banned the use of asbestos as of December, 2003. Government statistics published in December, 2002, reveal that two areas in Victoria, the Latrobe Valley and Ballarat, have the State's highest death rates from malignant cancers. The average rate for malignant cancer deaths in Australia is 684 per 100,000; the rate in these two areas is more than 786 per 100,000.
15GARDS website: www.gards.org
16The lung function review project is referred to as the "mortality count" by GARDS members.
17After they left the ship, the 7 men underwent medical examinations to certify that they were healthy enough to qualify for "the best job in the country." At some point during these procedures, the original 7 were joined by 4 more, bringing the total number of new Wittenoom employees in Steven's group to 11.
18Ministry of Manpower website: http://www.gov.sg/mom/
19National Environment Agency website: www.nea.gov.sg
20"Workers who have to handle or be exposed to asbestos in their work should have a large-size chest X-ray examination before they start such work, unless they have had one within the past 12 months. This is required under the Factories (Medical Examinations) Regulations 1985. Such workers should also have large-size X-ray examinations every 3 years."
21"Warning signs should be displayed at each asbestos work area, and posted at all approaches to the asbestos work area. Where necessary, signs should bear pictures and graphics, or be written in appropriate languages so that all persons understand them. These signs should bear the following information:
Authorised Personnel Only
Do Not Inhale Dust
Respirators and Protective Clothing Required.