A History Of Asbestos In AustraliaMay 16, 2018
Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral. It occurs in six forms that are identified by their colours. This mineral that was previously market as the ‘magic mineral has peculiar characteristics that made it famous. Asbestos has good tensile strength hence its long history in construction. Moreover, the mineral can absorb sound. The most appealing quality of asbestos is its resistance to heat, fire and electricity. This quality made asbestos one of the most popular minerals in construction. Its application ranged from electrical insulation to building insulation. The fibres from the minerals were mixed with cement or woven into fabrics or mats. The popularity of Asbestos climaxed during the industrial boom of the 20th century.
Despite the long history of asbestos that dates back to 2500BC, its link to numerous respiratory pathologies saw its use decline exponentially. Asbestos was tied to the increasing cases of mesotheliomas and was finally declared carcinogenic by the medical fraternity. Initially, due to the grave economic implications, the protest against the use of asbestos faced a lot of resistance. It was not until workers, who had handled asbestos, came marching from hospitals to courts that governments finally put a ban on particular uses of asbestos.
Previously, the government had made efforts to reduce the exposure of workers to asbestos. In 1951, west Australia adopted the safe dust limit of 176 particles per cubic centimetre. Unfortunately, mines like Wittenoom disregarded this legislation with repeated readings of over 1000 particles per cubic centimetre. The Mines and Health Department failed to take action against such disobedience. Only further empty warnings were issued.
Dr Richard Doll in the UK is renowned for producing the most comprehensive survey that indicated the strong link between asbestos and lung disease. His work was beyond his time as he made numerous medical claims that only became accepted years later. He was a renowned physiologist and epidemiologist that pioneered numerous research projects. In 1959 the Western Australian Health Department also discovered six cases of lung damage among Wittenoom workers. By 1961 the number had risen to 100 cases. Unfortunately, the uses of this deadly mineral continued and it had now found its way to residential areas. D Jasen& Co installed asbestos in numerous roof spaces as an insulation solution. In 1970, building unions across Australia resulted in industrial action to ban the use of asbestos. 1979 saw the D Jasen & Co cease their operations in many areas.
The quest for justice lead to the first successful common law claim for compensation as a result of asbestos-related disease in Victoria. All around the developed world, protests against the use of asbestos were becoming more intense. Back in Australia, the total cases of lung disease due to asbestos from the Wittenoom had risen to 500 and the National Health and Medical Research Council projected the numbers would rise to 2,000. The Commonwealth and the Australian government stepped in to push a ‘clean-up’ process of houses that were fitted with asbestos insulation. Moreover, the National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPM) were made as a result of the 1994 National Environmental Protection Council Act.
James Hardie Industries had taken centre stage during the uproar against asbestos. They were a key player in the asbestos mining and manufacturing. They became a household name in the manufacturer of fibre-cement in Australia. In 2001, unions took their protests to the doorstep of James Hardie Industries with the intention to make the company accountable for its failure to acknowledge the damage to workers’ health and obligation to compensate workers who were victims of asbestos-related diseases. James Hardie finally agreed to compensate the affected workers. The company together with the NSW Government provided a total of 4.5 billion dollars in funding Australia’s asbestos victims.
Justice was served in 2003 when Australia put a nation-wide ban on the use and manufacture of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing materials. The ban took effect on 31st December 2003. Unfortunately, this was another case of too little too late, as the number of reported cases of asbestos-related lung diseases had become overwhelming. The Department of Environment and Conservation subsequently categorized Wittenoom as a contaminated site 2008. The town still remains a ghost town, a proof of the deadly effects of asbestos and a reminder of the time when Australians invited death into their homes.
Currently, there are specialists who carry out asbestos removal and disposal. Yes, this deadly mineral is still present in many buildings across Australia. Not all buildings constructed before the 1980’s were decontaminated following the ban. Therefore, asbestos surveys have become important and numerous policies and legislation are in place to make sure homeowners and residents are protected against the far-reaching consequences of asbestos exposure. Before moving into any building it’s prudent to know its history.