Asbestos continues to kill

NOT WORTH THE RISK: Engage a professional to deal with asbestos before undertaking any DIY work.
NOT WORTH THE RISK: Engage a professional to deal with asbestos before undertaking any DIY work.

Its use in Australia was outlawed long ago but years later, asbestos continues to kill.

Statistics released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) indicate at least 699 people died last year from the aggressive cancer mesothelioma, which is predominantly caused by asbestos exposure.

The report Mesothelioma in Australia 2018 also revealed 662 new diagnoses of mesothelioma were recorded for 2018.

Those diagnosed ranged from age 22 to 101.

"Despite the use of all forms of asbestos being banned in Australia from 2004, hundreds of Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma every year," AIHW spokesperson Justin Harvey said.

"Mesothelioma occurs in the mesothelium protective lining on the inside of body cavities and the outside of internal organs.

"Due to its aggressive nature, most cases of mesothelioma have a poor prognosis."

He said the number of recorded mesothelioma diagnoses and deaths that occurred in 2018 was expected to increase as more notifications continue to be received by the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, which was funded by Safe Work Australia.

The 'average' Australian with mesothelioma was male, diagnosed about 75 years of age, exposed to asbestos in occupational and non-occupational settings and lived for about 11 months after diagnosis, Mr Harvey said.

Between 2015-2018, age-standardised rates of mesothelioma varied across states and territories.

The rate was highest in WA (4.4 cases per 100,000 people) and lowest in Tasmania (1.1 cases per 100,000 people).

Nearly 1000 people diagnosed with mesothelioma since July 2010 have voluntarily participated in an asbestos exposure assessment survey.

"Of those participants, 93 per cent were assessed as having possible or probable exposure to asbestos," Mr Harvey said.

"79 per cent (524) of men provided information indicating possible or probable occupational exposure and 99 per cent (164) of women provided information indicating non-occupational exposure."

Mr Harvey said Australia's consumption of asbestos peaked about 700,000 metric tonnes during 1970-1979.

Asbestos was both mined and imported, and used in the construction industry, due to its durability and fire and chemical resistance.

Despite the importation and use of asbestos and asbestos-containing products being prohibited in Australia, a large amount of the substance still remains in the built environment.


In light of the most recent statistics, The Asbestos Disease Support Society (ADSS) has called for greater awareness of the risks of exposure to asbestos.

The society, a registered charity, was established in 1992 to support sufferers of asbestos-related disease, their families and caregivers and promotes awareness about the risks of exposure to asbestos.

ADSS general manager Trevor Torrens said the aftermath of asbestos was still being felt across the community.

He said 71 members of the ADSS had died in 2018 because of their exposure to asbestos.

"Just this year alone, more than 30 of our members have succumbed to an asbestos-related disease, predominantly mesothelioma," he said.

"All they did was turn up to work to earn a living or just went about their daily lives."

Mr Torrens said people most likely to have been exposed to asbestos at work included asbestos cement manufacturing workers, laggers and insulators, builders, plumbers, electricians, automotive industry workers, transport workers and textile workers.

"Unfortunately, we are still seeing the fallout of people who worked with asbestos-containing products like fibro, brake linings and lagging on pipes prior to the Australiawide ban on products containing asbestos in 2003," he said.

"We also have strong concerns about a new wave of exposure to home renovators.

"My message to DIY renovators is don't take the risk - educate yourself on where asbestos may be lurking in your home and engage a professional to deal with it appropriately before you begin your work."

About one-third of homes built between 1945 and the late 1980s are likely to contain some form of asbestos building product, according to the ADSS.

If disturbed without adequate precautions, the asbestos fibres can be released into the atmosphere and, if inhaled, may lead to asbestos-related disease.

Mesothelioma is an extremely painful malignancy of the outer lining of the lung or the abdominal cavity that forms as a result of exposure and inhalation of asbestos fibres.

Asbestos fibres are 200 times thinner than a human hair, can be invisible and be inhaled easily.

They can become trapped deep in the lungs and cause damage over a long time.

Past exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma.

It can take many years for mesothelioma to develop after a person is exposed to asbestos - the latency period - which is commonly 20 to 30 years after exposure.