Asbestos Profile: Australia 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

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. Between 1945 and 1954, asbestos-cement sheets were used in the construction of more than half of the new homes built 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 manufactured by once revered Australian corporations: James Hardie [see: Prosecution of James Hardie], Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR), and Wunderlich. Thousands of workshops and homes in Australia were constructed with asbestos-fibro roofs, floors and walls. Public buildings, hospitals, schools, libraries, offices and factories contained asbestos in insulation materials, air-conditioning systems and ceilings [Asbestos: Truth & Consequences in Australia, Asbestos Life and Death in Australia]. It is not surprising therefore that Australia has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world [Mesothelioma: Australian Data and Research].The lack of public awareness of asbestos products contained in domestic premises can only serve to prolong this epidemic [On the street where you live].

Asbestos litigation started in 1978 with the case brought by Cornelius Maas for common law damages against the owners of the Wittenoom crocidolite mine. Since then, other cases have followed with varying success. As the laws differ in Australia's six states and two self-governing territories, so do the processes for obtaining compensation for asbestos-related disease [Record Australian Payout, Wins by Australian Claimants, Insurers Mobilize in Australia]. As of October 1, 2008, the Asbestos Diseases Compensation Bill meant that asbestos victims in the State of Victoria could obtain compensation for more than one asbestos disease [A Helping Hand for Asbestos Victims]; at about the same time, the Supreme Court in Western Australia upheld the right of a smoker, who suffered negligent occupational asbestos exposure, to be compensated by his former employer for contracting asbestos-related lung cancer.

Asbestos victims groups have been pivotal in forcing Australian corporations and government bodies to compensate the asbestos-injured. The first group was established by a handful of former asbestos miners from Wittenoom (1979); since then, the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) has grown into one of the world's most effective advocacy bodies [Australian Awards for Campaigners, Asbestos Activism Down-Under, Confronting Australia's Asbestos Catastrophe].

The ADSA has lobbied for change, supported Australia’s asbestos victims and worked with medical and scientific researchers [A Quiet Anniversary]. In 2012 this Perth-based group launched a ground-breaking initiative which raised public awareness of the imminent threat posed by asbestos as well as funds for Australian medical researchers. [Walk for Wittenoom Children, Ready, Steady, Go].

Other groups which work on behalf of the injured include: Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc. (GARDS), the Asbestos Diseases Foundation of Australia Inc. (ADFA) Asbestos Diseases Society of Victoria, the Bernie Banton Foundation and the Queensland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Society Inc. [see Support Group List]. Victims' groups have lead the fight against the attempt by asbestos defendant James Hardie to avoid its liabilities to Australian victims by relocating to the Netherlands in 2001. Subsequent enquiries by the Government of New South Wales led to court proceedings which commenced at the end of September 2008 [Court Date for James Hardie, Asbestos Reverberations in Australia].

The Australian Government, which has categorized the nation's epidemic of asbestos-related diseases as the "worst industrial disaster in our history," has devised a comprehensive national strategy plan for dealing with the tragedy which centers around the work of the National Research Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases in Perth, Western Australia [Major Research Initiative in Australia, Medical and Legal Developments in Australia].

In 2013, Minister Bill Shorten announced the formation of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency to tackle the “clear and present danger” asbestos poses to Australians. [Asbestos Life and Death in Australia].

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Updated August 2013

 

 

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